Education leaders in Arkansas need to stop making excuses and make a plan instead.
Earlier this month, the Arkansas Department of Education released its annual accountability report regarding the state of public education here in Arkansas. The report wasn’t good. In fact, it was mostly bad.
Compared with 2019 (the last year there was a letter grade assigned to each school prior to the covid interruption), 2022 saw the number of high-achieving schools cut in half and the number of failing schools more than double. And there was a strong trend among the schools in the middle of moving in the wrong direction.
But I learned something very important that day: All of the excuses I’ve heard over the years as to why a school can’t perform at a high level on the annual assessment are completely bogus.
You know what I’m talking about; you’ve heard them too: We have too many poor kids. Our special education population is too high. Too many of our students are learning English as a second language. We’re too little. We’re too big. We need more money. covid
But a deep dive into the data debunks all of these.
Consider, for example, Grace Hill Elementary in Rogers. Seventy-eight percent of its students are from low-income families and 51 percent are learning English as a second language. Yet Grace Hill improved from a D in 2019 to a C in 2022.
Ninety-one percent of the students at Western Yell County Elementary are from low-income families, 24 percent are special education students, and the total enrollment in K-6 is only 156 students. But this school improved from a D to a C.
At Eudora Elementary, the student body is 100 percent minority, and 91 percent of them are from low-income families. Yet, it held a C ranking through the pandemic.
And consider Quitman Middle, which improved from a C to a B while spending only $4,500 per student, well below the state average of $10,820.
If you think these are just isolated examples, it might surprise you that during this time frame, 389 Arkansas schools (40 percent) either improved by a letter grade or more, or maintained a letter grade of C or better. Of those, 315 qualified for Title I federal aid based on family income, 152 had more students from low-income families than the state average, 88 had higher minority enrollments than the state average, and 210 spent less money per pupil than the state average
This is not to say everything is fine. No, quite the opposite. There are too many students in poor-performing schools, and we need a significant number of reforms. But the most fundamental might be a reform in culture–leadership culture.
At a recent gathering, Christina Meister, principal at that against-the-odds school in Rogers, explained to an intently listening room how she did it. It was brilliantly simple. She just changed the culture.
“We started with school culture,” Meister said. “We wanted to create a culture where all of the teachers and staff truly believe that all kids can learn at high levels … instead of blaming all of the circumstances.”
Let me repeat that: Instead of blaming all of the circumstances, like poverty, special ed, community size, money, covid.
Another principal at the same gathering said her team made a conscious decision to stop arguing with the results, to stop denying the data, and to admit where they were so they could go in another direction.
They didn’t blame the test or argue with the results. They adjusted, and succeeded.
Changing from a culture of excuses to one of expectation is hard. Very hard. That’s why it appears a majority of our schools aren’t doing it.
The principal at Sylvan Hills Elementary in Sherwood knows how hard it is. Britney Hickman told this gathering about the painstaking work that an attitude like this takes. Her leadership team created an individualized action plan for. Every. kid In. The. Building. And her students reaped the reward because of it. Her school moved up from a C to a B during a pandemic.
More resources for our schools would be great; I’m all for competing with our neighbors to show commitment to education. But what we need more than anything is more leaders like Meister and Hickman and hundreds of others like them, with the will to change the culture of their buildings and their teams.
Turnaround can happen anywhere. It can happen under any circumstance. It can happen for every child in this state. Schools in every corner of Arkansas are proving it.
So, to our education leaders, it’s time to stop making excuses.
And to our citizens, it’s time to stop accepting them.
Jeff Wood is a member of the state Board of Education and the parent of three children in Little Rock public schools.