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Monday, January 30, 2012

Learning made relevant and healthy

Two stories about Arkansas school students learning healthy behaviors during the school day appeared in today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (paywall).
Young students in Jefferson County are learning how to garden, where vegetables, fruits, and herbs actually come from (not a can or plastic bag!) and business skills, as pumpkins are sold in the fall to buy seed and supplies for the gardens. The project is sponsored by the University of Arkansas Agriculture Division's Jefferson County Cooperative Extension Office.
In another 362 public schools located in 79 districts, students are benefitting from an online health curriculum sponsored by Arkansas Children's Hospital, Mercy Health System and the state of Arkansas. Teachers in all subject areas are able to use the up-to-date materials to teach health-related lessons, all of which meet state and federal education standards. The program will soon expand to up to 170 more schools. Children's Hospital officials contend that "health literacy" is a 21st century skill that too many of the state's students have yet to master.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The State of the System

“Teachers matter,”  President Barack Obama said last night during his State of the Union address. “Instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let's offer schools a deal to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones."
And so, the great teacher-pay debate continues: how do you fairly pay teachers in a way that not only attracts and holds on to the best but makes sure that they are engaged with our most challenging students and teaching in those shortage areas such as math and science? 
(To those who don't hang around education circles, you may not know what a heated debate this is. Believe me, it can get hot, hot, hot.)
For years, teachers have been paid based on years of experience and degrees earned, the old step and ladder system. My parents were paid that way as public school teachers when they entered the profession in Marianna, Arkansas, more than a half century ago.
For too many reasons to go into in a single blog item, it's difficult to contend that that is still the best system to attract and keep the best and brightest to prepare our children for success in today's world. 
That said, changing the system has to be done in a way that empowers good teachers (and that may well include rewarding those recognized as the best), lifts them in regard to pay, treatment and respect and, at the same time, acknowledges that not all those who want to teach have the skills or personal qualities to excel in the classroom or, even more importantly, to inspire our students to excel.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

College- and Career-Ready? Keep it going

To some, the phrase "college- and career-ready" has probably reached worn-out-cliche status, but it's an idea that deserves to live a long and happy life, especially in Arkansas.
An Education Week article posted today reminds us of that. It reports that during the recent economic downturn, folks in the U.S. who didn't hold high school degrees were three times as likely as college graduates to face unemployment. (That's a statistical fact, by the way, that paints a picture far different than the one projected by all those woeful, anecdotally based articles about degree-holders couldn't find work.)
More frightening than that reality, though, is the projection by ACT and others that by 2020, 75 percent of jobs will require some level of education beyond high school. That alone should raise warning flags in the Natural State. Why? When you couple that forecast with the fact that, as of 2010, only 25 percent of Arkansans 25 and older had completed at least two years of college, it's easy to see that a huge gap yawns between the supply and demand of qualified workers.
Luckily, a lot is going on in Arkansas at the state and local levels to address this workforce shortage. Governor Beebe's two-term focus on education and economic development has done much to improve on the reform strides made earlier by legislators and Gov. Huckabee. Rep. Roebuck's commission and resulting report on College Access have also made inroads as many colleges and public school districts have taken its recommendations to heart. And that's just skimming the the top layer of the surface of the positives in Arkansas education.
That's why it was interesting to see the wide range of reactions a few weeks ago when the state's progress was recognized by Education Week in its 2012 Quality Counts issue.
You'll remember that we received a fifth place ranking for educational policies, our highest ranking in Quality Counts so far.
Sure, we still got a bad grade on student performance, but here's the caveat too many critics seemed to miss: student performance HAS IMPROVED over recent years despite the other indicator for which we received low marks -- the indicator based on social measures like poverty and educational attainment of parents, factors that will take a generation of years to turn around.
The real story told by this data is that our policies, and the implementation of those policies, is trumping those stubborn realities that schools have no direct control over but with which they must deal every day as they try to educate Arkansas students to be college- and career-ready.

Monday, January 23, 2012

El Dorado Fulfilling Promise

Good news was reported last week about the five-year record of the El Dorado Promise scholarship program, which provides scholarships to all qualifying graduates of El Dorado High School thanks to a $50 million investment by Murphy Oil Corporation.
The program, deservedly, made big news when it was announced in 2007. For many students in the audience that day, it meant college actually was in reach.  A  boy in a purple letter jacket probably summed it up best when he threw up his hands in clenched fists and yelled, "YES!"
As one would expect, families have moved to El Dorado and enrolled their children in its schools, enabling the school district to buck the trend of declining enrollment experience by neighboring districts these last five years.
Other goods stats abound, too: the graduation rate is up as is the college-going rate. Achievement test scores are up, too.
No doubt, the possibility of attending college has provided the motivation not only to attend El Dorado Schools, but to take the classes that will prepare students for college and to do well in those classes.
Murphy Oil deserves all the gratitude it has received, and more.
Still, don't forget the work that the school district and the El Dorado Education Foundation have put in over the past 15 years. Their accomplishments, from beefing up the curriculum to providing students with all kinds of academic supports, truly made the time right for the Promise Scholarships.
So hats off to everyone involved in this incredible story.
You can find the complete study at

Friday, January 20, 2012

Yea -- More STEM, Project-Based Learning in Arkansas Schools

Last week, 15 Arkansas school districts learned they would receive a nice pot of money - up to $150,000 - to implement a STEM focus in their schools, STEM being an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
First of all, kudos to the state and Gov. Beebe's ingeniously conceived Workforce Cabinet (membered by the heads of the state agencies that deal with educating and training Arkansans) for taking this significant step. And kudos too to all the school districts in Arkansas that took the initiative to apply for these grants.
Schools selected between one of two models: Project Lead the Way includes introductory courses in engineering and the New Tech Network model focuses on project-based learning in all subjects.
Earlier this week, I got to visit Cross County School District, which, along with the Lincoln School District, already initiated the New Tech model in their high schools this year. (They each received $75,000 grants from the state to continue their work in 2012-2013.)
After years of talking about making education relevant for students, it was great to see this principle alive in the classroom. For example, in Cross County High's Biology/Career Communication class, high school sophomores were producing videos to illustrate how cancer cells differ from normal cells. The videos theoretically would be shown to pediatric cancer patients to help them understand their disease.
Though busy at work shooting still photos for use in a stop action video, various students stopped at random were both poised and articulate as they explained not only what they were doing but the biology that they were learning.
Superintendent Matt McClure, who says the engagement of his students has grown exponentially with the new teaching methods, says his school district tried to institute project-based learning on its own a year earlier, but soon realized the help of an organization such as the New Tech High Network was necessary to ensure the program was properly embedded across the curriculum.
No doubt his students are benefitting from the project-based approach. It's good to know that come next year, many more Arkansas students will.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Welcome to Extra Credit

Welcome to Extra Credit, my new blog. It's the newest in my list of new things, actually.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Dauphne Trenholm and I became partners in our new business, First Class Communication, LLC. We do public relations/communication work for education-related organizations -- so schools, school districts, colleges and such -- as well as for entities that want to communicate with or do business with schools and their patrons.
I'll write more (briefly, I promise!) about why we started our business and how we will work with clients, but for now I want to explain the purpose of this blog. As this new gig will allow us to visit schools and colleges all around Arkansas, I want to share some of the great initiatives I find in each. Plus, I'll be doing quite a bit of reading and research to keep up with education trends, so when I find something worth passing along, I'll post it here as well.
So, that's it. Thanks for dropping by, and I hope you enjoy!