The worst thing that could happen in 2013 is for the Arkansas General Assembly to reverse any of the remarkable strides that have been made for public education in our state over the last decade.
What with all the new state legislators who will take their places at the Capitol in 2013, many fear they'll start tinkering with the progressive, systemic education policies so many have worked tirelessly to develop, pass and implement. Those concerns were discussed in a recent Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article, and First Class Communication has to say, count us in as two more who share those fears.
Having been a close observer of the Education Committees at the State Capitol for a good many of those reform-rich years, we saw how hard fought the bi-partison battle was, and, once it was won, how quickly legislators begin to try to chip away at individual reforms. Sometimes a legislator wanted to dismantle what had been done, but, more often than not, they were truly unaware of the systemic policy effort that was made and of the great difference it made for students. The latter will pose the biggest threat in 2013.
There are so many improvements that resulted from the reforms effort, instigated, of course, by the Arkansas Supreme Court's Lake View ruling that found Arkansas students were in schools across the state without adequate funding and of wildly disparate quality. We can easily tic off five improvements we don't think the state education system can do without:
1. Accountability to ensure schools educate every child. Modeled largely after the major tenets of No Child Left Behind, Arkansas's Act 35 demanded that schools teach to rigorous learning standards, test how well students learned that rigourous material and report results for the entire student body as well as for major subgroups of students. No longer could a school hide behind the performance of its top students as others languished between the cracks.
2. Better pay for teachers. A decent mininum salary for teachers must now be paid in every district across the state. This hasn't solved the disparity-in-pay problem, because richer districts can still pay more, but at least there's a minimum. Why is this important? Putting excellent teachers in the classroom is the most important thing a school district can do for it's students, and excellence in teaching isn't free or even cheap (funny how this fact still surprises so many folks!)
3. Adequate funding for schools. Not only is this a plus for schools because it provides each district the money it needs to teach its kids, but having to go through the adequacy study every two years forces legislators to really pay attention to what's happening in school buildings from Alma to Arkansas City.
4. Better school buildings. Arkansas was truly progressive with its state partnership for funding and maintaining school buildings, and what a difference this has made! Starting with the goal of simply ensuring that every child attend a school that is safe, warm and dry (that was NOT the case before this legislation) we've now moved on to putting more and more of our students in buildings equipped for an actual 21st-century education.
5. A more rigorous curriculum. There was a time that graduation requirements varied from district to district, but now Arkansas has a common -- and rigorous -- set of minimum requirements for all students. Thank goodness some districts go above those, requiring two years of a foreign language. In addition, all Arkansas high schools must offer an Advanced Placement class in each of the four main subjects -- math, English, science and social studies. And now, Arkansas, along with many other states, is in the process of incorporating the Common Core of learning standards, which will increase the rigor as well as the depth of learning for our students.
So those are our five. Do you have something to add to the list? We'd love to hear from you.