Education secretary discusses schools’ challenges, opportunities
For decades, Arkansas’ primary and secondary education system has been a sad tripwire to students’ success in many districts. The Natural State consistently ranked at or just above the bottom of the nation in quality of schools and instruction.
However, over the past few years, Arkansas has begun a steady march from the doldrums toward the head of the class and has the results to show for it, said Johnny Key, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Education.
“We have seen improvements,” Key said. “There are a number of areas in which Arkansas has become a national leader.”
It wasn’t that long ago the thought of any aspect of Arkansas’ educational system being a national leader, in the positive sense anyway, was little more than a pipe dream. And, truth be told, there’s still quite a bit of ground left to cover, Key said.
But strides have been made, especially in selected content areas, and at the heart of that improvement over the past five years is Key’s leadership. In March 2015, he was approved by the State Board of Education to be the chief school officer of the Arkansas Department of Education. Gov. Asa Hutchinson recommended Key for the position of commissioner and in 2019, announced Key to the cabinet-level position of secretary of the Department of Education. Key now serves in both capacities.
“The vision that we have here at the department that we established several years ago, is we’re transforming Arkansas to lead the nation in student-focused education,” he said. “What that means is, it’s not transforming education, it’s transforming Arkansas. We have to have community buy-in. It just can’t be left to the educators, administrators, principals, superintendents and the Department of Education to facilitate that transformation. We have to get communities involved.”
According to the University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy, Arkansas’ high school graduation rate was just 77 percent as recently as 2009-2010 and 72 percent for Targeted Achievement Gap Group (TAGG) students.
By 2018-19, AOEP reported Arkansas’ overall high-school graduation rate had risen to 88 percent; 85 percent among students classified as economically disadvantaged (the state abandoned the TAGG measurement by 2018). Last August, the governor noted graduation rates had risen 4 percent over the last three school years alone.
And while the state’s education system has yet to consistently rank outside of the bottom 20 percent of the nation overall, Arkansas has risen in such rankings with a growing reputation for excellence in selected subject areas.
“One of those, certainly, is in computer science,” Key said. “Since the initiation of our computer science work, other states like Texas, New York and California have contacted us to find out what Arkansas is doing to be so successful.
“From the number of teachers that we’ve been able to increase that are able to teach computer science to the number of students enrolled, I think that’s probably the foremost area where you can say Arkansas has really moved the needle.”
Key’s other success story — reading — raises eyebrows, considering how steep the challenge of improving literacy rates in Arkansas has traditionally been. Per the National Assessment of Educational Progress, less than a third of fourth grade students and just over one-quarter of eighth grade students were ranked proficient in the subject in 2015. Even scarier, only 39 percent of graduating seniors met the reading readiness benchmarks on the ACT.
To correct this, the state implemented a new pedagogy for teaching reading, Reading Initiative for Student Excellence (RISE), a system that reconfigures the science of reading and associated teaching methods. The first cohort of RISE-trained instructors occurred in 2017 and while COVID-19 took away the ability to test proficiency in the 2019-2020 school year, Key said schools are reporting the new program is having an impact.
“We know that the change is happening in the classroom. It will take a couple more years for us to get test results that demonstrate that,” he said. “But on the school level, they have data from their own internal testing that shows that their students are seeing improvements.
“In the next administration of the [federal] NAEP exam, the National Assessment for Education Progress, I really expect that we will see similar growth to what Mississippi saw. Mississippi is several years ahead of us in changing the way they teach reading and in the last NAEP exam, they had some of the strongest growth in their student scores. Actually, top of the nation. I expect that we will have a similar trajectory.”
Key also points to career and technical curricula as another win for Arkansas and a multifaceted example of how all aspects of a community can contribute to improving their local education system.
“The reality is there was a de-emphasis of career and technical education, probably sometime in the ’90s,” he said. “The push was wanting students to go get that four-year degree. Nothing wrong with that, but now we’re seeing the need for technical skills is critical.
“When you and I were in school, I remember small engine repair and wiring a model house in shop class. Now you’re talking about robotics. You are talking about learning programming languages. You’re talking about, as it relates to Arkansas, the technology used in agriculture. It is far and away beyond anything we encountered when we were in school.
“The type of work that is available will require some level of post-secondary education. We have opportunities for students to get that while they are still in high school, opportunities for them to get it once they leave high school and then opportunities for them to build those skills and upgrade those skills even after they’ve been out in the workplace. I’d say over the last five years, Arkansas has made great strides in making those opportunities available.”
Even as he lists these accomplishments, Key is quick to acknowledge the challenges that remain in bringing the state’s education system to where it should be for all students in all districts.
“It’s a work in progress. I can’t honestly tell you that we have solved every problem,” he said. “I can tell you that what we’ve put in place gets us closer to the solution. So much of that work has to be done at the local level. At the state level, we have to create those supports so that teachers, counselors, principals can then support those students in accessing those opportunities.
“We still battle some of the challenges of the past. I think there’s more awareness of what some of those are now. I think it’s harder to ignore some of those challenges from before, and we have to keep working at it. We have to be very deliberate in the work that we do to make sure we don’t forget those challenges and give students every opportunity to overcome them.”