Miserable schools not a myth
Arizona Republic
May 25, 2008

Graduates' future, Arizona's economy compromised by low expectations, denial

Bob King, Susan Budinger and Fred DuVal

Robert Robb suggested in his May 7 column ("Myth of Arizona's miserable schools") that Arizona's schools are not so bad, teachers are not underpaid, spending more won't increase student performance and the achievement gap is not as alarming here as it is in California, Mississippi and New Mexico.

However, more data confirm that we are not adequately educating our young people, and as a consequence, their future and our state's economy are being compromised by low expectations, complacency and denial.

Despite passing AIMS exams and earning a diploma, too many students are not ready for work or college: Just one-third of those entering the Maricopa Community College System test ready for college-level math, two-thirds test ready for college-level English and less than half test ready to read at college level. Nineteen percent of freshmen at Arizona's universities are enrolled in lower math or English courses.

Robb says ACT and SAT scores put Arizona at "about the middle" nationally. But just 18 percent of Arizona students take the ACT exam, compared with 40 percent nationally; just 32 percent take the SAT exam, compared with 48 percent nationally. Our results are skewed upward and not representative of most students "graduating" from Arizona public schools.

Robb suggests the 24 percent funding increase since 1986 ought to have resulted in higher student performance. This presumes that spending in the baseline year was adequate and that the increases went to the right things, neither of which is true.

To keep up with growth, spending ought to have increased by 40 percent a decade. Instead, 24 percent over 22 years equates to slightly better than a 1 percent per year increase (inflation adjusted). This hardly constitutes a significant investment in anything.

Although teacher quality is not solely about salaries, money gets to the core of the problem. We don't treat teachers as respected professionals. We pay them blue-collar wages for work that is critically important to the future of our country.

Robb blames the high number of minorities for dismal overall student performance. In reality, economic circumstance is a far more accurate predictor of academic success than race. Although our poorest kids do fare the worst, Arizona's non-low-income students rank 39th out of 50 states on NAEP test scores compared with their non-low-income peers.

We must stop blaming low academic achievement on a challenging set of demographics.

Too many of our kids are being let down, and the change needed goes beyond one simple remedy.

We must overhaul the way we educate children for the 21st century. Students should progress based on mastery of skills rather than on age and time spent. Our system should draw the best and brightest to the teaching field. Funding should be increased strategically, with specific goals and assessment tools in place.

Robb's attempt to paint a not-so-grim picture only underscores our complacency in our expectations of our schools, our students and ourselves. Making the state Legislature the scapegoat won't solve the problem, but neither will explaining away the numbers as mythical.

Bob King is president and CEO of the Arizona Community Foundation. Susan Budinger is founding director of the Rodel Foundations. Fred DuVal is a member of the Arizona Board of Regents.