In 2008, I introduced and passed legislation to grade schools in Arizona on the A through F letter grading system. The system was to be based on the test scores and academic gains of students.
If I were king, I would abolish the system which I established. I believe that it has inhibited innovation, damaged great schools, and shifted the focus in education away from the critical areas most fruitful for getting better outcomes in Arizona.
Letter grading, in part, has resulted in Arizona not achieving the full dividend we might have received from our tremendously advanced school choice environment. We are doing very well, but we should have done even better.
These detrimental effects particularly affect D and F rated schools.
I’ve worked inside such schools daily as a volunteer since leaving as Superintendent in 2014, so I have been able to directly observe the effects. Tremendously skilled and dedicated principals and teachers apply to work in such schools because they have a passion for the students. Then, a few years later, they are “all burned out”—as one father described his daughter, a teacher, during a recent fundraiser. These schools burn through principals and teachers at a horrifying rate with teachers, particularly excellent ones, leaving for more satisfying work environments.
Certainly, such schools have always been high pressure environments, but the letter grading just increases the pressure, already unhealthy, to an absolutely toxic level.
As Superintendent of Public Instruction, I had the ultimate test score database: every student’s testing results for six consecutive years. I could tell you the academic gains of Basis students when they were in Basis schools and when they were in other schools. Bottom line? The academic scale score gains of the top schools were 20% higher than the academic gains of the D and F schools. That’s all. That’s it.
Being a volunteer as former Superintendent, I was immune to all that pressure. I ran my math class exactly the way I wanted to run it. When the thought police showed up and demanded to know if I was teaching to the standards, I assured them absolutely. The students who didn’t know how to count were counting. The students who didn’t know how to add were adding. The students who didn’t know how to multiply were multiplying. They were all on their way toward the fractions, decimal, and proportion standards of fourth grade. They weren’t there yet because none of my fourth-grade students had achieved third grade standards, and few had achieved second grade standards. But we were on our way.
My scale score gains were double the statewide average. But not the best. One other teacher bested me by a point, a particularly inspirational sixth grade teacher. One year, one class in a school with 27 classes was not enough to rescue the school’s letter grade.
That teacher still haunts me. He should have received great accolades for his accomplishment. He should have been featured on TV. His students loved him. He was saving students from jail. He was saving students from drug addiction. He was saving students from prison. Instead, he soon left the school.
This year, I am working in kindergarten. Why? Because as I did my work, I came to understand that the initial years in school are, by far, the most critical years. In these years, students establish their personal identity, their habits, and their foundational skills.
How does this relate to letter grading? Letter grades can only take into account academic gains from fourth grade to eighth grade. Our first test is at the end of third grade, establishing the baseline for measuring academic gains in fourth grade.
The academic gains from fourth grade to eighth grade are less than the academic gains from the start of kindergarten to the end of third grade.
So, the entire letter grade system is based on the least important half of the pie. As a result, the attention of the entire system is shifted away from where it should be focused—the early years.
Education culture is the foundation of our entire society. How we think, how we interact. Our degree of interconnectedness. We can do better. We should be the state the goes full free market. Get rid of letter grades. Instead publish customer satisfaction scores. And let’s find out what percentage of parents believe their child is getting an INCREDIBLY GREAT education when given a choice between that and very good, good, or poor.
America’s schools, including Arizona’s, are stuck in mediocrity. Our academic achievement indicators trail 20 of our Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) peers in every subject. It’s not getting better, either.
It matters to more than national pride. The U.S. has fallen to tenth in overall economic competitiveness, our lowest rank ever. Stanford’s Eric Hanushek estimates the U.S. economy would grow 4.5% more in the next 20 years if our students just performed at the international average level.
We have to import workers in fields requiring advanced degrees and outsource tech jobs to other countries. Employers struggle to find trainable applicants.
American educators typically claim academic failure results from inadequate funding. But that simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
In 2018, before the COVID-inspired spending boost, the U.S. already spent $16,628 per student, well over the OECD average of $10,759. Arizona’s all-source spending, documented by the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, exceeds $14,500 per student.
Other experts offer poverty and inadequate prenatal care as explanations for our achievement gap. But again, living standards in the U.S. are among the world’s highest. Prenatal care is provided to all pregnant women who are income eligible, which included 42% of all births in 2020.
The causes of our systemic failure are more likely laid bare by the reaction found in an Arizona Republic article reporting that the BASIS schools had captured 10 of the 12 top spots in the ranking of Arizona high schools by U.S. News and World Report. Since BASIS Schools, which have also topped many national rankings in recent years, are public charter schools, have open admissions, and may not require testing or charge tuition, this was an astonishing accomplishment.
You might normally assume that the media and education administrators would be eager to know the “secret sauce,” what BASIS does to consistently excel. But according to the experts quoted in the article, it’s all about race and privilege.
So says Tomas Monarrez of the Urban Institute: “Those rankings are really a measure of prestige and prestige as we know it in this country is very intertwined with history, with race, with income.” Test scores can only reflect quality of instruction “if the schools had the same student body.”
And indeed, seven of the top 20 public high schools are located in the wealthiest ZIP Codes in the state. The usual suspects, Asians and whites, are over-represented in the high achieving schools.
But here’s a simple logic test. If wealth and privilege explain the superior performance of the top-ranking schools, why aren’t all schools in high wealth districts excellent? After all, the seven charter schools in well-off areas outperformed district schools with the same demographics. The other 13 schools in the top 20 weren’t even in wealthy districts at all.
Here’s a more likely explanation than skin color or “privilege.” BASIS, like all schools of excellence, is unflinchingly committed to high-level learning for all of its students. BASIS stresses rigorous requirements and high expectations.
Students take an average of 11 Advanced Placement courses with six required for graduation. Students, parents, and school staff are all expected to robustly participate in educating.
Critics contend that the schools’ high expectations are a de facto barrier for many public school students. But there is nothing inherently racist or discriminatory about high expectations. In fact, they are critical for underprivileged students to be successful, as has been amply demonstrated by KIPP schools, New York’s Success Academies, and others.
The wealth-and-privilege explanation for excellence is also belied by the example of Tolleson’s University High School. Many students come from working-class or immigrant backgrounds, but Principal Vickie Landis offers no excuses. On the contrary, “we pride ourselves on rigorous expectations and opportunities.” The school was ranked in Arizona’s 10 Best and was named the state’s only 2022 National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.
America’s education system structure is based on an outdated factory model, not suited to flexibility, accountability, and personalization based on consumer choice. Union-style work rules make excellence unlikely, despite many dedicated individual teachers.
But no more excuses. It’s hard to excel, especially with underprivileged students, but we can do better – and we must.
Mainstream media loves to disparage Arizona’s kindergarten through 12th grade education system. State rankings are often the source of this disparagement, invariably ranking Arizona 47th, 48th, or 49th.
Over the past year, U.S. News and World Reportranked New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut as the top education states in the nation, first through third, respectively. Next, WalletHubranked these same three states as the top three states in the nation. Then, along comes an organization called Scholaroo also ranking Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Connecticut as the top three K-12 education states in the nation.
They all agree on the three states with the top rankings, but where do they rank Arizona? They rank Arizona respectively, 47th, 48th, and 50th. That would seem pretty definitive.
But do these three states really have better schools than Arizona? Both U.S. News and WalletHub seem to think so . But is their ranking based on science? Are they correct? Are they completely out of whack? Let’s check their analysis.
The U.S. Department of Education performs the National Assessment of Educational Progress, spending over $100 million per year to measure the performance of the U.S. K-12 system. The National Assessment is based on a random sample of over 3,000 students in each state. This sample is pulled once every two years.
U.S. News, WalletHub, and Scholaroo each make a fundamental error in the way they compare states. Because Connecticut is 75% White and 42% college educated, they are comparing the test results of a White student with college educated parents with a minority student from Arizona with immigrant parents. That’s not science. That’s a joke.
Here are is the data for 8th grade math scores of Blacks and Hispanics for Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Arizona:
8th Grade Math Scores
Arizona 8th grade math scores for Blacks and Hispanics (42% of our K-12 student population) are equal to or greater than all these states considered top three states by WalletHub and U.S. News.
In other words, if test scores are your measure, Arizona’s schools are among the very best in the country in educating Blacks and Hispanics.
These are media companies. It’s not unusual to find them to be short on scientific standing. When you dig in to find out why the media companies get it so wrong, you find that the source of their error is that they are comparing a low-income Hispanic Arizona student with a high-income east coast White student and pretending that you can make a conclusion from that comparison about the quality of schools. No reputable researcher believes that. Each state has a different percentage of Hispanic, Black, and White students.
We can expand this 8th grade math comparison to all 50 states. When we do, we find that Arizona Blacks rank 3rd, only a point away from first. Only two other states have 8th grade test scores for Blacks higher than Arizona. Arizona Asians rank 5th, Arizona Hispanics rank 14th, and Arizona Whites rank 6th.
Race is only one factor you can adjust for. Several years ago, the Urban Institute did a more comprehensive regression analysis which also took into account parent’s education and family income as well as race. In that ranking, Arizona ranked 13th in the nation. Even that analysis is suspect. Arizona ranks 4th in the nation in the percentage of foreign-born Hispanics. The Urban Institute’s analysis did not separate foreign-born and native-born Hispanics and as a result, ranked Arizona lower than it might otherwise have been.
We know that Arizona schools, strengthened by the nation’s most competitive school environment for 30 years, rank much higher than the mainstream media would let us know. And perhaps higher than the leftist think-tanks want to admit.
For years now, we’ve heard the same old talking points from the left when it comes to our state’s schools. It always goes a little something like this:
Education is underfunded in Arizona…
Teachers aren’t paid enough…
We need to raise taxes to pay our teachers more…
Do these lines sound familiar? They should. Anytime a new proposition is rolled out to voters, teachers’ unions and other liberals push this same narrative. We heard it when they campaigned for Prop 208 a couple years ago. And despite the fact that the Arizona Supreme Court struck down Prop 208 because Arizona is already funding schools at historic levels, we continue to hear it from Red4Ed and others as they target the state’s $1.8 billion tax cuts.
That’s what makes the latest news out of Mesa Public Schools (MPS) even more outrageous.
House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding (D-Laveen) said that those elected officials celebrating the elimination of the income tax increase weren’t leaders in any sense of the word. The Maricopa County Superior Court ruled on Friday that the increased income tax, Prop 208, was unconstitutional because it exceeded the allowed spending limit for what the tax dollars would be purposed for: education.
The remark came after Governor Doug Ducey tweeted that the court ruling was a “win for Arizona taxpayers.” Ducey did note that he anticipated the ruling would be appealed but expressed confidence that the Arizona Supreme Court would also find Prop 208 to be unconstitutional.
Bolding issued similar sentiments in 2018, vowing that Ducey’s support for the demise of a similar tax hike would cost him his election that year. Ducey won comfortably, earning 56 percent of the vote over the Democratic candidate, David Garcia, who earned under 42 percent of the vote.