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Report from the Legislature – #35

July 12th, 2012 by

Greetings from the Arkansas Legislature! With health care issues, educational issues, lottery issues and game and fish issues, things have also been “heated” at recent legislative meetings!

I have also been honored to attend the summer work conference of the Southern Regional Education Board, known as SREB. You may recall Governor Beebe recently appointed me to its Legislative Advisory Council, and this was my first regularly scheduled meeting. (SREB is a compact between 16 states to research and share successes and solutions for problems within educational priorities and programs in these states. It was begun in 1948 and covers a wide range of educational issues and challenges within its membership.)

While the meeting covered many different facets of the educational field, one of the more interesting sessions involved a state-by-state “report card” that acknowledged forward strides made by each of the 16 states over the past ten years. Most of the improvements involved “narrowing the gaps” between test scores in specific subject matter areas. I’ll just briefly summarize Arkansas’ progress.

The percentage of 8th graders scoring at the basic level or above in math rose 12 percentage points to 70% in 2011. Rising 10 percentage points since 2003, 81% of all 4th grades scored at basic or above in math. On reading scores, 71% of all 8th graders and 63% of all 4th graders scored basic or above national achievement levels.

Arkansas actually led the nation in percentage point gains in 8th grade math. That is a noteworthy achievement. The bottom line is these score improvements indicate that many of Arkansas’ educational policies are bearing fruit and making positive differences with our young people. We still have a way to go though – and we are not alone.

Much discussion also centered on the high levels of remediation in Higher Education. Arkansas is not alone on this front either. I was surprised to hear general agreement that obtaining a degree in four years is fast becoming extinct. (I find this alarming! I finished in three years because of financial concerns. If I’d had to go two more years, I’d have had to drop out!) However, remedial coursework often fills a part of this “extra” time.

I again heard that the new Common Core standards should help this remediation problem. The theory for Common Core is based on the fact that states formerly set their own curriculum standards and implemented their own annual tests. More recently, educators have come to agree that math and reading skills should be the same whether in north Arkansas, south Arkansas, South Dakota or South Carolina. These same educational leaders have met and developed the Common Core standards.

These standards define the knowledge and skills all students should have learned within their K-12 educational experiences. The Arkansas Board of Education adopted them in July, 2010, and they were implemented in grades K-2 last year. Common Core standards will be introduced to grades 3-8 in the coming year in Arkansas schools. I encourage all parents to visit the website and watch the video found there to gain a better understanding of the “whats and whys” of the Common Core curriculum. I think you’ll find it enlightening.

While I understand that all of our students should be educated on a level playing field, I can also understand teacher anxieties over the “next best” programs that always seemed to pop up every few years in education. Having taught in the classroom 30 years, I have also seen many programs come and go. I have been told the Common Core approach to learning will involve even more comprehension skills, critical thinking skills, analysis/reasoning skills and writing skills that support/oppose debatable positions, theories, etc. While I thought the “whole language” approach several years ago also stressed these skills, evidently our students need even more of these thought-process and application skills as opposed to mere “regurgitation” of facts. Supposedly this aspect of the Common Core curriculum will help abate remediation while better preparing our children for success in both college and career educational endeavors. I sincerely hope this is true, for our kids’ sakes.

Lastly, I learned two new timely bits of news recently. First, the official word has come that Arkansas has just been given a waiver from the No Child Left Behind rigid mandates. This news should give our school personnel a sigh of relief.

Another piece of great news announced is that Arkansas will officially end its fiscal year with a $100M surplus. Furthermore we are only one of 29 states with that distinction and one of only 3-4 with a balanced budget amendment that mandates Arkansas CANNOT spend more that it has. Thank goodness for the Revenue Stabilization Act!

Although other issues are pending, it is time to close this report. I’ll save some for our next report. Thank you for your votes of confidence!


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