It's been an axiom in the field of education for more than a decade that throwing more money at it alone won't fix what ails it.
From No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top to AIMS and Arizona Learns, educators and elected officials have sought to attach some kind of accountability to the billions of dollars spent each year in this country educating our children.
Now, Arizona and the Flagstaff Unified School District are about to enter the latest phase, which ratchets up the stakes for not just students but also teachers and principals. Underperforming students will be at risk of being held back a grade, teachers of having contracts not renewed and principals of being demoted.
As we report today on our front page, it's a largely top-down process driven by new national and state accountability standards that local districts must implement. FUSD has some flexibility to experiment with, say, iPads in the teaching of reading and with enrichment clubs that spur academic interest. But in order to receive continued state funding, the district must teach a standardized curriculum in reading, writing, math and science, and students must show a minimum mastery level in order to advance. Teachers will be held to benchmarks that, depending on the subjects they teach, will be based in large part on student scores on standardized tests. Progress also will be factored in to the raw scores, and teachers outside the common core will be held to more subjective standards.
Although it may be too late to do much about it, we'd like to still voice our concerns here. A key question is why are high-stakes tests being used as the primary measure of a child's education instead of one of several diagnostic tools? Raising a nation of successful test-takers is different than turning out a generation of confident but curious critical thinkers and hands-on problem-solvers.
Another is that the bulk of the extra resources appear to be going to students who, for whatever reason, are not going to perform well in regimented settings requiring abstract thinking. We have no problem with assuring that every child can read by the end of the third grade. But by the 12th grade, a student who has mastered the basics ought to have been exposed to enough non-core courses and experiences to let him or her make an independent choice about attending college or, say, pursuing a trade.
As it is now proposed, however, high school offerings are narrowly grouped around college prep courses, with history, foreign languages and the arts falling by the wayside. Arizona lawmakers have defunded the schools in part because they see non-core courses as not producing measurable results on AIMS and therefore unaccountable to the taxpayers who are footing the bill.
The results can be pernicious. Data-driven teaching that attempts to standardize outcomes among a diverse student body means most of the time and money will be spent on low-performing outliers. Schools can only do so much to overcome poverty, transience, ill health and dysfunctional family life. And even if they could, a standardized curriculum might not measure their success or meet the needs that will help struggling students to reach their full potential.
As for students who have few problems exceeding the minimum standards, the focus of time and money on the core curriculum and outlying students deprives them of the opportunity for a more well-rounded education. In states like Arizona that allow separatist charter schools with no need or incentive to spend scarce resources on outliers, the system encourages the fracturing of public education around socio-economic groups, which are anathema to a diverse, democratic society.
We have said in the past that holding public education accountable to basic student performance standards is a wise use of public funds. But it can't stop there, as Arizona lawmakers appear to believe. Teaching only to a narrow core of subjects, then using test results to judge a teacher's overall worth or the ability of a child to grow up to be a productive member of society is a devaluation of what public education can and should be.
The new standards don't go into full effect until 2014-15. We'd hope by then Arizonans will have found the will and the resources to supplement them with a curriculum and a school culture that measures what it means to be educated by more than just test scores.
Serving this week on the Daily Sun's Editorial Advisory Board are Publisher Don Rowley, Editor Randy Wilson and citizen members Joan Brundige Baker, Rick Lopez, Jean Richmond Bowman and Jim Haslett.