Columns » Max Brantley

We are doing better

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Anyone who’s lived in Arkansas for very long is no stranger to our deeply ingrained inferiority complex. This seems especially true when it comes to education.

Over the decades, we have become so used to falling on the low end of the scale that we find it hard to believe that we can do better.

Well, it’s time that we begin lifting our chins, throwing back our shoulders and expressing pride in what’s being accomplished in our state. We are doing better.

As I tell the state’s education community every chance I get, step outside our borders and Arkansas is repeatedly being recognized as a leader in meaningful education reform.

Consider these examples:

Arkansas is a pioneer in instigating meaningful high school reform. Research shows that students — whether they are going to college or straight to the workplace — require the same skill and knowledge base to succeed in either arena. Our state was one of the first to implement a rigorous, default high school curriculum. We call it Smart Core, and it entails four years of grade-level English as well as four years of mathematics courses that must include a sequence of Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II and a fourth, higher-level course. We were one of the first two states to implement this math sequence; other states are now following suit. The National Governors Association, the Gates Foundation and Achieve Inc. have recognized these efforts by bestowing on Arkansas both accolades and grants.

Arkansas is also leading the way in its use of technology, both in the classroom and as an instrument of tracking and improving student achievement. This year we were ranked 12th in the nation by Education Week for the use of computers and computer data in education. We also are one of a very few states to have all 10 components suggested by the U.S. Department of Education for an education data system.

Arkansas is a leading state in assuring that our core classes are taught by highly qualified teachers — in other words, taught by educators who are certified to teach the content area. Right now, 95 percent of our classes are taught by teachers with expertise in the subjects they teach. As for the state’s policies regarding teacher quality this year, Education Week ranked Arkansas fourth in the nation.

What’s more, recent reforms in Arkansas education have funneled additional funds to school districts. With those funds came increased accountability measures: School districts must show that they are exercising sound fiscal management, producing students who meet academic goals, meeting standards for accreditation and maintaining adequate facilities.

Not only are these efforts being lauded outside the state, they are producing results within. You need look no further than our students’ improvements on the state Benchmarks and the National Assessment of Educational Progress for proof. For the first time in history, Arkansas students now perform, on average, at or near the average student in the country.

And, no, we are not satisfied with average. But I’ve never climbed to the top of Pinnacle Mountain without first reaching the midpoint. We are indeed moving in the right direction — UP! — and we intend to stay on that path.

Ken James is director of the state Education Department. Max Brantley is on vacation.

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