Politicians should not set learning standards - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Politicians should not set learning standards

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Posted: Sunday, May 25, 2008 1:17 am | Updated: 11:10 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Make no mistake. Our education system in Arizona is broken, but not beyond repair. From high drop-out rates, to teacher shortages, to the failures of the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, we're in a mess of trouble.

Have no fear, politicians are on the case. Curriculum mandates, pilot programs and voucher bills are churning out of the Legislature like smoke from a bonfire. In case the blunt reality of the failures of these political maneuvers hasn't hit you yet, let me tell you as someone who has spent much of my adult life in education that they're not working.

There has been much coverage recently of a bill that I sponsored in the Legislature to renew the state's program allowing high school seniors to augment their AIMS scores. AIMS augmentation requires participants to achieve good grades in their deficient subject, take the AIMS test every time it's offered and seek outside remediation or tutoring in order to enhance their score. The program has existed since AIMS first became a high-stakes test, but expired in January, which is why it required renewal.

The renewal of AIMS augmentation was crucial in order to allow 6,000 hardworking seniors, many of whom have been victimized by our broken system, to graduate. Most students who use AIMS augmentation are bright and diligent. Many are even college-bound.

Augmentation of exit exam scores is necessary in Arizona for many reasons, but mostly because of our failures. I mean "our" in the broadest possible sense - our state, our government, our administrators, our teachers, our parents and our students are failing.

What's the fix? How do we stop failing? The politically popular answers range from drastically increasing funding to getting parents more involved in their kids' education. Both of these concepts and many others could be parts of the solution, but the real answer lies in one simple concept: Refocus our education system on student learning.

Accountability is the new overarching principle of public education. We want to hold administrators, teachers and most importantly students accountable. But who are the accountants? I'll give you a hint: most of them haven't spent a day in a classroom in years or even decades.

Politicians and political appointees have taken the reigns of public education. Test scores are no longer simply a measure of a student's ability to absorb information or understand concepts, they are now a teetering point on which the jobs of teachers and principals hinge. Because politicians (myself included) often operate in a vacuum, we want empirical data from which we can draw conclusions to act upon.

This virus of government micromanagement has even spread to the federal level in the form of No Child Left Behind. By 2014, NCLB will require that countless Arizona schools fire principals and teachers whose students don't meet standards set by politicians a dozen years earlier and 2,000 miles away. We wonder why our schools are teaching students to pass a test rather than understand the material.

This has to end. Student learning must again be the priority of education. We must leave the setting of standards and curriculum to education professionals, not politicians. We must stop pushing educators to teach to the test. Our schools should be charged with teaching students to think critically, debate intelligently and understand profoundly.

Rep. David Schapira, D-Tempe, represents legislative District 17.

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