For my article in this week’s print edition on the education platforms of the two gubernatorial candidates, I spoke to Governor Mike Beebe about the state of K-12 in Arkansas today. The outgoing governor had some interesting comments about schools in general that didn’t exactly fit in the context of that piece but merit further mention here.
Here’s the big question: Is public education working, or is it in crisis? Is it steadily improving, or is it slipping into decay? These are vague, simplistic things to ask about such a complex system, but the 10,000 foot view matters because public perception about the quality of American schools varies so greatly. The conventional wisdom in many circles — from pro-charter ed reformers and their backers in the Walton Foundation to Tea Party-affiliated groups of home school parents, from left-learning advocacy groups to teachers lounges everywhere — is that schools are variously “broken” or “failures” or “disasters“, in need of a drastic overhaul.
There is also a growing chorus of dissent from that viewpoint. A recent Vox interview with Jack Schneider, an education professor at the College of the Holy Cross, notes that US schools today serve more kids today who live in poverty, who don’t speak English at home and who have special education needs. “All the evidence points in the direction that we have a fairer and more effective system that is probably more focused on student achievement than it once was,” Schneider says.
Schneider cites an annual poll on public attitudes towards public schools by Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa (the professional association of educators) that routinely finds a striking gap between respondents’ perception of schools in their communities versus the national K-12 educational system writ large. The 2014 study, which was released last month, revealed that only 17 percent of Americans would give the public schools in the nation as a whole an A or a B, while 50 percent said the public schools in their own community should receive an A or B (that number rises to 60 percent if the sample size is limited just to public school parents).
So what does Mike Beebe think about the performance of schools in Arkansas over the past decade?
“We have kicked tail,” he responded. “I mean, look at the numbers – go talk to Education Week, which ranks all the states. We’re fifth in the last ranking I saw. I saw a letter to the editor in the Democrat-Gazette today cracking about Arkansas education, how we’re always last – I mean, that person needs to be educated. They haven’t been watching. Because the news media, and me, and everybody else, has been touting this…I’ve saw us climb from way down on the list into the top ten, ten to six, six to five.”
Education Week, a national periodical, delivers its rankings by aggregating six separate areas: student achievement, school finance, standards and accountability, and so on. In 2013, Arkansas was indeed ranked fifth in the nation, although it also places much lower on some key components. “The one we’re lowest on is called ‘Chance for Success,'” said Beebe. “It’s primarily determined by if your parents get a college education. Well, we’re not going to change that in a generation. It’s going to take a little longer.” Even on raw student achievement scores, he noted, Arkansas now ranks in the 30s — not fantastic, but a solid improvement from the thank-God-for-Mississippi days
Critics of public education might question using such rankings as the benchmark of quality, given that American students in general don’t fare well against their counterparts in other developed countries on internationally administered exams like the PISA. However, Schneider notes in the Vox piece, PISA scores are cited as evidence of the failure of American schools without much context. Everyone has heard that we’re doing worse than kids from Shanghai, but how many of us have any idea of what questions are actually on the test? “People don’t know a whole lot about it, but it is a nice piece of evidence that confirms this thing they already believe because they’ve heard it so many times,” says Schneider.
Then again, by the same token, if PISA scores don’t tell us everything, Education Week’s rankings certainly don’t, either. It’s the age-old problem with quantitative data: Numbers are called in as expert witnesses, but they’re just as easy to dismiss as they are to spotlight.
Beebe continued. “We’ve certainly got places where education is failing, and places where it’s doing well. Let me give you an example – Little Rock. You’ve got a high school called Little Rock Central producing national merit schedule…then, you’ve got schools like Hall High.” Hall is the lowest performing school in the Little Rock School District (LRSD).
That performance gap is the subject of a lot of internal debate right now in the Arkansas Department of Education, as the State Board contemplates the possibility of taking over the LRSD if it doesn’t show significant progress in its most academically distressed schools in the near future. “It’s the district’s responsibility, but ultimately it is the state’s responsibility,” said the governor. “That’s why the State Board of Education has tools.”
However, he continued, there are also alternatives to a takeover that the state could pursue.
“If you’ve got a large district where some schools are doing really well and some are not, look at taking over that individual school. Instead of replacing the whole board and superintendent, instead of taking over the entire operation, you take an individual school away form the district and you put your own principal in there, you put your own guidelines in there…I think the State Board of Education should take a serious look at that.”
“It’s called a shot across the bow,” Beebe said.
Funding for education reporting provided by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.