Oliva challenges charter school leaders to strive for improved education standards in Arkansas

State's education secretary urges conference attendees not to indulge low expectations but seek excellence

Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva addresses the audience at the Arise Conference on charter schools at the Robinson Center on Tuesday, May 23, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)
Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva addresses the audience at the Arise Conference on charter schools at the Robinson Center on Tuesday, May 23, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva said Tuesday that Arkansas can do better than its recent ranking of 43rd in the nation in education for students in pre-kindergarten through college.

"We've got to know where we are so we can understand what it is we are trying to improve," Oliva said in referring to the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings in his remarks to almost 300 at the Arise '23 Conference of Arkansas' charter school educators in Little Rock.

He used the session to warn against "loving students into mediocrity" and urged that more middle school students accelerate their learning by taking algebra I and geometry -- as delaying those courses until high school "closes a lot of doors" to their taking some higher level math courses.

The secretary also said too many high school graduates must take remedial math courses when they enter college, drastically reducing their likelihood of completing a four-year degree.

"That's where their dreams of getting a college degree go to die," he said of the remedial courses.

He added that 65% of students who went into remedial courses in state colleges this year had a 3.0 grade point average in high school.

Oliva said he's been surprised by reactions from some who thought the state's education ranking -- which showed Arkansas being 39th for kindergarten through 12th grade education and 43 overall when higher education is included -- would be even lower.

"That makes me wonder what kind of expectations do we have around grade-level instruction and the belief that all students can learn?" he asked.

He said there must be a mindset that all students can learn and that all students deserve access to instruction on their grade level every day.

Improvement will come, he said, by pairing the instruction provided by "amazing teachers" with an aligned system of:

— High quality clear academic standards -- such as those recently adopted by the Arkansas Board of Education for mathematics and English/language arts at each grade level.

— High quality instructional materials that are based in part on the science of reading research.

— A strong assessment, or testing, system.

The state is discontinuing the use of the year-end ACT Aspire test in grades three through 10 as of this school year and moving to the Arkansas Teaching and Learning Assessment System, or ATLAS, being developed in consultation with the Cambium Learning Group. The new tests are supposed to be a measure of student mastery of state education standards rather than their preparation for the ACT college entrance exam.

"If we have clear expectations of what we want students to know and learn and we can hold people accountable by giving them the support and resources they need, then we will see rapid improvement in student outcomes," Oliva said, calling for everyone to work in partnership to create aligned systems for improved student achievement.

"I like to say that bad systems defeat good people every single time," he warned.

Since moving from Florida in January to accept Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' appointment to the Arkansas job, Oliva said he has been diving into school, teacher and student data to identify the teachers who are generating more than a year's worth of academic growth in their students.

The state collects the data that goes into the calculation of a school's numerical and A-to-F letter grade scores. His staff has worked to refine the data so that every district can log in and look up individual teacher performance, including those who are defined as high impact teachers because their students achieve at more than one standard deviation above the mean.

There are 27 teachers who are generating more than a year's worth of academic growth in their students in schools that are state-labeled as failing, he said.

He's visited those schools and teachers to find out what the "special magic" is that causes them "to move the needle" with their students. The findings? Bell-to-bell instruction, he said. Every student was engaged. The teachers were holding students accountable, and teachers were teaching grade level content.

"As adults that have to lead these institutions, we know who these teachers are. If you sort the schools by those with Ds and Fs, we have hundreds of teachers in D and F schools who are beating the odds. We are reaching to every single one of them. We are going to pull them together. We are going to get into focus groups with them. Find out what they are doing. What are the strategies that are working best so we can scale those out."

There's no intent to use the data punitively, he said, but the data can also be used to identify under-performing teachers in A-graded schools -- some of whom get the same job evaluation every year. Fierce, difficult conversations are necessary if improvement is to occur, he said.

"Are we going to let the status quo keep happening?" he asked. "Right now the status quo is getting us ranked 43rd. There are too many resources, too much talent, too much skill in this state to be ranked 43."

National data shows that 80% of students get As and Bs for their school work but only 20% of the work is on grade level. Are we setting up success when we water down expectations? Oliva asked.

"The educational house, I would say, in Arkansas has been a little bit misaligned. We are hitting the refresh in getting it aligned," he said.

The Arkansas Public School Resource Center hosted Tuesday's Arkansas Charter Schools Conference at the DoubleTree Hilton and Robinson Center in Little Rock.

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