Arkansas Advocates revisits the achievement gap in public education | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Arkansas Advocates revisits the achievement gap in public education

Posted By on Thu, Feb 19, 2015 at 1:57 PM

click to enlarge NO EASY FIXES: Report calls for more pre-K funding, among other changes. - ARKANSAS ADVOCATES
  • ARKANSAS ADVOCATES
  • NO EASY FIXES: Report calls for more pre-K funding, among other changes.

Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families today released a comprehensive status report on Arkansas public education that focuses on the mixed success of efforts to close the achievement gap. Titled "Education in the post Lake View era," it examines the halting progress made in student achievement since that 2003 Arkansas Supreme Court decision which transformed the state's school system.

Advocates calls for new investment in a number of areas, but prioritizes the state's pre-K budget, which has suffered from flat funding since 2008 (in other words, an effective cut). The group says pre-K's appropriation needs a boost of $14 million in the coming fiscal year, and an additional $2 million in 2015-16, in order to restore 2008 funding levels.

A cost-of-living increase for pre-K funding has been conspicuously absent from Gov. Asa Hutchinson's budget. During the gubernatorial campaign, Hutchinson sparred with opponent Mike Ross about expanding pre-K eligibility (Ross wanted to make the program available to far more kids), but he agreed that boosting the existing program's funding was important. 

"We need to fully fund our current program before we expand eligibility for additional students," Hutchinson said during the campaign. OK. But when will that happen?

The Advocates report covers a lot of other ground as well: teacher quality and preparation, teacher salaries, Common Core, facilities funding, afterschool and summer programs, parental engagement, discipline policies, school broadband, class size and on and on.

It would be interesting to closely compare the findings contained in this report with those in a similar document released only last month by Forward Arkansas, the new strategic planning partnership between the Walton Family Foundation, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and the Arkansas Department of Education.

The Forward Arkansas report is descriptive only, not prescriptive, while the Advocates report clearly states recommended next steps in each of the policy areas it covers. (It's also much more detailed.) Forward Arkansas will release its own recommendations later in the year, after it finishes conducting focus groups and other inquiries in Little Rock and other districts in the state.

The two reports have similar findings on student outcomes, which will be familiar to anyone who's paid close attention to education in Arkansas: Our aggregate metrics have crept upwards and some now approach the national average, such as 4th and 8th grade NAEP test scores. (The NAEP test is taken across state boundaries and thus allows for cross-state and national comparisons.) College-going rates and high school graduation rates have significantly improved. Other metrics aren't as forgiving — ACT scores have barely budged. The achievement gap — in regards to both race and education — remains large.

Yet there are also notable differences in their points of emphasis. For example, Forward Arkansas offers only this about the state's charter schools, in a section titled "Innovative Learning Models":

While charter schools are an option for Arkansas students and families, availability is limited. Fewer students in Arkansas attend charter schools compared to other states, with students in charter schools accounting for approximately 3% of the total number of Arkansas students.

The Advocates report, in contrast, notes the mixed record of charters in the state and the nation at large:

The 2008 Post-Lake View report indicated that high quality charter schools such as KIPP Delta can be successful in reducing the achievement gap. Much of the research, even by organizations favorable to charter schools, indicates strong variation among charter schools. Like traditional public schools, some charter schools perform better than others. ... Some are excellent and others have been closed because they failed to meet the terms of their charter, which in some cases meant students had not improved in performance. 

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