For those who say that the state of our schools is “poor,” the rhetoric doesn’t match reality. That folks in positions of educational leadership subscribe to such a gloomy view of Arizona’s schools is disturbing.
According to U.S. News and World Report, Arizona boasts three of the top-10 public high schools out of 19,400 schools nationally. For a state that that is supposedly limping along, we’re in rare air.
Before I get accused of cherry-picking good news, there are also rankings that view our schools through a more cynical lens. But even those studies deserve a closer look.
According to Quality Counts, Arizona is 4th in the nation in closing the reading gap among students who qualify for Free or Reduced Lunch. We’re 8th in the nation on fourth-grade math achievement gains. We’re 16th for eighth grade reading gains. These academic gains are more than just a blind squirrel finding a nut. We’re doing something right.
Consider some of our outstanding school districts. Mesa Public Schools, for example, is ranked a top-10 district among big-city districts, and the district is home to Arizona’s Teacher of the Year. School districts around the state are earning “A” rankings, from Benson Unified in the southeast corner of the state, to tiny Ash Fork in the north, to Scottsdale Unified and Peoria Unified in metro Phoenix.
And we’re bucking the belief that demography is destiny. Down on the border south of Yuma, the Gadsden Elementary District deserves major kudos for what it’s doing. Schools like Ed Pastor Elementary and Desert View Elementary are earning “A” ratings. These are schools serving populations that have nearly 100 percent participation in the Free and Reduced Lunch program. The leaders at these schools are demonstrating that school cultures that maintain high expectations and no-excuses environments work. And we know they work because their kids continue to make huge growth and academic gains.
Arizona is a leader in education reforms that the rest of the country can learn from: Best in class parental choice, from open enrollment to a host of charter school options; a focus on making sure that students can read before they exit the third grade; strong math and science graduation requirements; and a dedication to high standards. The Chamber has been on the front lines of proposing or supporting these changes, and they are working.
Senate President Andy Biggs is right when he says, as he did at our Legislative Forecast Luncheon earlier this month, “Do we need to make adjustments? Perhaps. But if you want to consistently say to business, ‘Hey, you know what? We have a crappy education system,’ you are not helping the state, you aren’t helping the education system, and you are hindering our economy, because we do have a good education system…”
Of course, we can do better. But rather than simply criticize, our leaders should be working to accelerate improvement. A good start would be to embrace the types of reforms touted by Gov. Ducey, ensuring that all students, regardless of neighborhood, have access to our best public schools.
Arizona’s education system – district, charter and private – is headed in the right direction. It’s irresponsible to criticize the state of our schools and ignore what is working.
– Glenn Hamer is the president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.