Commitment to classroom
Arizona Republic
Apr. 7, 2006

As education reforms are argued left and right, a new study adds some old-fashioned ingredients
Republic columnist Robert Robb

In the education reform debate, an unacknowledged reality is that the favored nostrums of both the left and the right hold out only modest promise for the nation's most serious challenge: improving the educational achievement of minority and low-income students.

The right favors reforms that give students and parents more choices, such as charter schools and vouchers to attend private schools.

There are those who dispute the gains from such reforms, but they are losing the argument. The evidence mounts that school-choice reforms improve academic performance not only among choice students but also among those who remain in traditional schools that face choice competition. The gains, however, are modest, single-digit improvements in test scores. That's meaningful and worthwhile, but not enough for a population that chronically lags 20 to 30 percentage points behind national norms.

Moreover, there are two limitations to choice reforms rarely acknowledged by their advocates. By definition, students attending choice schools have parents who care enough about their education to research and make a decision about the school they attend. Having a parent who cares about education is an important advantage, making it difficult to generalize about gains from choice reforms.

The second limitation is that, even where choice is made generously available, the overwhelming majority of students remain in traditional schools. And the gains for such children in schools facing choice competition are, thus far, very modest.

The choice reform agenda is best seen as educational triage: allowing students who want to learn, or have parents who want them to learn, to find the most productive learning environment for them.

That's highly valuable. But it's unlikely to change much the educational reality for most minority and low-income kids.

The favored nostrum of the left is more money to fund smaller class sizes and higher-paid teachers.

The evidence here is bitterly disputed. But even among those who say that such things improve student achievement, the claim is also modest - in the same realm as the gains claimed by advocates of choice.

Making meaningful improvements in class sizes and teacher pay, however, is enormously expensive for what, thus far, seems to be at best marginal improvements in student achievement.

There have been public schools that have produced student achievement among minority and low-income kids at or above national norms. But even here the news has been somewhat disheartening.

These schools usually feature principals given unusual authority over budgets, personnel and curriculum. Many are, indeed, charter schools. And they often have teachers who do extraordinary things, such as making home visits.

Institutionalizing the extraordinary is difficult.

A new study by the Center for the Future of Arizona and the Morrison Institute, "Beating the Odds," offers hope that broad and significant improvements in existing traditional schools are possible.

The study identifies Arizona schools with mostly Latino and low-income pupils that have student achievement at or above the state average. It then matched these high-achieving schools with low-achieving ones with similar demographic and geographic characteristics to identify differences in approach.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne recently looked at Arizona schools with at least 200 English-learners in 2003 to see how well those students did on the state achievement test two years later. The range was extraordinarily wide: from a high of 84 percent passing to a low of 9 percent.

According to "Beating the Odds," schools that succeed with Latino and low-income students do have strong principals, but not all of them have extraordinary authority. The key seems to be a commitment to frequent assessment through objective testing, far more frequent than the state requires, and individualized attention focused on individual student deficiencies.

Individualized instruction in a class of 20 or more students is difficult for a teacher. But it doesn't necessarily require the extraordinary.

Only 12 Arizona schools made it through the rigorous filter established by the researchers to ensure that the level of student achievement wasn't a fluke but a sustained phenomenon. However, the encouraging thing was that what these 12 schools are doing can be replicated elsewhere.

The implication of "Beating the Odds" is profound. It means that broad and significant improvements in student achievement among minority and low-income students may be possible within the confines of the existing traditional school structure and resources.

That doesn't mean that reforms aren't important and useful. It simply means that improving student achievement doesn't need to wait for them.

This also suggests that the current debate over English-learner funding taking place in the Legislature and the courts may be a sideshow.

The real arena is inside individual classrooms and the interaction between individual teachers and individual students. And the key ingredients to success - leadership, focus, discipline and methodology - are already available to those with the commitment to muster them.

Reach Robb at or (602) 444-8472. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Read his blog at