Education Reform in Arizona: Just Another Year of Our Children’s Lives

Stephen Stollmack September 11, 2013 1

By Stephen Stollmack
Arizona Community Press |

girl on computer

Most of us are now aware that certain forces within the government and private sectors are expending tremendous amounts of money and energy to change how our public education system works and what parents and teachers can expect from it. The changes are being pitched by the government as being necessary to compensate for high dropout rates and lower scores now being attained on international tests where the United States is said to have fallen from near top to mediocre ranges. There is agreement that the ‘lower scores’ have been caused by disappointing scores of students from families living in depressed areas of our cities. However, there is little agreement about what should be done about this problem.

Government and private education corporations and foundations have continued to insist that our schools are in a crisis because of inadequate teachers. However there exists numerous studies that show that it is the advancement of widespread poverty in our cities that has caused drops in our international test scores and that, when one corrects for this, we score right at the top of the field in Mathematics, Reading and ESL (English as a Second Language). National and state legislatures have been insisting that standardization of curriculum across all states, an efficient system for identifying ‘poor-performing’ teachers and getting rid of these ‘poor’ teachers and low-performing schools will solve the problem. They also propose standardized testing for children as the way to identify teachers who need to be demoted or replaced. You might note that this approach has nothing to do with the problems children from poorer disadvantaged neighborhoods face in becoming good students.

Most respected education experts insist that all the effort that teachers could possibly put forth could never make up for the fact that parents from poor and deteriorating neighborhoods lack funds for pre-school education or time and education to provide for learning opportunities at home for their children (because of the extra efforts parents need to assert to just survive). These children come in with learning deficits (compared with the children in more affluent neighborhoods) that cannot be overcome with any changes in teaching methods.

Instead of taking positive steps towards reducing poverty in inner cities and the suburbs hard hit by movement of major corporations to overseas locations, our federal and state governments have continued to blame the problem on public school teachers and administrators. They are now pushing, as a solution, more standardization and greatly increased testing in grades 3-8 as well as in high schools. This approach, plus the endorsement of privately owned companies to replace public schools, has led to bitter resistance from teachers, parents, and researchers towards this standardization type of solution. You might not see that resistance when you ask your child’s teachers what they think about this testing program because teachers are threatened with losing their jobs if they don’t get all children to take and do well on these tests. That defines the type of area where thorough public reporting is so needed.

Choosing a School

Choosing a school for your child used to be a simple decision; you accepted the school assigned to your address or you looked for a private school. This is changing as a result of dual efforts made by the federal government and big business to change the education model and introduce efficiency and accountability into their production-like model of schools. In their view, schools should produce uniform-quality graduates that can fit into the Human Resource Management part of the industrial-production management cycle for firms both here and abroad. There is also now a widespread belief that privatization of schools and standardization of courses and student outcome measurement (by constant testing) will help state and local education area (LEA) governments manage our education system easier.

The spread of these ideas has led to a rapid expansion of charter-run schools, as well the use of voucher systems which make state funds available to individuals to pay for private and church associated schools. In addition, state and local budget shortfalls have ‘forced’ many large county or city school districts to close schools and reassign children to neighboring schools, which then begin to experience larger class sizes, a red flag for most parents.

Arizona government has completely bought into this school reform agenda, which seeks to standardize education to make it more like an Industrial process and where ‘learning how to learn’ is no longer emphasized or encouraged.

Parents should consider that there is now a proliferation of virtual or cyber schools. According to American Legislative Exchange Committee (ALEC), a corporation-dominated organization with member-delegates from most state legislatures in the country, such schools are “independent public school(s) in which the school uses technology in order to deliver a significant portion of instruction to its students via the Internet in a virtual or remote setting.” ALEC is pushing this type of school mainly because it promises to be a long-term stimulus to the marketing of American-made computers (hardware and software) as well as network construction and management business. Cyber schools also display potential for mesmerizing students and reducing independent thinking, as well as limits opportunity for student interaction during class which, in turn, reduces opportunities for ‘acting out’ leading to disciplinary events.

It is well recognized that this testing extends the time children spend following instructions from cyber screens to 10-12 hours a day (combined cyber classes, cell phone use, internet usage, texting, Twittering, TV and gaming). While well recognized, it is not a subject that is well discussed in the literature but it is one that we will be providing more information in subsequent articles. Since most cyber or virtual schools are offered by Charters it is a good place for us to begin an ongoing discussion of such schools.

kids hands raised

Vouchers and Charter Schools in Arizona 

In an attempt to free up public funds to reimburse parents who want a religious-based school, Arizona has continuously pushed for vouchers to be available in ‘special’ circumstances. A 2006 law resulted in about $2.5 million in vouchers being awarded to parents for private school tuition for about 400 disabled and foster-care children. Now, in 2013, applications have been accepted for $3500 grants under a newly expanded “empowerment scholarship accounts” program. According to a recent article, “The funds can be used to pay tuition and fees at private or parochial schools.”

Recently, in an effort to appear like they really care about the education of inner-city children, legislators voted to expand eligibility to any student from a school that was ranked “D” or “F” based on student AIMS test scores. This could expand the number eligible by another 77,000 students, providing funds are available and legal challenges currently being made are rejected by the courts. This is controversial for all parents because the vouchers awarded would be taken from the budgets of the schools in which the students had previously been enrolled. So, if your children were among those enrolled in the school who did not receive vouchers, you might be curious how the reduction in your school’s budget to cover these vouchers might be affecting services available to your children.

Charter Schools

Arizona is and has been big on charter schools. Since 1995 Charter schools have proliferated to 500 schools and 113,000 students in Arizona. This is second only to the District of Columbia in terms of enrollment (per 100,000 students) of all states in the USA. But before you say “Go Arizona’, you might want to consider that The National Charter School Study of 2013 released about 1-month ago by Stanford University concluded that Arizona’s charter schools performed the worst in the entire country.

According to Richard Gilman’s review, “This study is distressingly bad for education reform in Arizona”. The report continued: “Charter schools – the centerpiece of reform – have a slight positive impact nationally – but a decidedly negative impact in Arizona. The report also comes in the midst of a determined five-year effort by Arizona’s charter school operators to clean up their act”.

According to Gilman, “Charter students across all 26 states were found to gain eight learning days in reading (and no days in math) versus the students who were judged to be their “virtual twins” in district schools.” For Arizona Charters, the corresponding days gained or lost were significantly different: “In reading, the state’s charter school students lost 22 learning days versus their direct peers who are enrolled in traditional schools.  In math, they lost 29 days.  In reading, the comparison between charters and traditional schools came out worse in only two states.  In math, just five states were worse. Those results put Arizona among the lowest in the study.”

Further analysis is intended to be done of Arizona Charters in a subsequent issue. One particular area of concern is how charters and, in particular, virtual or cyber schools, take care of the needs of children with special needs. Parents concerned about this subject might want to review “Charter Schools: A New Barrier for Children with Disabilities” by Joseph R. McKinney, which is where our investigation will begin.

Pick a School That Isn’t Set To Be Closed

Is your neighborhood school safe from being closed for low test scores? I was told by an Arizona Department of Education employee that they have not been closing schools for subpar performance; yet there are 67 schools that are right now on a probationary status in Maricopa County alone. The point is that being placed on a probationary status is bound to increase the number of parents choosing alternative schooling. They don’t disclose how long a school can stay on probationary status but I would start looking to move or explore sending my children to a charter school or something (see commentary on homeschooling in the state, below) as soon as the school they were attending was placed on probationary status. If others do the same, the attendance would plummet more and the school would get closed because it was no longer ‘cost-efficient’ to keep it open. We saw that happen in Chicago, in a big way. But consider how closing schools further penalizes the families that may be trying to keep the neighborhood viable. Why should those parents be penalized to keep up the area while those who left got rewarded by having better schools and better services? And, why should those who lost the jobs they had with the companies that moved out across the oceans be penalized by having their schools closed? This kind of logic certainly does not increase our confidence in the plans our administration might have for us in the future.

Why should you care about school closings if the district will always find your children an opening in a Charter school? The point is that charter schools are floundering, particularly in Arizona; also, there are good indications that such schools are skimming more off the top to increase the salaries and bonuses paid to top executives and hence you cannot count on continued growth of the industry.

bubble test

What about those high-stakes student tests?

Everyone, including yourself, must make up his or her mind whether or not to resist standardized testing. Testing and test-taking practice are not considered teaching. In other words, this government-backed effort is being made in spite of the fact that it may prove very deleterious for young children to be continuously involved in these multiple-choice “bubble” tests to this degree. These tests have nothing at all to do with learning how to learn and all to do with short-term memory exercises and conditioning your children in how to follow instructions given out over cyber terminals. Is this what you feel you should pay school taxes for?

One article I read reported that about 1/6 of the school year is spent taking these standardized tests and some have speculated that the time will double to one-third of the school year to include tests that are still being developed. This does not include the time spent preparing for and practicing taking the tests so the true toll may turn out to be between one-third and one-half of the available teaching time.

The tests, up to now, have been pitched solely as being necessary for developing data for evaluating teachers, principals, and schools (not students). Prior to the introduction of these new tests, the State Education Agency (SEA) would typically provide funds for each Local Education Agency (LEA) to pay for professionals (often a school’s Principal) to collect observation data (as described in Peer-review Evaluation Systems). The Peer-Review Systems provided specific improvement suggestions for each teacher who was observed. However, those who pushed for implementation of NCLB wanted digital data that could be processed by computers, stored in databases and analyzed and processed without need for ‘costly’ data- cleaning exercises or chances for the evaluators to change their scores based on explanations provided by teachers or principals. Thus, the idea for using standardized tests for students (with results to measure apparent improvements in scores over the past year’s scores) and attributing the score changes to the current teacher was born. Different statisticians came up with different methodologies for tying any changes in a student’s scores to the teacher (whose class the student is currently in) but the general procedure is called ‘value added method’ or VAM.

It is important to note that, while previous authorizations of the ESEA directed SEAs to budget their LEAs for covering costs of the peer evaluations described above, the current authorization (NCLB) eliminates assignment of those funds and switches the cost of generating teacher-evaluation data to the children. That is, the children lose around a third of their learning time to cover testing time along with losing of recess time, art and music classes, and sports because of ‘budget shortfall’ — these being the things that make children want to go to school. Although state administrators will blame budget shortfalls as the reason for most cuts, it is nonetheless unforgivable to take away from children to pay for test administration, data entry, grading and population of databases.

Daniel Dawer, writing in Policymic, nicely sums up the likely effect all these hours devoted to these test as follows:

“Excessive testing also poisons students’ attitudes towards education and schooling. When students learn to equate achievement with high scores on state tests, they see other methods for demonstrating learning as less important. Projects, performances, writing assignments, and other forms of self-directed learning don’t matter as much when students know they won’t appear on the test. As a result, students might come to value the type of superficial knowledge that multiple-choice tests measure over the type of deeper thinking that they do not measure.”

Much, much more could be said about the deleterious effects of these tests and we would be glad to provide a list of references should any of you wish to request it.

The Longitudinal Databases

You might also be concerned that these databases developed by states for each school district (to store test results and family and child health data, disciplinary incidents, and grades, etc.) are being incorporated into In Bloom Inc., a national database (developed mostly with Gates Foundation Funds) and “a division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. built the infrastructure for the new electronic portal.”

These databases will store all test-score data, along with your family data (personal and public data) and other event data for your child (disciplinary events, absentee records, and health event records). They will cover all the years your child is in public or charter schools. It also appears that this database will be available for sale by the state to any corporation or individual that might be able to establish a need (such as a future potential employer). Consider this possibility: after struggling through 12 to 13 years in this conforming environment, some potential employer, interested in hiring your child to work in some Asian or African nation location can call up your child’s record and find out any of the following:

  • If you or your mate has survived a bout with cancer or Autism or one of you has the breast-cancer gene or your family has some recurrent genetic condition.
  • You are a recovered alcoholic with one DWI on that one of you received Drug Abuse Counseling; or maybe you retired on some disability.
  • You had to default on your house and/or declare bankruptcy or maybe you were discovered cheating in your country club’s golf tournament.
  • Employment records for your entire family and maybe even a list of the phone numbers you called after midnight on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

Any of these events could get your child nixed out of a job and you would never know what the reason for rejection was. Is this the kind of world you want to live in?

computer work

Those tests: can we opt our children out of them?

This is essentially the same question that AZ Department of Education in “A Parents’ Guide to Understanding AIMS 3-8” asks. It answers the question in the negative stating that “A.R.S.15-741 and federal law mandate that every child in a public/charter school in Grades 3-8 participate in the AIMS 3-8.” Checking A.R.S.15-741 one can see it has nothing to do with this subject. In addition, any federal law telling Arizona residents what to do regarding education of their children would be clearly unconstitutional.

On the other hand, the NCLB reauthorization of the ESEA requires that each state administer standardized tests (tests aligned with its own state standards) and that a certain percent of students must pass these tests or the state will endure sanctions on the federal formula grant dollars they get. This does not constitute a federal requirement on what any particular child or parent does. The NCLB requires that the state administer the AIMS or the PARCC-AIMS test and that if less than 95% take the test, the school will be penalized; the school not the student.

The next article in this series will include an analysis of closing schools and the degree to which that is being done to further the agenda of the school reformers. We will also review the homeschooling situation in Arizona, where an estimated 22,500 students are being homeschooled. In addition, we will cover how special needs children are being affected by closing of schools and the growth of cyber or virtual charter schools.