(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
The Arizona Republic ran a fantastic story on their front page of this Sunday’s edition on Navajo schools in Arizona and the efforts underway to turn them around. The story shows how school grading, digital learning and immigration reform can help people who have taken a courageous decision to help themselves.
Background: schools located on the reservations in Arizona face enormous challenges and have truly abysmal test scores to show for it. Isolation, poverty and rampant alcoholism probably constitute the top three problems, though not necessarily in that order. Arizona has the lowest Native American scores on NAEP and they are not only abysmal they have been declining.
In K-12 policy discussions in Phoenix, the subject of “the Res” comes up frequently. Often people will claim that you can’t do this, that or the other thing because of “the Res.” Problems as deep as those caused in large part by a century of having the federal government “take care” of you don’t lend themselves to quick or easy solutions.
It is a long article that focuses on the personal story of Harold Begay, the Navajo Superintendent who returned to run Tuba City school district determined to turn things around. Here are the policy related parts of the story:
When the State Department of Education started assigning letter grades two years ago, Tuba City High School got a D.
It could fall to the bottom or head higher. Begay chose to go higher.When he was named superintendent, he pledged that the district would achieve the top letter grade of A.
Last summer, Tuba City High School’s grade improved from a D to a B. In addition to a better performance on standardized tests, the school showed more improvement than other low-performing schools. Navarre was honored at the state Department of Education’s office in Phoenix.
People are starting to believe what Begay told them two years ago”‘We’re going to become an ‘A’ district'”
As a card-carrying member of the K-12 policy discussion going on in Arizona’s capital, let me be the first to confess that not me nor anyone else down in Phoenix could have ever dreamed up the policy solutions that Begay implemented in Tuba City. That is as it should be – A-F school grading was intended to put a focus on problems and call them by their proper names. Solutions come as a decentralized process.
Most of the conversations I have heard about “Res schools” have involved a sad air of resignation. The article mentions that Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, who carried the A-F bill in the Arizona Senate and implemented it as Superintendent, became the first person in his position in twenty years to visit schools on the reservation. I don’t know whether that is accurate or not, but I think it is fair to say that if anyone has had a serious plan about what to do about reservation schools in Phoenix it has been well concealed for a very long time.
Read the article however and you’ll the solutions that Superintendent Begay developed on his own: a new emphasis on Navajo culture, hiring teachers from the Philipines and use of a digital learning platform know as Beyond Textbooks. Beyond Textbooks is a product developed by the incredibly impressive Vail Arizona school district, located at the opposite end of Arizona from Tuba City in southern Arizona.
Recruiting teachers to extremely isolated and troubled areas is a real challenge. Tuba City is 75 miles north of Flagstaff out in the middle of a very desolate nowhere. If you want a small vignette into the idiocy of our immigration laws, note that Begay is losing half of his Filipino teachers to expiring visas. We ought to be throwing these teachers a ticker-tape parade, but instead we’ve decided to boot them out of the country.
By the way, don’t hold your breath waiting for American nativists to rush to Tuba City to provide the instruction these children need. They are ummm busy, or something. But I digress.
Tuba City High Schools jump from a D to a B grade was possible because of the emphasis on student learning gains. Twenty-five percent of a school’s grade comes from the gains of the overall student body, and another 25% from the gains of the lowest performing quartile from the previous test. If you get gains your grade gets moving. Arizona will need to nudge up the grading standards in the future but for now the system just may be working as intended by meeting the worst schools where they are at the moment.
Tuba City schools face many challenges and have a long, long way to go, but don’t make the mistake of betting against them- they are back in the fight.