Why are we ignoring the best news about Arizona teachers?

Arizona students are improving on national tests even when they shouldn’t be. Why? I’m fairly sure teachers have something to do with it.

Kirstie Rylon, a teacher with the Paradise Valley Unified


May 4, 2018

As the #RedforEd walkout rages, a few readers have told me that teachers don’t deserve extra funding until they improve performance among their students.

But that overlooks some of the best – and most ignored – news our public schools have gotten this year: NAEP scores.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is important because all 50 states administer the same test, making it possible to compare how students in, say, poorly funded Arizona are doing compared to students in wealthier Massachusetts.

And here’s the crazy part: some Arizona students scored higher.

Our NAEP scores have grown since 2009

That’s right. Arizona charter students outscored students in Massachusetts (and every other high-achieving, demographically advantaged state in the nation) on the eighth-grade math test in 2017. Arizona charter students came within a point of beating Massachusetts in 2015, says Matthew Ladner, a school-choice advocate who completed the analysis.

But wait. Before you roll your eyes and say, “Oh, here it comes. More district school bashing,” here’s the interesting part: Not just Arizona charter schools are seeing improvement.

Teachers and other supporters wait in the gallery to

ROBB: Arizona schools don’t stink. Why do we keep saying they do?

Even if you take charter students out of the equation, Ladner says, district schools are showing more academic improvement than many of their peers nationwide.

And not just in eighth-grade math.

He says Arizona is one of only two states (Mississippi being the other) to make statistically significant gains on all six NAEP tests – reading, math and science in fourth and eighth grade – since 2009. Nationally, scores have stayed static or slipped since then.

We’re improving when we shouldn’t be

But wait, the naysayers will say. Only about 30 percent or so of Arizona students, depending on the grade level, are considered proficient in reading and math on the NAEP.

And, yes, while Arizona’s best score this time around is in eighth-grade math, even it has slipped a bit since 2015, putting us on par with the national average instead of two points ahead of it. Our reading scores in fourth and eighth grade fall a few points below the national average.

Yup. You’re right. Even with the growth – and nation-leading performance among charter-school students – Arizona’s average scores have gone from gag to meh since the Great Recession.

But we’re improving at a time when, frankly, we shouldn’t be (and when few other states are, either).

Why? Good question.

Why? Not sure, but my bet’s on teachers

It’s not because we’re awash in cash, because as the #RedforEd walkout has reminded everyone, our schools most certainly are not. Nor are our teachers, which remain among the nation’s lowest paid.

Arizona can’t find enough teachers to fill classrooms, and 600,000 of its students qualify for free and reduced lunch. It’s not like the barriers to a great education have gotten any lower during that time.

Frankly, you’d think more education types would be striving to answer this question – and replicating what they found in schools all over the state.

 Teacher Taylor Dutro listens as protest organizers

We do know, at least, that effective teachers are more important than any other factor in improving student achievement. In my mind, NAEP is proof positive that Arizona teachers are doing something right.

That’s why this voter is ready to pony up my own cash – not just some rich guy’s – to restore school funding that was slashed since the recession.

Imagine how much progress teachers could make if they had the proper resources to do their jobs.

Join the Movement #iBelieve

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