Eskildson: Scottsdale Schools needs better focus on public achievement

The Scottsdale Unified School District is a mess.

Loyd Eskildson

Pupil achievement scores have declined districtwide over the last decade — especially in math. In the past four years, U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of Arcadia High fell from No. 1,454 to 2,274, Chaparral from 666 to 1,051, and Desert Mountain from 1,119 to 1,292. (Coronado – 65% graduation rate, and Saguaro were not even ranked in 2017.)

Worst of all, SUSD high-school graduates, on average, now score below the Arizona, national, and world averages!

In response, thousands of parents have withdrawn their children from SUSD, preferring instead BASIS Scottsdale (ranked No. 1 by U.S. News & World Report), Great Hearts, Notre Dame, and other schools. These dissatisfied customers/parents now cost the district about $50 million/year in lost revenues, an estimated $250 million over the past decade.

Instead of fixing education problems within classrooms, the board instead opted to focus on rebuilding and repairing buildings districtwide. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped declining pupil achievement or enrollment. This hasn’t slowed competitors — BASIS, Great Hearts and others recently opened new facilities within/near SUSD boundaries, quickly filled them, and still have thousands more SUSD pupils ‘waitlisted’ to enroll when space becomes available.

BASIS has also announced its intent to open another campus in 2018 — possibly in north or south Scottsdale.
Any well-run organization long ago would tried to learn how these successful competitors operate. Not SUSD. I saw nobody from SUSD’s administration/board when BASIS recently presented an overview of plans and how it operates, nor has SUSD taken up Great Hearts’ offer to discuss and compare data, methods, and outcomes.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will do.”

That’s SUSD’s current situation. SUSD should first create a districtwide sense of urgency, then make significant improvements in pupil achievement and pupil retention its No. 1 and No. 2 goals. (Achieving the former will automatically also accomplish the latter.) Administration hasn’t even created a sense of urgency, let alone set pupil-achievement improvement goals that would help focus decision-making and motivate improvements.

In the last 18 months SUSD has hidden, then failed to take strong action on data exposing its decade of declines, ignored the very recent and shocking USNWR results, implemented very little that is likely to bring significant, sustained pupil result improvement, and provided lots of excuses for lack of results.
The exceptions — plans to change the curriculum this fall (hopefully more challenging), and a Rube Goldberg ‘Coronado Success Initiative’ that lacks near-term hard targets. By comparison, Gen. Eisenhower led the planning for and implementation of D-Day in about the same time-frame.

Absent challenging, credible goals for improving pupil achievement at each school, sizeable rewards linked to their accomplishment, use of objective “value-added” measures of teachers/principals, and removing ineffective tenured teachers/principals the 2017-18 year will be “more of the same” poor results. Parents will have to be satisfied with more hot air, “new flooring,” “new teacher laptops,” and “fresh paint.”

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