You might’ve noticed that Valley mayors want to get in the education reform game. After the defeat of the one-cent sales tax, combined with half of the budget overrides going down, Mesa Mayor Scott Smith and Phoenix’s Greg Stanton appeared at a press conference to announce a group of mayors had formed to promote education reform and to find more funding for education.
For whatever reasons — some practical, other ideological — those with the power of the purse string have been reluctant to fully fund education, even in good times.
Now, though, the mayors believe they can push for reforms that might make our legislature more amenable to increased school funding.
As an old teacher — emphasis on “old” — I’d like to suggest a few reforms that might help improve Arizona’s education.
1. We already have a gate at the end of the third grade — kids who underperform in reading are to be held back starting at the end of the next school year.
I’d suggest that we do something similar at the end of the sixth grade and/or at the end of the eighth grade as well. As is, very few middle school kids are held back, no matter their abilities. Given that, teachers see kids who are clearly unprepared and worse, quickly unmotivated, to succeed in high school. With some kind of level of ability to use as a gate before entering high school, we might see kids more motivated in junior high and thus, later in high school.
2. Tenure in schools has already been weakened, what with the law that now says seniority cannot be used to lay off or rehire teachers after a layoff. We need to take that one step further: Tenure in its current form should be eliminated — if a veteran teacher is underperforming or is simply incompetent, principals should have the ability to fire that teacher at the end of a school year. I believe you could get teachers to agree with that as long as there were some legal protections from vindictive principals going after teachers they don’t like. There might be some labor laws now that could apply here, but if not, I’m sure some wise men could create legislation to do so.
3. Administrators at all levels should be held to higher standards. For example, school administrators should have extensive classroom experience prior to becoming administrators. As is, too often we have teachers entering the classroom as new teachers hellbent on getting out as quickly as possible and becoming administrators. Often, because of their classroom inexperience, they have little understanding of what teachers face, and are thus less effective.
4. Administrators’ jobs ought to be just as on the line as teachers’ jobs. If a school consistently underperforms, the principal should be replaced.
5. How to decide if a school’s underperforming? You need a uniform pre-test across the state — maybe the Common Core curriculum will do this — and a uniform post-test to give at the end of the year.
That way, you can actually measure growth within a year of the schools’ students. That way, you can get a fairer measure of how good a teacher is. Currently, we use the AIMS scores from one year to the next to measure growth, which I’m guessing statisticians would say is a silly way to measure a teacher’s or school’s quality.
6. We should find some way to reward our best teachers. Here’s one suggestion:
Give each school a sum of money, based on the number of teachers in the school. The principal can then use that money for performance bonuses. The criteria? As a baseline, maybe only the teachers who have 80 percent or more of their kids grow at least one year in their classroom, based on pre- and post-tests (or maybe 80 percent of their kids pass the test at the end of the year — again wiser men than I can come up with that standard).
Add to that peer evaluations of those teachers — teachers know who the leaders in the school are and who just stay in their classrooms, maybe doing a fine job, but not providing any real leadership in the school
And from that winnowing, the principal would have a small list of teachers who receive the bonus.
7. As we know, not every kid is destined for college. So while EVIT and schools like it are good alternatives, they are limited in enrollment. Why can’t we encourage public-private partnerships between various professions and high schools? For example, if a school provided the facilities for teaching plumbing or electrical work, why couldn’t a consortium of plumbing or electrical companies provide the instruction? Kids who had an interest in electrical work or circuitry work, or whatever non-college profession could apprentice while in high school, or at least learn enough to become an apprentice following high school. Maybe approach a business group to pilot something like this at a high school, see how it works.
8. One way to possibly drive down costs is to have a uniform health insurance program for all public schools in our state. As is, we have (mostly) individual districts with their own insurance plans. I’m no insurance expert, but it would seem logical that one plan for all school employees would drive down bureaucratic costs and maybe the premiums as well, given the large pool an insurance company would have. I know there are autonomy issues here, but smart guys like the mayors could find a way, right?
9. We need to find a fairer way to help our poverty-based schools. As is, they suffer from less funding than other schools do, in part because those districts tend to vote against overrides. Thus, the rich get richer and the poor districts continue to fall behind, ending up with larger classes, outmoded equipment, and lower paid teachers (which often translates into less able teachers). This is a tough one.
10. Speaking of tough, the last one is the toughest. As you know from your own experiences, kids from supportive families, involved parents, tend to do much better in school. So how do we motivate parents to stay involved in their kids’ school lives? You’ve seen it — at the elementary level, open house nights are packed with parents. In high school, the attendance is pathetic.
I hope Mayors Stanton, Smith and others will find ways to improve both education achievement and funding in our state. Both are difficult jobs, but worth their best effort.
Good luck, Mayors.
Photo: Mike McClellan is a Gilbert resident and former English teacher at Dobson High School in Mesa.