Innovation green light

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the Trump administration’s education department will be quick to reward outside-the-box thinking. But it’s far from obvious to entrenched bureaucrats or legislators.

If Betsy DeVos is anything, she’s as anti-establishment as her boss (that’s why everyone in the education establishment opposed her). And yet, just like him, here she is.

And here we are:

In a prime position to seize an immense opportunity, if—admittedly an enormous “if”—our own state government leaders are adventuresome enough to live up to our old state nickname.

It’s been 13 years since the infamous Act 60 was pushed through our Legislature. It passed despite broad warning signs and red flags at the time from a state mirroring us in many ways (West Virginia), which was taking measure of its own consolidation failings 10 years after the fact.

In those ensuing years a lot has changed—politically, technologically, educationally.

Electorally we were among deep red states. Broadband penetration and all that it enables is reaching the most rural of areas. And nobody really disputes all the broken promises (lower costs, better test scores, etc.) of consolidation.

We took the “opportunity” motto off our license plates a long time ago, but it’s still spelled the same way.

If Education Secretary DeVos’ head could ever be turned by a powerful prospective pet project, it would be a well-planned blueprint for a statewide Rural Public School System. Not a patchwork approach that seeks to semi-urbanize schools out in the hinterlands. One that is specifically designed to maximize the unique characteristics of rural lifestyles with newly accessible modern learning technology.

Our population has been crying out for such a solution for decades. We’re nowhere near the most rural state, but still a decidedly rural one. Only 17 of our 75 counties are considered urban. Our economy is powered by agriculture.

But as recently as 2010, our state board of education bungled the chance to pioneer a distance-learning consolidation concept between Delight and Weiner. Both schools had high test scores, great graduation rates and tremendous community support, but also an enrollment figure below Act 60’s magically irrelevant number.

So naturally both had to be shut down.

Fortunately, many of the masterminds behind Act 60 have moved on from public service. The question is, has the failed mindset moved on as well?

Closed minds brought us nothing but closed schools, and barely moved any needles on student performance metrics. Open minds can launch us into the national limelight if we simply insist on innovative thinking for rural education from a totally rural perspective.

Samsung Electronics is repurposing 40-foot shipping containers into mobile classrooms for sub-Saharan countries to improve their education. Each serves up to 21 students, and is equipped with a 50-inch electronic board, Internet-enabled solar-powered notebooks, multifunction printers, Samsung Galaxy tablet computers and Wi-Fi cameras. A solar-panel roof generates nine hours of electricity a day, since many African communities have minimal power available, if any.

But our solution for remote rural communities continues to be rooted in 1960s-era busing of outlying students to expensive brick-and-mortar structures in larger population concentrations?

The enemy of innovation isn’t really backward thinking (which at least incorporates thought), it’s inertia. The need for better education ideas in rural communities isn’t new, but developments in broadband, smartphones and tablets, applications and programs, distance-learning, video-streaming and other connectivity and telecommunications products and services are.

Rural 12-year-olds today know more about technology than college grad students did a couple of generations ago.

In the not-too-distant past, the average kid in rural Arkansas had zero access to East or West Coast fashions, fads, shopping, trends, songs, menus or entertainment. All those divides, and more, have evaporated in the cyberspace revolution. The Coach bag that was once purchased exclusively on Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive can now arrive in Nowhere, USA, in two days from Amazon.

Likewise with access to the latest schooling techniques, concepts, teachers, technology partnerships and information content. The finest lectures and speakers on anything are available on YouTube.

The reason to not use a television series like Legends and Lies: Patriots to help teach students about American independence isn’t because “we’ve never done it like that.” It’s because those kinds of tools and technology never existed before.

And now that they are now proliferating, we must push our thinking to expand even faster.

We have some wonderful organizations across the state already in place—the Rural Community Alliance comes to my mind first, but there are also others—to serve as effective, enabling collaborators on a rural initiative needed not only here in Arkansas, but in other states from Montana to Maine.

Task forces too often produce neither task nor force, but maybe that’s a start, providing it comprises fresh, non-establishment minds. Even the best-intentioned capital-city thinking is simply incapable of grass-roots inventiveness on rural education.

Four out of 10 Arkansans live rural lives. As suddenly and surprisingly as last Nov. 8, those rural communities represent possibly the best laboratories for profound shifts in teaching.

Rural education is a national challenge. It’s carpe diem time, and Arkansas ought to be a natural.


The (still) lost art of learning

“Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side?” — Dorothy Sayers

Sometimes world events wind up creating unexpected prophets. Even though it appears, in the quote above, that Ms. Sayers was a witness to the latest presidential debate spectacle, the truth is her words were penned 70 years ago.

As we collectively anticipate next week’s edition of the Presidential Argument and Insult Exercise, it may be impossible to predict what might happen next. It is certainly possible, however, to predict what won’t happen: No one will be reminded of the Lincoln-Douglas debates next Wednesday night.

The last debacle, watched by some 69 million viewers, offered more proof that the modern formats fail miserably at delivering any real substance to voters.

Accepting that our contemporary candidates are far cries from Lincoln or Douglas, the method of the debates in the fall of 1858 are still looking more appealing all the time. Back then, one candidate opened the debate with an address lasting one hour. The other candidate would then speak for 90 minutes, followed by a rebuttal period of 30 minutes by the first candidate.

Depending on the speech tempo and articulation rate, a speaker might roughly deliver 6,000 words in a 60-minute address; the length of the Lincoln and Douglas opening remarks generally fell between 5,000 and 6,000 words. (For context, this column is about 850 words.)

That speech-oriented debate format would give modern Oval Office-seekers a much better opportunity to address important issues in ways that might actually give thinking voters real grist for their ballot consideration mill.

It also would allow candidates a better chance to present their personalities in total. Lincoln’s folksy humor, for example, was on full display during his debates, as was the reasoning power and rhetorical capabilities of both he and his opponent. There’s no hiding behind soundbites or talking points or red herrings when you have a whole hour to fill. There’s still room for zingers—but they have to complement a larger body of cohesive and cogent presentation content, instead of serving as superficial scene-stealers.

When Dorothy Sayers posed her question in a 1947 essay, her main topic wasn’t politics but education. Titled “The Lost Tools of Learning,” that essay lamented the loss of classical education as a scholastic discipline and, as a result, the loss in mainstream society of the art of fundamental critical-thinking abilities and practices.

What Sayers called for seven decades ago was a return to antiquity’s Liberating Arts philosophy of learning that begins with the classical Trivium. The Trivium is a system of teaching critical thinking, which comprises three stages of study: grammar, logic and rhetoric. Those three study areas are not “subjects,” but rather methods of approaching subjects in an educative sense.

In her 2002 book promoting a return to classical education training, Sister Miriam Joseph concisely explained the Trivium at its core: “Grammar is the art of inventing symbols and combining them to express thought; logic is the art of thinking; and rhetoric, the art of communicating thought from one mind to another, the adaptation of language to circumstance.”

In short, you can think of the Trivium as delivering knowledge (Grammar) which once understood (Logic) can be transmitted as wisdom (Rhetoric).

Traditionally, the Trivium was the lower three of the classical liberal arts, which prepared students for capable study of the upper four arts, known as the Quadrivium, which included arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.

Sayers’ observation about education in the 1940s was that while it was somewhat effective in teaching children “subjects,” it failed to teach them how to properly and logically think. “They learn everything,” she wrote, “except the art of learning …

“By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words … they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.”

Classical education is enjoying something of a renaissance, primarily among private schools and home-school environments, and strong evidence suggests it is superior in a preparatory sense for collegiate liberal arts curricula.

Even in Sayers’ day, she feared reforms improbable because the education “machine” would oppose it. All these years later, it might be even more improbable—except that we are witnessing debates that look anything but presidential.

It’s doubtful most modern candidates could rise to the Lincoln-Douglas standard, and perhaps the main reason is because both of those men subscribed to the then-generally accepted classical education model.

Hope springs eternal, they say, and the old often becomes new again. Schools and students in other states are rediscovering the powerful tools of learning that classical education provides. Maybe we’ll find them here in Arkansas, too.

Small school, big honor

Years ago, I suggested the state try to replicate small-school Weiner’s formula for success in every district. By every performance measure—average ACT, graduation rate, benchmark scores, AP participation—Weiner posted high marks, at a per pupil cost thousands of dollars below larger districts.

The only deficiency at Weiner was that student enrollment fell ever-so-slightly below the state’s arbitrary number for a couple of years. Ironically, in the year it was consolidated, Weiner’s enrollment had rebounded to exceed the minimum 350 students.

Shortly after Weiner became part of the Harrisburg district, the storied high school—whose 126-year history never included any academic or financial distress—was closed.

Fortunately, Weiner Elementary School remained open, and continues in its high-performing tradition. In recognition, Weiner Elementary was one of only 14 rural schools, out of 243 total elementary schools, named as a National Blue Ribbon Award Winner this year.

As always, overachievement is Weiner’s educational hallmark.

Statistically and demographically speaking, it’s unlikely for Weiner Elementary to rise to a National Blue Ribbon standard from its humble rural Arkansas roots. Only 8.9 percent of Poinsett County residents have a college degree. The median household income is nearly 25 percent less, and the poverty rate more than 30 percent higher, than neighboring Craighead County. Some 82 percent of Weiner Elementary’s students are considered economically disadvantaged–a higher percentage than any other rural school on the winners’ list.

And yet Weiner Elementary’s 16-page Blue Ribbon Award application reads like the kind of highly progressive, high-tech profile you’d expect from a prosperous suburban school.

Even many large rural elementary schools, like Southwest Calloway Elementary in Kentucky (whose 469 K-5 enrollment dwarfs Weiner’s 125 K-6 number), proudly tout the fact that all students have “access” to class-room Chromebooks.

Every single student at Weiner Elementary is assigned an individual device; in K-2 it’s an iPad, in grades 3 and 4 it’s a Chromebook, and fifth- and sixth-grade students are all toting around their own MacBook Air laptops. Weiner Elementary was designated an Arkansas “School of Innovation” in that program’s first year following its adoption by the Legislature in 2013.

Schools of Innovation are allowed waivers from certain rules, provided they can demonstrate and present new ideas that improve academic performance for students. And innovate is what Weiner Elementary has done in true blue-ribbon fashion.

Digital connectivity is maximized to enable and enhance communication among students, teachers and parents about homework, activities and school events. As worded in its application: “Technology is readily available in our one-to-one school and its use is embraced for all.”

Keyboarding instruction begins in kindergarten, and starting in third grade, students keep a digital portfolio using Google Sites. Teachers stay in touch using Google Classroom, as well as teacher Web pages and group texting. Posts on the Weiner Elementary Facebook page can reach more than 4,000 people and the page has more likes than the town of Weiner has residents.

In addition to technology, Weiner also sets the curve in academic areas. All students at Weiner Elementary are taught Spanish (by a native speaker) five days a week, and fifth- and sixth-graders can elect to take Spanish I or II for high school credit. The Social Studies/History curriculum includes a study of Arkansas history in every grade. And even though visual and musical art is continually incorporated in project-based curricula classes, all students still take a music theory class every week.

Instructionally, Weiner Elementary uses a tiered approach to keep all students in every course progressing: those at grade level as well as those working below or above it. Any students needing remediation are tutored, individually or in small groups, at least three times per week.

Weiner Elementary focuses on foundational educational tenets and proven principles like the importance of relationships, the link between self-esteem and achievement, and the need for cultural awareness beyond a small town’s city limits.

Every day starts with a morning assembly, where students recite the pledge of allegiance and sing the national anthem. The assembly also features lessons centered around the artist, musician and place of the week, as well as a Spanish word of the day and a daily “face of creativity.”

Weiner has a long history of support by its local residents and parents, which is arguably the primary factor in school success.

“The work, time, and money given by community and family members demonstrate to the students the importance that adults place on their education, which in turn influences students to value their education,” its application proclaims.

Over the course of a century and more, Weiner alums fervently support the school that served them, their parents and even their grandparents so well.

There wouldn’t still be a Weiner Elementary if not for that undying local effort and commitment. As a National Blue Ribbon Award recipient, what a loss that would have been for Arkansas.

Indeed, some of the best gains to be made in state public education might come from reopening great community schools that were foolishly consolidated and closed.

I’ll say it again: Wherever the state can replicate Weiner’s formula, it should do so.

Pre-K’s pre-emptive power

There are few statistical slam-dunks in public policy.

Most social issues have multidimensional complexity comprising various factors, each with the singular capacity to wildly skew analysis—and thus skewer the effectiveness of social programs designed to solve them. That’s why some programs wind up doing the exact opposite of their intended purpose, and making things worse.

Occasionally, however, an idea materializes whose time has not only come, but also arrives accompanied by great opportunity.

Pre-kindergarten education is that idea, and the time and place to seize national leadership on it is Arkansas 2016.

For some (and perhaps for many), “preschool” has knee-jerk connotations derived from the general partisan politicization surrounding education issues. That reflex is a hindrance to clear thinking. Even the slightest deliberation over the factual realities suggest that support for more pre-K funding is simply smart common sense.

Here are a few ways high quality pre-K reduces costs and returns to society, by some analytical estimates, up to $16 for every $1 in program cost.

It produces staggering results in lowering crime. Good luck finding any single public initiative with demonstrated reductions of arrests and sentencing among low-income teens and twentysomethings that can rival those achieved by pre-kindergarten enrollment.

The criminals 20 years from now are today’s toddlers, and research from the Perry Preschool Study (which followed subjects through age 40) showed enormous reductions in criminality from high-risk children who participated in a high-quality pre-K program. At age 40, the pre-K students had been sentenced for a crime 46 percent less often than their peers in a control group who did not attend pre-K. The pre-K group also had a 33 percent lower arrest rate for violent crimes. The drop in drug-crime arrests for the pre-K students was a remarkable 58 percent.

Reductions of that magnitude are almost unimaginable in a day and time in which a 3 or 4 percent drop in crime rates makes headlines. And here in Arkansas we suffer some disproportionate victimization in some violent categories.

If you’re anti-crime, you should be pro-preschool.

It focuses on reading readiness. Literacy is absolutely fundamental to learning, and we know that if a child arrives at kindergarten behind on his letters, he’s unlikely to ever catch up. Nearly nine out of 10 (88 percent) poor readers in the first grade are still poor readers in the fourth grade, according to Pew Charitable Trusts data. And 75 percent of poor third-grade readers turn into poor high school readers.

Model pre-K programs have curricula that ready students for reading so they don’t start out behind. I’m a believer that all real learning starts with reading, and the earlier a child becomes a good reader, the better that child will do in school. In a state like Arkansas that gets double-whammied by high child poverty and low child literacy rates, pre-K spells extraordinary potential.

If you’re pro-reading, you should be pro-preschool.

It encourages better parenting. One of the requirements for a quality pre-K program is interactivity and feedback from parents, at a more involved level than a typical often-skipped parent-teacher conference in regular school. High-risk children often come from troubled family environments, and pre-K can introduce some measure of stability for them.

Research data also show that pre-K students in high-risk categories benefited later in life as parents themselves: Pre-K female participants in studies had significantly fewer teen pregnancies and fewer abortions.

Pre-K participants in the Perry School Study at age 40 were four times more likely to do volunteer community work than the control group.

If you’re pro-family and pro-life, you should be pro-preschool.

It leads to better employment and earning power. Farsighted business leaders and organizations across the country are recognizing the significant difference pre-K programs can make in the later working lives of children. They know the toddlers of today will be the emerging work force 20 years from now, and they view pre-K as particularly relevant in economically depressed areas as a job-training factor.

The studies show higher employment and wages among low-income children who attend pre-K, and the Perry data featured a 36 percent increase in median annual earnings at age 40.

So chambers of commerce are lining up in support, as reported in Jonesboro last week, where the number of pre-K students and classes in the Jonesboro Public School district have doubled since 2004—and there’s a waiting list.

If you’re pro-business, you should be pro-preschool.

Pre-K kids are better prepared for K-12. In some respects, all the previous benefits are icing on the primary purpose cake. At the heart of quality pre-K is its highly demonstrated ability to help kids do better in school, especially those also confronted with poverty.

Unlike so many social-engineering ideas, pre-K offers proven results—provided that key quality indicators are in place: qualified teachers, small classes, effective curricula, systematic parental interaction.

There are lobbies, special interests and political opportunists who all hope to make a football of pre-K for their own ends. But it need not be partisan, nor even a public/private issue.

It’s just a good idea in general, and a great idea for a state like Arkansas.

Remediation ruminations

Maybe you saw the jubilant news in the paper earlier this week.

Remediation rates for first-time students entering public colleges in Arkansas plummeted by 1.7 percentage points between 2014 and 2015, from 41.4 percent to 39.7.

There is some merit to the notion that any progress is always welcome, even if it reflects a statistical blip rather than real movement. But the four-out-of-10 overall remediation issue for Arkansans (which becomes six-out-of-10 for two-year public colleges with looser enrollment policies) warrants more than just tracking data and reporting the rate.

Remediation should be widely recognized as waste.

All states invest heavily in a high school graduate’s education, which presumably includes training to read and do math. So when large numbers of high school graduates can’t pass muster on the ACT test in reading and mathematics, it’s not just a problem for the colleges seeking to enroll them. The bigger problem is what went awry with the large sums spent on their K-12 learning.

Over 13 years of public education, Arkansas will spend roughly $122,000 on each student (Census Bureau data show an average annual per pupil expenditure in Arkansas of $9,394). That’s a lot of money, time, effort and other resources to turn out a graduating field of students every year where the majority hasn’t mastered reading and math.

And, as you might have suspected, Arkansas high school graduates struggle more than almost every other state.

Thankfully, we’re not the worst state at producing college-ready students. But we are far too close to the bottom for comfort—or for progress in an information-age economy.

Average per-pupil spending is just that: It’s the quotient achieved by dividing the number of students in a large public education system by the sum of all combined expenditures. That means it has little relevance in terms of tying specific student spending to individual under- or over-performance. Yet individually is precisely how students learn.

Teachers understand this. Education bureaucrats and analysts often forget it.

When 40 percent overall of first-time students at Arkansas public colleges and universities need remediation, that’s simultaneously a system failure and also a huge number of classroom failures.

Teachers can tell us what’s not working in classrooms, but they’re not being asked in any formal or strategic way. Yet purely systemic reforms exclusive of refocused teacher-student dynamics will never produce solutions.

Let’s translate the situation to something familiar. Who would continue to patronize a restaurant where four out of 10 meals were unpalatable? Or buy groceries at a store where four out of 10 items were spoiled?

We’ve grown numb to a situation in which four out of 10 high school graduates are unable to read, write and do arithmetic at basic college entry levels.

And that’s just those trying to go to college. We have no idea of the reading and math proficiencies of high school graduates who don’t enroll in higher education courses, but it’s hard to imagine it would improve the average.

And while most other states have lower remediation rates, we must beware the fallacious instinct to merely try and emulate them. It’s silly to copy another state’s policies and practices if that state is too dissimilar—socioeconomically, demographically, geographically—from Arkansas.

We’re still a primarily rural state, with high child poverty rates. Bedrock research has indicated smaller schools serve such populations more effectively, but we’ve spent the better part of the last decade shutting them down. Like others, we’ve thrown money at education in response to red herring alarmists. But unlike wealthier states, we can ill afford such waste and our students have suffered profoundly as a result.

There’s a fundamental grass-roots element to education that must be nurtured, not ignored. The true common core of learning isn’t testing standards—which only measure outcomes after the fact—but the age-old foundations that mightily affect input and effort: family and community.

The state never really provides an education. All it can provide is the opportunity and the tools for the people to educate themselves. It’s the old “lead a horse to water” concept; learning can no more be force-fed than it can be injected like a vaccine.

Education is a joint effort, requiring essential responsibilities among parents. It’s a rare school that can overcome the challenges created by a community that collectively fails at parenting its children.

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson from two centuries ago this very year, if a society expects to educate children, independent of parental involvement, it expects what never was and never will be.

Remediation is a red flag, all right. But repairing the problem with college refresher courses is expensive and ineffective. K-12 reform is required, and it must do two things: empower teachers and address parents’ responsibilities.

My apologies

Last week, I misspoke when I claimed that ride-sharing phenomenon Uber served only Fayetteville and Little Rock, as a reader/rider in Northwest Arkansas promptly reminded me.

She said there was “Ubering aplenty” going on in Rogers, Bentonville, Bella Vista and Springdale.

I’m glad to hear it, and glad to set the record straight.

Reminisce and restore

There’s no way to know how many of the 3.7 million readers of the magazine Reminisce live in Arkansas. But with our state’s nature and demographics, I’d venture to say we’re well-represented.

The bimonthly periodical calls itself “America’s Family Album,” a reference to its user-generated content format in which people submit photos and accompanying stories from times past for inclusion.

Reminisce categorizes those submissions by decade generally (it lumps 1900-1920s together) up through the 1980s.

Considering I don’t recall ever hearing about the magazine till last week, I was surprised at its readership. Its paid subscriber base lands it at No. 95 on the list of the largest magazines by circulation in the U.S.

In a guessing game about the top five magazines, I doubt many would win. A pair of AARP publications (The Magazine and Bulletin) crown the list, followed by Costco Connection and GameStop’s GameInformer. It’s only in fifth place that a popular old-name magazine appears—Better Homes and Gardens—and then the next five are all familiar titles: Reader’s Digest, Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, National Geographic and People.

Reminisce is published by Trusted Media Brands Inc., which until September of last year you would have recognized as the Reader’s Digest Association.

I came across Reminisce by looking over a hard-bound anthology the magazine puts out. My uncle had bought it as a gift for a far-off relative, but let me borrow it for a few days first.

History by snapshot and anecdote is always interesting. The entries come from all over, representing all the states and all the communities from urban and suburban to small-town and rural. There’s no preconceived purpose, no grand scheme to shape times or events. Like a true album, the photos themselves tell most of the stories. It’s a picture book worth many thousands of words.

The book divides its pictures from the past into 10 easily identifiable chapters, covering predictable areas like childhood, travel, love, home life, work and holidays.

One of the fascinating facets of flipping through 200 pages, spanning more than 80 years of amateur photography, is seeing how prominently the common thread of human nature presents itself. A smile is as broad and bright in 1916 as it is today. A wedding kiss is as passionate, children playing are as cute. Scenes and fashions change (boy, do they) but the looks people give don’t. A lover’s gaze, a joker’s hearty laugh, a father’s beaming countenance, a mother’s tender eyes; across the decades and across the states, the core expressions are constants.

I paused in the “Growing Up” chapter to pay particular attention to the “School Days” section.

Just as some things have stayed the same, others have changed radically—and not always for the better.

Last month, right before school let out for Christmas, a student at North Little Rock High School belligerently disobeyed his teacher. After refusing the male teacher’s order to go to the hall, the 18-year-old male student challenged the teacher (“I dare you,” he said, as the teacher reached to push the office call button).

The student then lit up a cigar in class, walked up to within inches of the teacher, and provocatively blew smoke right in his face. The incident was filmed by a classmate.

There’s no way to know how many of the more than 593,000 viewers of that video posted on YouTube are from Arkansas. But given the news coverage, it’s reasonable to assume many are probably from somewhere else. Throughout the 10-second video, other students are heard giggling, applauding and whooping jubilantly.

Incredibly, the teacher—who deserves a Congressional Medal of Honor for restraint—maintained a professional demeanor throughout.

The so-called student (reportedly tossed from class three times already this school year for causing trouble) maintained a disrespectful attitude throughout, smugly saying “I’ll be back” as he was hauled out of class.

He shouldn’t be.

Asking teachers to impart learning without the authority to exact discipline from students is asking too much. Education isn’t a right without responsibility (no rights are). And students who would rather disrupt class than learn don’t belong in classrooms. Where else they belong is a matter for society and government, but not for schools, which ought to just kick them out.

Discipline is a requirement for all learning. Too many non-teachers, and especially irresponsible parents, would rather pretend otherwise.

Just looking at some of the teachers in the old photos from Reminisce, I believe that if a similar situation had occurred in the time of Teddy Roosevelt or Ike, things would have gone down differently.

Not only would the teacher have felt completely comfortable responding in a more physical and forceful way, but most everybody would have sanctioned and supported that response.

Keeping an undisciplined, disruptive kid in class doesn’t make him better. Just like in the video, it makes all the other kids worse.

We shouldn’t just reminisce about how orderly American schools once were, when literacy was higher and crime was lower. We should actively seek to restore that environment.

When we do, we’ll see a lot of improvement in other areas as well.

When grades don’t grade

Ever since the federal government began requiring states to devise rating systems for their schools, educators across the country have faced a tall order: How to accurately and comprehensively measure school “quality” in a meaningful but also simple enough way for parents to understand and use.

I’m not sure any states have risen to the challenge, but I am convinced that Arkansas’ latest effort, which assigns a single letter grade to schools instead of phrases like “needs improvement,” used last year, falls short.

The letter-grade rating idea is of the “sounds good, works bad” variety that confuses simple with simplistic. The two words differ by only a few letters, but their meanings couldn’t be farther apart.

“Simple” means easily understood. “Simplistic” means treating something complex as though it were simple.

Everybody understands letter grades, right? (Simple)

So let’s use letter grades to rate school quality! (Simplistic)

I wish it were so easy.

The pool from which students are drawn is anything but uniform.

Does anyone really believe that taking one test score on one day for a student population, even weighting for achievement gaps and growth and graduation rates, can possibly produce a single letter grade that represents the totality of a school’s learning environment and opportunity?

In principle, the idea of accountability is crucial to improving schools, and because it consumes billions of dollars in our meager Arkansas budget, we need efficiency in education more than wealthy states might.

But in practice, a letter-grading system is worse than worthless if it not only fails to accurately rate schools, but actually misrates them. A raging complaint in other states has been that good schools get bad grades, and vice versa, because the simplistic approach doesn’t measure school quality as much as it reflects student demographics.

Even adjusting for gaps in target achievement groups can skew results, because more homogeneous schools—rich or poor—get punished less than larger and more diverse ones that have populations with both rich and poor.

According to the data posted Wednesday, there are no “A” high schools in Craighead County.

That will be news to many parents who have students enrolled at one of the county’s nine public high schools.

Technically, the data only tell us there are no high schools whose students scored high enough on math and literacy tests last year to push their point total to 270 or above in the scoring model.

Practically, then, the “school rating” should be called something less global, like maybe the “school math and literacy test score rating.”

As a parent who spent significant time over several years at the Academies at Jonesboro High while my five children attended, as well as other city and county schools and also other 6A-East conference schools, talking to other parents, it’s a miscarriage of grading to say none of them is good enough to earn an A.

I’ll never forget when I got the half-inch-thick curriculum syllabus during sophomore orientation for my oldest daughter—it looked more like what I’d expect from a small college.

Jonesboro holds an academic signing day each year, honoring students whose discipline and study have earned them scholarships. Just like the athletic versions, prestigious universities—like Vanderbilt, Tulane and Yale—were snatching up JHS grads for medicine, engineering, music, art, and more.

The scholarship totals are always staggering ($7.9 million in 2014), but even more impressive are the recognitions of National Merit Finalists, Band All-Americans, Arkansas Governor’s Distinguished Scholars, even a Presidential Scholar one year.

Few high school theater departments anywhere attempt productions of Broadway challenges like Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera; during my tenure as a JHS parent, students turned in triumphant performances of both.

I was continually surprised at the championship caliber of Jonesboro athletic programs. Last year five of JHS’ 15 team sports won state titles, and two others were runners-up.

One of the most telling examples of opportunity being a necessary measure for rating schools is from a student whose parents are friends of mine. Will Brandt is graduating this spring, and will be attending Samford University in Alabama, where he was accepted into the Clark Scholars Program.

That program provides scholarship funds for students pursuing computational biology, which is a new field of study that unites biology, computer science, mathematics and information technology.

Will had elected the STEM Academy (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) at Jonesboro, which uniquely prepared him for the Clark Program scholarship. He wouldn’t have had a clue how to fill out the application, he said, except for the computer science and civil engineering courses he took at JHS.

Other parents at other high schools have similar stories about student successes. Their point and mine is there are some fantastic public high schools, which shine in different ways in their respective local communities, and any rating system ought to reflect that rather than ignore it.

Even the state Department of Education warns against reading too much into the A-F grades, and encourages parents to talk to teachers and other parents and visit schools to truly evaluate them.

That’s great advice every parent should heed.