Sunday, March 18, 2012

Arkansas Education Reform

Lt. Gov. Mark Darr
Lt. Gov. Mark Darr: We need education reform in Arkansas. What excites me is that many people realize this and they are acting to implement it in new and experimental ways and are seeing results. They are not waiting for some system-wide mandate to move forward. Both public and private schools are thinking outside the box and putting creative ideas to work and I hope we see more of that. Multiple efforts are being undertaken around the state to encourage reform through policy, funding, and grassroots awareness.

The Walton Family Foundation, based in Bentonville, is an outspoken advocate for school choice and has been funding efforts to promote education reform. Currently, 18 states and the District of Columbia offer some sort of private school choice option, either through tuition tax credits, vouchers, or education savings accounts.

A new grassroots organization has also emerged to advocate for school choice called the Arkansas Parent Network, led by Virginia Walden Ford, an Arkansas native and civil-rights leader who was instrumental in fighting for school choice scholarships for low-income children in the District of Columbia. They are seeking to inform parents and mobilize them to influence the debate on education policy in Arkansas.

But, school choice is not the only component of meaningful education reform. We need an educational system that is preparing kids for the workforce and is giving them the skills they need. The technology that is available to today’s generation is much more prevalent than anything our generation experienced at their age. It’s amazing how savvy kids are becoming in using technology at an early age.

The Arkansas STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Coalition, made up of professors, teachers, parents and other officials, is leading a statewide effort to encourage curriculum emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math. Grants from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation are helping to further these initiatives.

As parents, we want our kids to have the best options available for their education. As businesspeople, we want workers who are ready and able to compete in the job market. As elected officials, we want all Arkansans families to have access to a path that will meet these needs.

New education standards are being put into place in Arkansas by the state Department of Education. Fully implemented by 2014, the new system of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will integrate a new state testing program designed to better prepare students for their future. The standards will emphasize a more rigorous foundation in mathematics as well as increase focus on language skills in reading, writing, communication, and use of media and technology.

Individual schools are also implementing change around the state and I’ve been fascinated as I’ve visited many of them. This week I went to T.G. Smith Elementary School in Springdale. They have a new “outdoor classroom” where the students learn hands-on about science and nature. The school also has a “Schoolyard Garden”, designed to get students interested in agriculture. Students learn how to plant, grow, and tend a garden, and about the basics of crop development and farming. They even have a farmer’s market to sell what they grow and learn about economics. With fewer young people going into agriculture, I think this is a great way to get them interested.

All of these efforts should be commended. Innovation, creativity, and competition are vital to furthering education reform. We know that all of these things are good in the business world. They will work in education as well.

Tags: Arkansas, Lt. Governor, Mark Darr, Education Reform

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