PAUL GREENBERG: Dept. of Educanto

Paperwork to the rescue!

What a load of educanto is being dumped on an all-too-suspecting public.

We have seen this familiar show before. Comments from all and sundry are being welcomed on success plans for each student being drafted by Arkansas' Board of Education and general obfuscation. No matter what the students' academic standing, each is expected to have his or her future mapped out through college, career, and the years beyond.

Why leave anything to chance or even the possibility that the kid might have a mind of his own, or could even change it as he grows into adulthood? Advanced placement classes, apprenticeships, internships, and career planning are all taken into account. Only the possibility of free will remains unmentioned and unconsidered.

Under the existing system, only students whose test scores are not up to grade level are required to have individual Academic Improvement Plans. Those plans consist of online forms that appear to require teachers and principals to specify what subjects they plan to work on with students who need help, how they'll work with them, and how often.

The forms are brief and to the point, and common sense would suggest that having such plans only for the students who are struggling would diminish the risk of those students getting lost in a wash of paperwork.

But common sense never stopped the Arkansas Board of Education from burdening teachers and principals with mountains of forms to fill out before. Now every student from the eighth grade on is to get a "success plan." Each such plan is "supposed to focus on the positive as well as those deficit areas" for students, says Courtney Salas-Ford, who's a lawyer--of course--with the state's Department of Education, which would have the rest of us believe that the future is as clear as its own crystal ball. It ain't, but that little surprise will surely be revealed as time goes on.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education will further muddle its language in the interest of sparing the feelings of school districts that fail their students. Districts will no longer be subject to such damning labels as "priority," "focus," and "academic distress."

"We don't want a system that moves back to the labeling that was so prominent during the era of academic closures," says Jay Barth, chair of the state's Board of Education. The aim of the newer, more polite language, he avows, is to kill the "negative" impressions left by the state's previous involvement with certain school districts. So if a policy--or an attempt at reform--doesn't succeed, why not just keep trying the same thing but call it by a new name?

So the levels of state support for failing, flailing school districts now have new names but their essential meanings remain the same: general, collaborative, coordinated, directed or intensive. There, does everybody feel better now that this sour new wine is being rebottled in old containers? The school district that once wore the mark of "academic distress" is now told to develop a "transitional support plan" in order to become part of the state's not-really-new program of accountability.

Under the old system, the state's Department of Education acted directly to improve schools with chronically low test scores or gaps in achievement. Under the supposedly new system, schools that were once identified as falling short of the mark will be called by a different name but stay the disappointing same.

It was Abe Lincoln who once asked: If you call a dog's tail a leg, how many legs does the dog have? The answer, Mr. Lincoln said, is still four. Because calling a tail a leg doesn't make it one. No more than calling a new system of classifying school districts an improvement makes it one. Counselor Salas-Ford explains, kind of, that the new system is "about working with the district and saying, 'What does your district need?' and really customizing that." Which could be anything from help with finding personnel to dealing with fiscal problems and helping maintain school buildings. In short, this alleged new system is the same as the old. Even if we're all supposed to believe it's different.

Low-performing school districts like Little Rock and Dollarway are still relegated to being run by state government rather than by their own locally elected school boards. The whole system really hasn't changed much since the 1980s no matter how different the names of the categories may be.

But here and there, glimmers of hope can be sighted. For example, beginning next year, all students in the state must pass a civics exam with a grade of at least 60 in order to graduate. At last, a specific, concrete goal instead of more empty educanto. Let us be​ thankful ​for small favors. They are a lot better than big, inflated phrases. Arkansas surely has had its fill of those by now. Let's hope.


Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 04/25/2018

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