OPINION: Arizona School Board Members Should Stop Whining

Arizona charter schools have an estimated 200,000 students, up 44 percent between 2005 and 2011. One result — our public schools have lost about 17 percent of market share and about $1.5 billion/year in funding.

Loyd Eskildson

Loyd Eskildson

Many Arizona school boards react to this new challenge by continuing to blame their problems on insufficient funding, and adding a new complaint — that charters compete unfairly because they don’t educate all pupils. Reality, however, supports neither excuse.

First, inflation-adjusted per-pupil funding in America’s schools has nearly tripled since the early 1970s and now exceeds that in all but one other developed nations.

Yet, 15-year-olds’ performance on reading and math has barely changed, dropout rates only recently improved, and our pupils score far below our strongest economic competitors. As for the unfair competition complaint — it’s silly.

Effective schools don’t try to be everything for everyone — they focus. Arizona school boards have a choice: They can continue to waste time complaining, or counterattack. Here are my suggestions:

1. Determine how many pupils within the district are NOT attending the district’s programs, the top three reasons for those enrollment losses, and quantify the resulting revenue losses for each one. Likely reasons include concerns over academic achievement, discipline, and access to gifted programs.

2. Learn what successful charters, private schools, and public schools, both around the world and down the street, are doing differently that might help the district. Learning from others, however, requires first ridding the organization of the “not invented here” syndrome and the belief that only other public schools with a similar student body and similar regulatory environment should be examined.

Excellent schools exhibit dramatic differences from typical Arizona practice in teacher hiring, evaluation, reward, and training, as well as in the degree of parental involvement. Some, especially parental involvement, are heavily influenced by local culture — however, while we’re not likely to match Far-East parental involvement levels, we certainly could substantially help parents better support their children and teachers in school.

Teacher reward practices must receive special attention. Excellent schools rarely reward teachers via prevailing Arizona practice — according to years of experience and number of completed college courses. District-wide excellence requires a return to principals evaluating teachers using documented and communicated “best practices,” taking into account pupil progress on standardized tests, and giving principals hiring and firing authority. Every board member needs to be down at the legislature demanding repeal of every vestige of tenure and seniority.

3. Establish aggressive goals for both correcting those problems and regaining lost market share, regularly follow-up on actions and results, and make ‘in-flight’ corrections (eg. change personnel, reward systems, and tactics) as necessary.

4. Stop making excuses. My favorite: Districts taking credit for high-scoring pupils in wealthy areas, while implicitly blaming parents for the low-scores of pupils from less desirable areas.

Dramatic improvement won’t be immediate, but won’t take long either. Michelle Rhee (D.C.), Joel Kline (N.Y.C.), John Deasy (L.A.), Eva Moskowitz (Success Academy), Michael and Olga Block (BASIS), and Jay Heiler (Great Hearts) have proven that.

Editor’s note: Mr. Eskildson is a retired educator and a resident of Scottsdale

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