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Arizona’s opportunity to Narrow the State’s Achievement Gap

We are at a time of great possibility in American education right now. With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Arizona has access to dedicated federal funding specifically aimed at supporting bold, innovative changes in our most challenged schools. As a former State Teacher of the Year, I see this as an amazing opportunity for Arizona to place emphasis on closing the achievement gaps across our state.

In November, the Collaborative for Student Success published a report ,“Promise to Practice,” which looked at what states were doing in their school improvement plans. After spending some time reading through this review of the state’s school improvement plans, as well as our state’s overall accountability plan, I saw some exciting opportunities for local teachers and leaders, as well as a missed opportunity to establish sustainable plans for supporting schools in disrupting the current racial inequities that exist.

Our nation is facing a teacher retention crisis. Discussions are common around this topic and much research has been done on teacher turnover rates and retention programs and initiatives, but in Arizona, this crisis has reached a breaking point. Although some efforts have been made to attract new teachers to the profession, a report by The New Teacher Project (2012) suggests that the largest concern is not that teachers are leaving the profession early on, but that effective teacher leaders are leaving years into their careers, which means schools are losing important mentors for new teachers and role models within the professional learning community.

Often times, inequities within and across districts are caused largely by high teacher turnover. This means our most at-risk students do not have access to experienced, effective teachers who can not only provide quality instruction, but also mentor less experienced educators. Knowing that the number one indicator for student success is an effective teacher, many states are developing programs aimed at both supporting new teachers but also retaining veteran teachers. Both are equally important in creating a quality teacher workforce and exposing students to role models. Arizona’s plan provides high levels of flexibility to district leaders to make decisions that meet the needs of their schools, but too much flexibility is not always a good thing. It doesn’t provide guidance on how leaders can or should be retaining their veteran teachers, which means the high rate of departure of veteran teachers could persist, doing nothing to improve equity for our most disadvantaged students.

It is this lack of consistency and guidance that is of most concern to me. Closing the achievement gap between certain student subgroups in our highest performing and lowest performing schools is the greatest equity issue facing our education system. Based on civil rights data released by the U.S. Department of Education, racial disparities in educational opportunities and school discipline still exists in profound ways across our nation. In an interactive report by ProPublica titled Miseducation, data shows that in Arizona specifically, white students are almost twice as likely to be enrolled in an AP class than African American and Hispanic students. Disparities exist across income levels as well: More than half of schools that received  an F had 85% of their student population eligible for reduced lunches, while a mere 3% of schools with that percentage of low income students received an A. Given that one way to improve school and student performance is effective teachers in every classroom, it is disappointing that Arizona did not explicitly address this in its plan.

This is a moment of great opportunity for Arizona. As a state, we need to build on the belief that teachers and local leaders can create the change we need to move our underserved students and their schools forward. This is achievable by supporting them to implement and share successful strategies and create structures to ensure sustainability of those strategies beyond the initial improvement year. Until this happens, I am concerned our state will not effectively narrow achievement gaps and provide all students with the high-quality education needed to continue the American dream.

Kristie Martorelli-Jackson was the 2012 Arizona Teacher of the Year. 

For more information, click on the references below:

Miseducation: Is There Racial Inequality at Your School?
By Lena V. Groeger, Annie Waldman and David Eads, October 16, 2018

The New Teacher Project (TNTP). The irreplaceables: Understanding the real retention crisis in America’s urban schools. (2012).