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We have made Arizona teachers ‘test prep robots,’ ‘slaves to the test’


AzMERIT scores are in, and schools are being issued grades based on how their students performed on a test taken six months ago that measured math and English language skills. Teachers across the state are running for cover, hoping and praying their students fared well on these high stakes tests. Some will celebrate while others will wonder if they will lose their jobs. But all still must teach.

The education climate has changed at an alarming rate and a recent study ranking Arizona as the worst state to teach in should not surprise anyone. The focus is always on what we are teaching our students, but lately I have been asking myself, what are we teaching our teachers? I would like to identify a few of those unfortunate lessons that I believe are sucking the life out of our teachers and hurting our students.

James Lee

James Lee

With the increased focus on AzMERIT scores and school letter grades (which are challenged regularly due to their lack of validity), teachers have become test prep robots. At the same time, sanctions are being placed on schools and educators for not making the grade. We have all become slaves to the test. As a result, sadly, we are teaching our teachers some unfortunate lessons.

Unfortunate Lesson 1Teach to the test at the expense of the many other necessary skills essential to having a well-rounded education – and being a well-rounded citizen.

Don’t get me wrong, mastering fundamental math and English language skills are important and should be expected, but they should not be our entire focus. I want my own children exposed to instruction that teaches them to think critically, solve real-world problems, embrace leadership opportunities, explore the sciences, appreciate literature and the arts, and promote physical activity. More importantly, I want all children to be afforded instruction that inspires them and cultivates a thirst for learning long after their K-12 experience.

Making matters worse, public schools in Arizona are now being awarded additional “results-based” funding for teachers whose students performed well on the AzMERIT test. The money was designated for schools whose students scored in the 90th percentile in one of two categories; schools with a federal free and reduced lunch population of 60 percent or more, and all other schools. Though well intended, the vast majority of schools receiving this funding were in zip codes where more affluent families reside, ignoring the schools some of our most disadvantaged students attend and where resources are drastically needed. Further, to imply all teachers at schools that were awarded are outstanding and all teachers in the other schools are not is frankly disturbing and divisive.

Unfortunate Lesson 2 Why work at a school where some of the best instruction is so dearly needed when I can be compensated at a higher rate at a school in a wealthy neighborhood?

Our teacher shortage crisis is well known and decisions like these to send money to already high-performing schools are only contributing to the problem. We need to create policies to compensate teachers that are not divisive like results-based funding and help eliminate the teacher shortage that plagues our state, rather than contributing to it.

Sadly, Arizona has become the worst state to teach in according to multiple research studies. Recently, WalletHub analyzed 21 key indicators, ranging from income growth potential, to class size, to safety. Almost every indicator received an F, as the result of Arizona’s grossly inadequate state funding mechanism. Currently, there are approximately 2,000 teacher vacancies across the state, and far too many classrooms filled with substitute teachers. Within the first month of the 2017-18 school year, a reported 526 teachers walked off the job. Why? Most felt ill-equipped to handle large class sizes and unprepared as a result of watered-down certification standards. Compensation was not commensurate with workload and the demands associated with being a teacher.

Unfortunate Lesson 3Why teach in Arizona at all when you can cross state lines and earn considerably more, or simply find another much more lucrative occupation?

With the current state of education funding in Arizona coupled with increasing demands on their time, teachers are grasping at the lowest level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs – basic survival. In 2015, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found the average elementary teacher in California was paid $64,867, in New Mexico, $59,737, in Nevada $54,258, and in Utah $53,495. In Arizona, the median pay was $40,768. Why not cross state lines? With increased class size, emphasis on one state-test score, and substandard salaries, too many of our teachers either relocate or secure jobs in local industry, where they earn substantially more.

There is a national trend that is also surfacing in Arizona, citing disproportionate suspension rates among students of color. This problem is real, and I would suggest we are suspending all students at an alarming rate. In addition, more and more students enter our classrooms having endured adverse childhood experiences at home.

According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, Arizona ranks first in the nation for the number of children ages 12-17 who have experienced two or more adverse childhood experiences at 44 percent, while the national average is 30.5 percent. We know the effects of these traumas have both significant and severe implications on a student’s ability to learn and cope with stress. Meanwhile, teachers are so consumed with the pressure associated with teaching students the standards that they are not able to enjoy their work and form the relationships with students that are integral to student success and teacher satisfaction. Simply put, teachers are working harder not to fail, rather than to help students succeed.

Unfortunate Lesson 4 Teachers do not have the necessary time in their day to harness the relationships we know are essential for student growth and wellness.

We need to take the overwhelming emphasis off passing “the test” and place more emphasis on building strong, meaningful relationships with our students. I refer to it as teaching the “cardio curriculum.” No, it is not something you will find in a biology textbook. Rather, it is the concept of adults taking the time to open their hearts to their students, and their students opening up their hearts in return. I will argue the “cardio curriculum” may be the most important curriculum we teach. We need to train teachers on restorative practices that focus on relationship building when responding to students who act out. In all my years as an educator, I have yet to meet a student who wanted to disappoint a genuine, caring adult.

I can only hope the governor and the Legislature learn from these unfortunate lessons and use their own critical thinking skills to solve this real-world problem – if it’s not too late.

— James P. Lee is superintendent of Paradise Valley Unified School District.


  1. Unfortunate Lesson 5 – Government interference prevents market forces from correcting imbalances. In the real world a severe shortage of skilled labor drives salaries and wages up as employers compete for talent. In the real world, when a competitor is doing better, businesses and their employees strive to be more efficient and offer better services or products to entice customers to themselves rather than bailing out of state. In the real world, the objective is to satisfy the customer with the goods and services offered, not to kowtow to the whims of fickle politicians and unelected bureaucrats.

    How can our schools prepare students for the real world when they don’t live in it themselves?

  2. Thank you Dr. Lee for your honesty in this piece. As an educator it is disheartening to work year after year knowing that each year the stakes are getting higher and we are not compensated for our hard work and dedication. Just this past year I had to make a decision as to what I am going to do about my career. Should I stay or should I go? Loving and being passionate about your profession does not pay the bills when it is unfortunate that the state does not value good teachers. I feel underpaid and spend too much of my own personal time doing what I feel is the best thing for students. I have made the decision to change my thinking this year. I need to do what is financially best for me…get a second job.
    Thank you again Dr. Lee, you are a wonderful leader and know the truth about what is happening in the classrooms!

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