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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

It's true, but is it the whole story?

“No relationship exists between poverty and academic ability."

That astute observation was made recently to Economics Arkansas by no other than Ray Simon, former director of the Arkansas Department of Education and then Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Education in the younger George Bush's administration.

It's a comment that makes me cheer. But, now, it also makes me think.

No doubt in my mind, poverty truly has nothing to do with ability. (Neither does the color of a child's skin, the language a child speaks or where a child is born.)

I can't begin to count the number of times -- both as a public school parent and as a former ADE employee -- I've cringed when I've heard educators try to explain away students' (and schools') poor performance because of the level of poverty in the home or the community.

As a public school system, we have to rise above the challenges and educate children hindered by the blows of poverty to the same level as their more affluent classmates. Case closed.

Until, for me, now.

Upon reading the broader context of Mr. Simon's talk -- good teachers matter and bad teachers aren't just unfortunate personnel, they're actually harmful to students -- I started feeling uncomfortable with my former certainties.

Don't get me wrong. I get that teachers are THE most important element in concocting a quality education. And, as a society, we still haven't realized that to get the best people in the classroom -- those who are more likely to graduate in the top-third of their college classes as opposed the bottom third -- we have to pay them more, both in terms of moolah and respect.

But I also fear that, in trying to right a simple wrong, we are being just as simplistic in placing so much of the responsibility on teachers.

After all, research shows that:
  • Children from poorer families are much more likely to start school knowing thousands of fewer words than their middle- and upper-class counterparts.
  • Children from poorer families lose much more of their learning over the summers because they don't have access to the same enrichment opportunities.
  • Children from poorer families are more likely to come to school hungry and/or to eat less nutritionally balanced meals. Hunger directly affects the ability to concentrate and learn.
These are just a few examples of how poverty walks right into the classroom with the students' whose young lives it claims.  By placing all these challenges at the feet of teachers alone, aren't we taking just as simplistic approach as educators who blame lack of achievement all on poverty?

As a community of educators, parents, businesspeople and students, we have to realize the negative effects poverty has on learning is a broad, systemic problem. So in addition to great teachers, we have to supply superb pre-school opportunities, offer quality summer enrichment programs, make sure children have access to food, provide job training for parents and find ways to combat myriad other ill-effects of poverty.

The reason Arkansas's education reforms of the last decade were so successful is they approached the whole spectrum of needs of the education system. All the more reason to keep those reforms in place, and, indeed, find meaningful policies that broaden their scope from the classroom and school building to the broader community.

Monday, November 19, 2012

3 Good News Items about AR Education

From more bikes to more college graduates, there've been some positive happenings for education in Arkansas of late. Here are three that caught our eye:
  • Bentonville School District, thanks to community support, is putting 30 top-quality mountain bikes at each of its schools. In addition to a bicycle mechanics program, younger students will spend part of their PE classes riding the many trails around the schools. Learning, fun execercise and exploring the treasures of home -- not a bad combo!
  • The Data Quality Center again recognized Arkansas for leading the nation with our  educational data tracking system. Only Delaware received similar kudos.  Data-driven instruction is the best way to ensure students are mastering their lessons. You can't do that without a trove of reliable, accurate and accessible data, though. It's good to know that Arkansas educators have such a trove literally at their fingertips.
  • The six-year graduation rate at the University of Arkansas topped 60 percent for the first time ever. That's good news for students and good news for our state. It's the result of efforts to retain more students by UA, of course, but it's also a positive testament to the state's policy efforts. Things like improving data-driven instruction (see above), attracting better teachers through better pay, and increasing rigor in the classroom better prepare K-12 students for college success.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Way to mix traditional, social media!

At Philander Smith College's Bless the Mic lecture last night, we witnessed a great blend of social and traditional media used to reinforce the institution's messaging.

As guests entered the auditorium, we received:
  • an attractive program, as you'd expect 
  • a notepad to jot thoughts and questions that advertising all six Bless the Mic events
  • a data card to leave behind with our contact information so we'd receive further news and info from the college
On the back of the program, the university printed a QR ("quick response") code (full disclosure: First Class Communication created the QR code for Philander).  Members of the audience were encouraged to use their smart phones to key in on the QR code, which took them to the college's online donation's page. Clever, right! We could donate right then and there.

The lecture -- a really fantastic talk by national journalist Eugene Robinson -- was preceded and followed by impressive pleas from articulate students. All three asked that we support the fine work of the college and its efforts to raise money for a new student center. The students incorporated these pleas into the traditional welcome to the campus, introduction of the speaker and closing of the programs. Again, anyone so moved could pull out his phone and give.

The college also provide hash tag information on the program needed for tweeting about the event. Again, we were encouraged to use our phones to tweet about the lecture, which would serve to keep the more fidgity of us engaged as we promoted the college and the Bless the Mic series.

So, word of mouth, printed pieces, an event, QR codes, Twitter ... a creative mix of social and traditional, indeed!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

3 things to cheer about in Dumas

Yesterday, First Class Communication had the opportunity to visit the Dumas School District and catch up with all the positive things happening for students there. Even in our short visit, we easily saw that this is a school district that's on the move.

While there's lots to be impressed with, here are three things that stood out:

Superintendent David Rainey takes photos.
1. Superintendent David Rainey. We were fans when Mr. Rainey championed progressive policies for public education while he was in the legislature, and it's just as terrific watching him put his passion into practice at the district level.

2. New Tech Network grant/STEM focus. Dumas was one of the Arkansas school districts that won a New Tech Network grant to implement a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) focus in the high school, complete with problem- and project-based learning. The district has hit the ground running, putting the program in place this school year for its 10th-grade students. Enthusiastic leadership and creative faculty and staff are making this venture a success.

3. A focus on academics. We were privy to an elementary school awards program to recognize student performance. Not only were the teachers and students celebrating, but a good many parents filled the bleachers as a show of support for their children as well.

Leadership. Innovation. Parent and community support.  We enjoyed seeing those critical elements thriving in Dumas.