For too long, Arizona has been tinkering around the edges at improving schools when what is required is substantial reform, according to a Goldwater Institute staff member.
Dr. Matthew Ladner, the Institute's vice president of research and co-author with Arwynn Matix of "Fortune Favors the Bold," noted that Arizona's per-pupil spending has tripled since 1960, yet the National Assessment of Education Progress tests showed 44 percent of fourth-grade students cannot read at grade level.
"If you don't learn to read in the earlier grades, you're lost academically," Ladner said. "The result is students become frustrated and disruptive and start dropping out by ninth grade."
The Goldwater Institute is a Phoenix nonprofit that describes itself as working to expand school choice, protect private property and defend against unconstitutional federal encroachments.
Ladner praised Florida, which under former Gov. Jeb Bush created standardized tests, provided greater choice with charter schools, extended vouchers for special needs programs and allowed a tuition tax credit for private schools.
He also criticized the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) test. AIMS is addressing the problem at the back end when it should be intervening in the earlier grades, Ladner said. In Florida, students take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (F-CAT) in the third grade.
"AIMS ignores the fact that many students can't read and allows them to drift through until the 10th grade," he said.
In Florida in 1998, 53 percent of fourth-grade students read at grade level or better, while by 2007 that increased to 70 percent, Ladner said.
"I'm not bashing Arizona students but the results show we can do much better."
Another key to improvement is to start measuring teacher effectiveness. He recommended the value-added assessment, which requires a test at the beginning and end of each year and will identify the outstanding teachers.
Research shows class size does not have substantial bearing on achievement," Ladner said. "The current system is unfair and treats teachers like factory workers."
Good teachers are not evenly distributed and gravitate toward the better- paying districts such as those in north Scottsdale, he said. Creating more competition among public schools and with private schools will produce a quantitative leap in performance, he said.
Another recommendation is to eliminate school districts and move governance to each individual school, Ladner said. He suggested having each school run by a nonprofit elected board, with membership of parents who have a child enrolled at that school.
"We have a serious literacy crisis that will affect the future of Arizona because we no longer live in an age when a student can drop out of school and succeed," Ladner said.
Yuma County School Superintendent Tom Tyree said local governance should be paramount, but it must be kept in balance and he would oppose the elimination of school districts.
He also noted the difficulty of measuring teacher effectiveness simply based on a test. Tyree preferred to use what he called a 360-degree approach that includes how well students score on standardized tests, teacher observations, parent surveys and a portfolio that measures various teacher evaluation criteria.
Schools must be able to attract and retain good teachers to remain competitive yet schools lose 50 percent of their teachers within their first three years of entering the profession to another occupation where they can earn more money, he said.
"It is getting more and more difficult for teachers to buy a home at today's salaries," Tyree said. "We must begin to look at teachers as more of an investment rather than a cost."