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The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores indicate that Arkansas public schools have nearly average achievement, controlling for student poverty, better than years back but not good enough. A new legislative session and Gov. Asa Hutchinson's second term offer opportunities to pass policies which over the long term could make our public schools among America's best.

As a longtime education researcher and first-term school board member, here are my ideas, large and small, to do just that.

First, given that Americans now routinely shout down speakers and call for jailing political opponents, we need constitutional literacy. Wisely, Arkansas requires high school students to pass the civics exam immigrants take to earn U.S. citizenship. Yet students take the test online, question by question. After a missed question, the software leads test-takers straight to the right answer so they can immediately correct their error. That makes this test too easy for students to take seriously: Make our civics test real, to honor the importance of the subject.

Relatedly, the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) should offer funds for school districts choosing E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge elementary curricula, with its rich history and storytelling, engaging literature, clear science and math, and emphasis on what U.S. citizens need to know in our democratic nation and multicultural world. (It helped with my kids, and can fit with state standards.) Some conservatives oppose Core Knowledge since Hirsch leans left and values immigration. Some liberals oppose it since Hirsch loves America and stresses constitutional values like liberty. Some educators prefer amorphous processes to Core Knowledge's concrete academic content. Policymakers should read Hirsch, particularly The Making of Americans, and decide for themselves.

Third, ADE should stress two key statistics in reports on schools. Grade inflation measures the percentage of kids with high grades and low ACTs, meaning they get good grades but are not college-ready. As former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote in How Schools Work, giving high grades for low performance is lying to children. Second, we should highlight achievement gaps at fifth grade, closing gaps in elementary school when each student has one teacher rather than six, with attendant diffusion of responsibility. Closing achievement gaps in elementary schools can help integrate high schools and society.

My last three ideas are harder. We need great teachers, and you get what you pay for. Teachers get summers off and nice benefits, but pay lower than in most professions. That worked back when sexism kept women out of those other professions. Thankfully, women now have (mostly) equal opportunities, but we have not raised teacher pay to match those opportunities.

Despite the political challenges, over time, I would raise teacher pay 30 to 40 percent, placing teachers above accountants and in the same ballpark as civil engineers. Copying other nations, which generally pay more, we could fund higher salaries through a mix of lower benefits, less bureaucracy, increased class size, and more money for education.

To get our money's worth, couple higher pay with higher standards. As Sandra Stotsky documents in An Empty Curriculum: The Need to Reform Teacher Licensing Regulations and Tests, teacher certification requirements typically assure only high school knowledge levels--they are just too easy. Stotsky developed challenging licensure standards for Massachusetts, making its teachers among the best in the U.S. Arkansas should do the same.

We must also hold teachers accountable. In education, an "improvement plan" means get better or get fired. Ask your local school board members how many teachers are on improvement plans. Even in school districts with hundreds of teachers, the answer is likely none. We terminate teachers for moral turpitude or perceived disloyalty--rarely for bad teaching.

My school district has made progress in this area, but then we have the resources for a highly capable in-house lawyer. Unfortunately, as Frederick Hess shows in Cage-Busting Leadership, in most districts administrators get virtually no training in or support for the unpleasant work of teacher evaluation and (as a last resort) termination. To fill the gap, ADE should fund our regional educational cooperatives to offer training and legal support in this difficult area. Teaching is vital, and our schools cannot soar if we never fire anyone for bad teaching.

Becoming the best won't be easy, but then nothing worthwhile ever is.

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Robert Maranto (rmaranto@uark.edu) is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas/Fayetteville, and serves on his local school board. These ideas are his alone.

Editorial on 12/28/2018

Print Headline: For better schools

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