Living in Arizona for over 30 years I have come to love many aspects of our great state. One area that greatly concerns me, however, is the performance of our education system. Rather than just complain about it, I’ve devoted more than 20 years to reforming K-12 education. I currently chair the governor’s Arizona Ready Education Council as well as the BASIS schools in this state, and have worked in the high tech industry for nearly 40 years. I know what is required of students to compete and succeed in today’s economy.
Let’s consider the cold, hard facts of education in Arizona and the U.S.:
- In K-12 math and science, the U.S. ranks in the lower half or quartile of Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.
- In K-12, Arizona ranks in the bottom 10-20 percent of states.
- In Arizona, only about one third of our students are at grade level in math and English.
- In Arizona, over half of the students that graduate from high school are not eligible for university.
- In Arizona, over half of our students have to take remedial training for post-secondary education.
- All of the Arizona kids that are not eligible for university or the 60- plus percent that require remediation in community college passed the AIMS test. This says something about our current education standards.
I do not fundamentally believe Arizona kids are dumber than their peers in the U.S. or around the world. We do not have a kid problem; we have an adult and system problem. We are not doing a good job educating our kids — and a big part of that problem is that we have lower standards and expectations than most of the world. Raising our standards and student expectations are the keys to improving K-12 education in Arizona. That is why the new Arizona education standards and a new assessment to replace AIMS are so important to our state.
A little background is important to dispel some of the myths around these new standards.
In 2008, the governors and superintendents of public instruction of 48 states banded together to create math and English standards that hold the promise that a high school diploma is an honest ticket to college or to military service or to the world of work. I was part of that effort — side by side from the beginning, with governors, state school chiefs, and reformers that made it happen. When the trench work on these standards began, President George W. Bush and later President Barack Obama and their representatives were not at the table.
These English and math standards are about setting goals for our kids to learn to read, write, and calculate at a competitive level with high-performing states and countries. What these standards are not, is a conspiracy. This isn’t about mind control or a national curriculum or the federal government taking over education. It’s about whether we want our kids and grandkids to have good jobs and whether we want them to be here in Arizona. I can assure you that there are plenty of states and counties stepping up and making sure their kids are college or career ready while we discuss conspiracy theories. As a life-long Republican, I find this discussion of a federal takeover of our K-12 education system embarrassing and beneath us. We have real issues to resolve in this state and country and this is not one of them.
After much debate and participation, Arizona adopted its version of new standards in 2010. Many Arizonans participated in this process — Professor Bill McCallum from the University of Arizona co-led the writing of the math standards. Sarah Baird, 2009 Arizona Teacher of the Year, served on the standards validation committee, and many others were involved. These standards, which were reviewed and revised by Arizonans for Arizona, are standards only indicating what kids should know. Decisions about how to teach these standards (curriculum, tools, books, materials, technology) are left to the local school boards, just like they are today. And, the Arizona Board of Education has the authority to change these standards at any time.
The business community is solidly in support of these new standards and a new assessment tool. The business community has been complaining about low standards and low expectations for many years.
They know that for kids to have a fair shot at the American dream we need dramatic improvement in our K-12 system.
One final comment on where these standards come from. They come from the governors, the chief state school officers, education experts around the country including those here in Arizona. They do not come from Washington, D.C. Much has been made about the support of President Obama and these standards, but, they are not his standards.
He saw something good and promoted it. Just like he has promoted charter schools and teacher evaluation — two other aspects of K-12 reform with strong roots in Arizona. If we are against these standards because someone in Washington, D.C. likes them, then why don’t we reject our charter laws or our teacher evaluation laws as well? We don’t because we accept what it takes to improve our education system. So it is with standards and expectations.
It is time we recognize the hard truth about K-12 education in Arizona and take the necessary steps to improve a poorly performing system. We need to upgrade both our standards and our assessment tools. We owe it to our children.
— Craig Barrett is chairman of the Arizona Ready Education Council and former CEO and chairman of the board of Intel Corp.