Making the Grade in Education
|"For decades, Arkansas' education system was ranked among the worst in the nation. During the past decade, however, Arkansas has arisen from the bottom to provide its children an education that is competitive with many other states. Test scores are on the rise, and Arkansas students now have more educational opportunities than ever. How'd we turn things around? Better preparation, more challenging standards, and goals that were not only set, but met."|
For years, Arkansas maintained a low public education rank among states, often cited as 49th or even dead last in some cases, an embarrassing record of performance to be sure. Today though, Arkansas is recognized nationally for reaching a point where students perform well above the national average in a number of categories. Without dispute, Arkansans can point to an educational system not only improving, but performing as a stable and thriving one as well.
Thanks to the last decade of improvement under the leadership of Mike Huckabee, the future of Arkansas’ students shines much brighter today. Frankly, Arkansas' past is checkered. As recently as 1992, barely 23 percent of Arkansas students were performing at or above grade level in fourth grade reading. Even worse, only 9 percent of fourth grade students were performing at or above grade level in math. Only slightly more of eighth graders were performing at or above grade level in math. Arkansas students' ACT scores were stagnant and well below the national average. These figures were so alarming, the Mike Huckabee it his priority, and that of his administration, from day one to turn the education system around.
Mike Huckabee recognized positive and productive reforms could not be achieved without a clear roadmap. Beginning in 1998 with Smart Start, Smart Step, and Arkansas’ Comprehensive Testing, Assessment and Accountability Program (ACTAAP), he pushed through reforms resulting in a verifiable a path toward reforming Arkansas' education system.
Smart Start established a strong focus on math and reading at the elementary school level with well-defined, highly-educational standards. Mike based it on the premise that all students should meet or exceed grade-level requirements in reading and math by the fourth grade. Smart Start increased staff development, student assessments, and accountability. The true key to the success of Smart Start was accountability. As a result of his insistence on accountability, Arkansans now have the right and the ability to access those standards and see for themselves how specific schools measure up with other schools and districts throughout both the state and nation.
Smart Step furthered the components of Smart Start and expanded the requirements to all students through the eighth grade. Again, verifiable progress has been attained. Since 1998, literacy scores for the fourth grade NAEP tests have increased 7 percent, and eighth grade literacy has increased 3 percent. Fourth grade mathematics increased 21 percent and eighth grade mathematics increased 12 percent. Students in Arkansas now meet or exceed the national average in each of these areas.
Another major initiative was ACTAAP, credited with dramatically redirecting the focus of educational accountability in Arkansas. This program laid the basic framework and testing forming the foundation for the Smart Step initiatives. ACTAAP is based on the principals of rigor, clarity, and fairness, making student achievement the shared priority of all public schools, school districts, education service cooperatives, and the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE). It identifies successful schools and programs, encourages replication and reflection upon programs and practices while providing corrective actions and support from state agencies. ACTAAP consists of four components: Clear, challenging academic standards; professional development; student assessment; and accountability for schools and students. The proven success of these programs will continue to pave the road of opportunity for thousands of families in generations to come.
Each of these programs were accomplished with minimal increases in spending, mainly through redirecting federal, state, and local dollars to the single goal of driving as much of the money as possible into the classroom, not the school board room. Under Mike Huckabee's leadership, these were the first efforts in Arkansas’ history redirecting the focus of educational priorities to accountability and an efficient use of educational dollars.
Increasing teacher pay was the centerpiece of Mike's legislative package as he approached the 2001 legislative session. When he signed into law Act 1456 of 2001, he accomplished just that. This law mandated a $3,000 teacher pay raise in the following two years. His subsequent legislative initiatives continued in that direction, ensuring teachers in Arkansas are now some of the highest paid in the region, according to a recent survey by the Southern Regional Education Board.
Even with these advances, Mike recognized more could and should be done. It was clear that Arkansas' high schools were slipping further behind. His next idea evolved into the first phase of the Next Step program. This program mandated a dramatic overhaul of the high school experience, designed to properly prepare teenagers for college or work after graduation. With implementation of first phase of Next Step, Arkansans witnessed a new sense of focus on the rigor and relevance of the high school curriculum.
In spite of these major reforms, Arkansas faced a major hurdle in 2003. The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled education must be funded first and foremost in the state’s budget and furthermore, the state must provide access to an adequate education for every school-aged child. In response to this mandate, Mike Huckabee worked tirelessly to provide authority for ADE to provide immediate intervention in schools found chronically failing. Dramatically, this authority would include the ability of the state to take over local school boards in extreme cases.
Arkansans still faced with the challenge to “adequately” fund education. With Mike Huckabee leading the way, Arkansas legislators utilized a major portion of the state budget surplus to increase funding for all K-12 elementary education. With his leadership, Arkansas increased funding and now has established a stable funding mechanism for all school districts. In fact, public school funding saw a 34 percent increase in three short years.
Through his work with the National Governors Association, the Smart Core curriculum was developed, becoming the second phase of the Next Step program. For the first time, minimum curriculum levels are mandated to require four years of grade-level English and math, and schools are required to actually teach a core set of 38 courses through the high school years. Arkansas was among the first states in the nation to adopt such progressive standards.
To further strengthen the curriculum available to all students, Arkansas law now mandates each high school to offer Advanced Placement classes in English, mathematics, science, and social studies no later than the 2008-09 school year. Happily, many of schools already meet or exceed this requirement, and we dramatic improvements are already being recorded.
Earlier this year, Arkansas received some tremendously encouraging news regarding our state’s best and brightest students. Improving education in Arkansas just stop with K-12 primary education; Mike also worked diligently to ensure Arkansans could access best colleges and universities in the region. His goal was an ability to compete and hold our students in Arkansas.
One reform was increasing the family income limit on the Academic Challenge Scholarship program providing more Arkansas students the opportunity to attend college. Mike was a leader in creation of the Governor’s Scholars Program, resulting in allowing 95 percent of the state’s best and brightest students to stay in Arkansas. College enrollment has risen, as well as retention rates during his decade of leadership.