Friday, October 2, 2015

Diane Douglas' "AZ Kids Can't Afford To Wait" Plan

Posted By on Fri, Oct 2, 2015 at 4:30 PM

Thursday Ed Supe Diane Douglas put out her AZ Kids Can't Afford To Wait plan. It's 156 pages long, crammed full of ideas and reasonably detailed descriptions of problems she sees and changes she hopes to see. [I was on the Buckmaster Show today discussing the plan with Bill and Sarah Garrecht Gassen during the second half of the show. The first half had some interesting discussions about our state universities.] I've only had time to give the plan a quick once over, so I can't go into great detail here. But one thing I know. Douglas has been given an undeserved bad rap by the media. They've focused on some of her antics, mainly her ongoing battles with the state Board of Education, and not the indications that she's serious about Arizona education. Those antics are a power struggle, folks. She's not simply behaving childishly and suing people for no reason. She has a very clear agenda in mind, which is to increase her power and influence. Whether her tactics make sense or not, whether they'll increase or decrease her power and influence, whether we'll like what we see if she gains more power, all that remains to be seen. 

Here's what I've learned since Diane Douglas took the helm in January. She deserves to be taken seriously. She wants to change Arizona's education in ways that she thinks will improve things for students. Though I disagree with some of her ideas, I agree with a hell of a lot more than I would have expected. During the campaign for the general election, I underestimated her intelligence and gave her too little respect as a person. People need to take her seriously, whether they agree with her or not. And educational progressives should do what they can to create strategic alliances with her, join forces so that in areas where there is agreement, they can work together and maybe put together the public relations push and the legislative votes necessary to actually move the needle, even a little bit, so we improve the education we give to our children.

Remember Douglas' statewide listening tour, where she traveled all over and listened to people's ideas and concerns about education? Well, a funny thing happened. She listened. Lots of the ideas in her plan are the kinds of things that never would have come up if she sat around the office with her staff, or conferred with principals and superintendents. Many of the ideas are there, I'm certain, because she heard them again and again from teachers and parents who spoke while she listened—when she was in Tucson, Douglas spent a minute introducing herself and gave hours of time to people who aired their views at the microphones placed around the auditorium—and she decided that many of the problems and solutions she heard are worthy of attention.

Now, to the plan. I'm going to deal with areas where Douglas and I agree, and only some of them because 156 pages of ideas can't be crammed into a single post, and I haven't had time to digest everything in the document. I want to stress areas of agreement, where people across the aisle can work together. There's plenty of time to talk about areas of disagreement later.

First point, and Douglas puts this at the top of her agenda: she respects teachers. She wants more teachers and she wants better teachers. If there's any teacher bashing in the document, I haven't found it. Here are some of her ideas.
• Add $400 million to the budget to increase teacher salaries.
• Get prospective teachers into the classroom more often while they're still in college.
• Increase mentorship of new teachers by more experienced teachers.
• Encourage teachers to work in rural areas, where there are never enough teachers, by forgiving their student loans, allowing them to pay no state taxes if they make less than $70,000 and giving them tax credits for supplies they buy for their classrooms.
Douglas doesn't want yearly high stakes tests at every grade level. Give them in every other grade—3rd, 5th, 7th, etc.—or every third grade—3rd, 6th, 9th, etc. Give parents the right to opt their children out of the tests. And give regular, smaller tests during the year with a quick turnaround on the results so teachers get a quick snapshot of where their students are and can focus their curricula accordingly.

Redesign the A-F state grades for schools to lower the emphasis on high stakes test scores and give more weight to the quality of Career/Technical education, after school programs, STEM and social science instruction and—get ready—the quality of a school's art, music and PE programs.

There's enough meat in the AZ Kids Can't Afford to Wait plan to keep educators and concerned citizens discussing it for a long time. What will come of it? A better question is, what generally comes of good educational ideas in Arizona? The answer is, usually, nothing. Douglas deserves credit for using her bully pulpit to promote a list of ideas which deserve our attention. There's very little she can do to implement most of the plan without lots of help from others. The Ed Supe has limited powers.

I hope this plan will encourage the media and others to be less distracted by the antics of Douglas, the state school board and Governor Ducey and begin focusing on the substantive educational issues she has put forward.

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