K-12 Public Education Survey

The Arizona Charter Schools Association recently conducted a candidate survey on the topic of K-12 public education. Everyone running for public office in Arizona had the opportunity to share their positions on parent choice, charter schools, and improving K-12 education. You can read the survey results, including how candidates in your district responded, by clicking here. Or you can go to azcharters.org/2014-arizona-elections.

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A Radical Proposition

I’m a firm believer in accountability. I don’t believe Arizona’s K-12 education accountability plan is tough enough.

Yes, we require all our public-school students to take the statewide assessment. Students must pass AIMS to get into 4th grade and graduate from high school. However, students and schools are only accountable for math and reading. Furthermore, once-a-year “bubble-in” exams are incapable of measuring whether students can apply skills in “real world” situations. We do give 3-10th graders writing exams but experts don’t evaluate them. Pearson, the London-based testing company Arizona contracted with to administer AIMS, advertises in Craig’s List for $12 an-hour temporary workers to score tests (bachelor’s required). Results take several months. By then students aren’t even in the same classroom.

I’ve been assured Arizona is planning a new “super-test” (PARCC or whatever assessment AZ selects), proportedly capable of measuring higher-level thinking skills and providing immediate results. However, ADE estimates this new-generation test will cost $13.5 million to develop. Actual budget? $8 million. Implementation will cost $22.5 million – every year.

I’ve reviewed research, studied top-performing countries, and talked with countless educators…and, I’ve developed a radical idea. My plan ensures we have a world-class education system AND it stimulates Arizona’s economy by keeping millions of dollars in state rather than enriching foreign testing companies.

The Radical Idea: Instead of giving students a test in reading and math 1-2 times a year, I propose we assess all public-school students in every subject, multiple times, using a variety of methods. Assessments should be as close to real-world application as possible, measuring students’ ability to apply learning (orally, in writing, and in practical demonstrations).

To implement this system, we will need to invest in training a cadre of experts capable of assessing student learning. There should be a rigorous certification process to confirm we can actually trust these experts to with the important task of assessment. The process should include an apprenticeship with a master-assessor and perhaps exams to verify assessors possess the professional knowledge required to evaluate student mastery. I recommend ongoing training to keep these valuable specialists abreast of the latest assessment research. Our experts will be in high demand, so we should commit to ensuring competitive pay and working environments (lest they be lured into the private sector or to other states).

To summarize: my vision is for this cadre of experts to assess every child, in every subject, multiple times over the course of the school year – utilizing a variety of assessment methods. My plan calls for imbedding one of these experts in every classroom so they can timely communicate student growth directly to students and parents. We should enforce a statewide policy that no student moves to the next grade or subject until our trusted, embedded, highly-qualified assessment expert is satisfied the student has the prerequisite knowledge and skills for success. Between assessments, these skilled practitioners could even use their expertise to help students master core concepts. At each school, a qualified leader should be given the authority to supervise our assessment experts. I also like the idea of grouping schools geographically and providing a chief executive responsible for ensuring school leaders have the skills and resources to hire, develop, and supervise our embedded assessment professionals. For another layer of accountability, we could even elect a statewide Superintendent of Public Assessment for oversight.

I believe this radical plan is a practical, sustainable, effective method to ensure every child in Arizona receives a world-class education.

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College Completion Rates

The Arizona Board of Regents just released a new report “Percent of 2005-2006 Arizona High School Graduates Who Graduated from a Four Institution within six years by High School.”  This is the first time Arizona has had this level of data and it revealed some troubling statistics.

Arizona’s Class of 2006

According to the Arizona Republic, “Local education experts describe the latest findings as ‘shocking,’ ‘disheartening’ and ‘woefully inadequate.’ They say the low number of college-completion rates should be a call to action to better prepare students for college and to get more to finish their degrees at a time when an increasing number of jobs require post-secondary education.”

I’m not convinced the problem is a lack of academic preparation. Schools with the highest completion rate had families with higher incomes than schools with lower graduation rates. As I talk with North Pointe’s alumni, they tell me the cost of attending college (tuition and living expenses) is the biggest roadblock to attending school full-time. This class was 2 years into college when the recession hit and colleges raised tuition in response to the state cutting funding levels.

The Arizona Board of Regent’s report listed schools in rank order from the schools with the highest college completion rate at the beginning of the list to schools with the lowest at the end. The list is 33 pages long. Although North Pointe appears on the top of page 5 (116th of 460 high schools), with higher degree completion rates than the surrounding district schools, it was 17.8%, just under the state average of 18.6%. There were 45 graduates in North Pointe’s class of 2006, the last class to graduate before I became Pointe Schools’ Superintendent.

The report can be found at: https://azregents.asu.edu/Documents/AZ%20HS%20Class%20of%202005-06%20Postsecondary%20Outcomes%20After%20Six%20Years%2011-5-13.pdf

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The Standards Formerly known as Common Core

Governor Brewer recently issued an executive order directing executive agencies and Arizona citizens to refer to the Arizona’s newly currently adopted standards as “Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards” rather than Common Core. The change in terminology is an effort to refocus the discussion in Arizona because the term “Common Core” has become devalued by separate curriculum issues and debates about the role of the federal government in education.

The debate about Common Core is also growing to encompass concerns about standardized testing, the value of growth percentile scores, teacher evaluation systems, and school labels. While I have not seen anything yet in the standards formerly known as Common Core that alarms me, I am deeply concerned about the quantification of education. During my K-12 schooling, I learned many valuable lessons that could not be measure on a standardized test.

I admit it. Math has never been my strong suit. If someone had evaluated my 4th grade teacher based on my performance in math, she would be labeled a failure. However, she is the person who inspired me to become a teacher. I am thankful she took the time to help me discover my passion – something that state standards can’t quantify and measure.

I don’t have the answers on how to define a school’s value. I just know what we are doing now doesn’t capture many of the things I think are important. Math and reading are fairly easy to measure. School culture, school safety, friendships, role models, community services, leadership opportunities, personal growth, character, the arts, athletics, problem solving, and many other things are valuable but difficult or impossible to quantify. Even when we can quantify something there can be debate about how much value to place on different data points.

Of even larger concern to me is how the data is used. I vehemently oppose using student level data to punish (or reward) teachers. Student test scores only quantify what students are able to do at particular points in time. They do not indicate cause/effect and they are not the full measure of a student’s worth. Teachers are not lab rats. It is insulting to assume teachers require a system of rewards and punishments in order to be effective at their jobs. Teachers are not pushing levers. They are pouring their lives into people.

Our current method for grading schools in Arizona is based primarily (half the score) on student growth percentiles, guaranteeing half the students in the state are labeled “below average” (I do understand enough math to grasp the concept of percentiles). Since student growth is being measured using percentile rank, growth is a 0 sum game. If one student moves up, another student has to be moved down. This isn’t Lake Wobegone. All the children can’t be above average. The portion of the state’s formula reflecting the percentage of students meeting or exceeding the state standards has been reduced. It will now only be only a quarter of a school’s grade label. College and career readiness will be the final quarter although the state hasn’t determined what indicators will be used.

I am glad the Common Core sparked a debate. The questions being asked are important. The answers will shape the future of education for the next generation.

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Common Core

This week, Pointe’s principals and I are attending the Arizona Department of Education’s Leading Change conference. Most of the breakout sessions relate to the Common Core. During the session “Engaging Parents and the Public in Supporting Arizona’s Common Core Standards,” I realized I need to make sure our families have a basic understanding of this hot topic and voice why I welcome the Common Core. So, instead of doing my homework, I feel inspired to fill you in…


Education is the responsibility of each state, not the federal government. For decades, each state has developed and adopted K-12 academic standards, defining what students need to know and be able to do at each grade. State assessments (like the AIMS) measure whether students have met those standards. In theory, that system sounds great and I am a firm believer in preserving state rights. However, this disjointed approach to education is doing a disservice to our kids. Our society has become very mobile and an ever-increasing number of students change schools at least once during their K-12 education, oftentimes, mid-year. With such a range of state standards, incoming students are frequently “out of sync” with their new school. They can miss key concepts. For instance: schools in California may teach multiplying fractions in a different grade than Arizona or New Mexico. Imagine going to a new school where your classmates have mastered the ability to convert fractions into decimals and you didn’t even know that was possible! Leaders from individual states (including Arizona) recognized the problem and decided to do something about it. State leaders in K-12 education, higher education, business, and policy worked together for years to develop a core set of common standards in math and English language arts. The Common Core is the result of that collaboration.

What is it??

So, the Common Core is the new (and improved) set of K-12 standards for English language arts and mathematics. Arizona adopted the standards in 2010 and our public schools (district and charter) are required to fully implement the Common Core standards for the upcoming school year. The Common Core standards require students to develop a deeper level of understanding than the standards Arizona has been using for the past decade. The Common Core is not a curriculum. It does not dictate what books our students read.

The Common Core is more rigorous than Arizona’s previous standards. Teachers will emphasize students’ abilities to work with information….not just to have the right answer, but to have a deep enough understanding to articulately defend that answer.

Why do I like it?

The course of study at Pointe Schools was founded on the same premise as the Common Core – that all students should graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge to be successful in college, career, and life. We started with the end goal and worked our way down to kindergarten which is exactly how the consortium of states originally developed the Common Core (many other states have also chosen to adopt the standards).

I am a firm believer every educated citizen in the United States should know certain things – that cultural literacy is important. Based on this conviction, Pointe’s elementary schools have used Core Knowledge…E.D. Hirsch’s series “What Every First (second, third, etc.) Grader Should Know” (1991). The Common Core is an extension of that philosophy. It focuses on skill sets, what our students can do. For example: Can the student “comprehend and evaluate complex texts across a range of types and disciplines and they can construct effective arguments and convey intricate or multifaceted information”? (Common Core, 2010).

Pointe Schools has been actively transitioning to the Common Core standards for the past several years. We updated our math curriculum last year. This year Canyon and Pinnacle will implement updated English language arts curriculum. We provided professional development for our teachers throughout the year and will continue to provide support as teachers implement the new standards.

With the new standards will come a new assessment. AIMS will be replaced (and there was much rejoicing!!). The new test (PARCC) will be computer-based so schools can use the results (which is kind of the point, right?). I am thankful the timing for the new assessment works with our cycle for updating technology.

So there you have it! That’s the quick 411 on Common Core.

…and I need to get back to my homework.

Principal Rhone and Principal Smailagic thought I should put my homework comment into context. I am in ASU West’s doctoral program. I love the program and I am learning a lot…and I have renewed compassion for our students!

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Additional Security Measures

We’ve had many inquiries about the police presence on campus this week

As you know, we take our responsibility for the safety of your children seriously. In 2007, we secured North Pointe’s perimeter with a fence and created a single access entry point with a buzzer to gain access to the campus during school hours.  Many people thought we were being extreme at the time, but events across the country now have other schools following suit.

We will soon be installing additional security in the front office to replace the current sliding window. We had talked about this change in light of the school shootings in December but an incident in the front office this week accelerated the timeline.

Monday afternoon an angry parent began yelling in the front office. When the staff attempted to secure the front office by closing the window, the parent grabbed the window and attempted to keep them from closing it. Even after the window was secured, the parent continued to pound on it and yell as the office called 911 per our emergency procedures. Principal Gow arrived on the scene and directed the parent to leave but the parent refused.

The police responded and the parent left campus. However, the responding police officer took no action against the parent. In the current culture of heightened school safety awareness, this is unacceptable. We are working with our lawyers and through other channels to make sure the parent does not come back on campus. Until the issue is resolved, I have directed Principal Gow to hire off-duty police officers to have an added level of security for our students and staff.

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Phoenix School Safety Meeting

Today I had the opportunity to attend a meeting on school safety with Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, Phoenix Police Chief Daniel Garcia, precinct Commanders and district Superintendents from across Phoenix. I was encouraged to hear the call for a culture change in the relationship between schools and law enforcement.  Chief Garcia said, “We don’t go into schools unless invited. That is going to change.” He went on to share his vision to get police on school campuses more frequently. He also affirmed charter schools will be included in the increased partnerships between his department and schools.

Chief Garcia said schools also need to undergo a culture shift and move to limit “pedestrian” traffic in schools.  “We need to identify who is at the school and eliminate traffic that doesn’t serve the function of the school from an educational perspective or a safety perspective,” he explained. Although the Chief acknowledged parents wanting to eat lunch with their child or wanting access to classrooms may be resistant to new policies, he firmly believes it is necessary to limit access to the campus for school safety.

Pointe Schools re-vamped its parent access policies several years ago; however, we will be re-assessing them with assistance from the Phoenix Police Department’s Mitigation Team.

I had the opportunity to meet the Commanders in charge of the precincts for North Pointe and Canyon Pointe (Pinnacle Pointe is in Glendale) and will follow up with them in the next few weeks.

I am thankful for the Phoenix Police Department’s commitment to working with all schools to ensure the safety of our students.

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FOX News Channel Interview

I was interviewed at North Pointe this morning by Fox News Channel for an upcoming feature regarding charter school safety in the wake of recent shootings across the country. The following are some of the thoughts I shared about North Pointe (on camera and off camera.)

My Reaction to School Violence
We always try to be pro-active rather than re-active. We already had plans in place and we review them regularly. We are continually looking for ways to improve student safety. Sadly, school shootings serve as a solemn reminder of why we have to be so vigilant. We always try to learn from what happens at other schools. Yes, there are some changes we are discussing in light of the Sandy Hook shootings. (For student safety, I declined to publicly share specifics.)

Armed Security on Campus
The stark reality is short of posting heavily armed guards at every classroom door, it is impossible to guarantee student safety. Yes, I would welcome armed security at North Pointe. However, with 11 separate buildings there would have to be an armed guard at every classroom door. There aren’t enough Police Officers or Sheriff Posse members to do that for every school. It is an impractical solution. However, I have an employee who is an alumni and works on our North Pointe facilities team. He also serves in a Military Police unit for the National Guard and is currently deployed in Afghanistan. Would I trust him with a gun on campus? Absolutely! I would be in favor of any staff member who had training equivalent to a police officer or military personnel being allowed to be armed on campus. Arizona laws currently don’t allow it but it will be interesting to see if the Arizona legislature considers changes this year.

Police and North Pointe Collaboration
At North Pointe Prep, we’ve established a wonderful relationship with Phoenix Police Department Off Duty Officers. The officers we’ve hired for event security, investigations or for extra security during the day have taken a genuine interest in our school and our students. When we had a bomb threat several years ago, the Phoenix Police Department assisted us by recommending we hire off duty officers to conduct the investigation and provide additional security. We were able to hire off duty officers from another jurisdiction for a couple days until we could get onto the Phoenix Police Off Duty schedule. The officers we hired were very helpful over the two weeks they were at the school and we are thankful for their assistance. We have also been able to establish a great relationship with nearby district schools so we know when law enforcement instructs them to go into lock-down. We are still trying to be added to the list of schools notified directly when there are local safety concerns.

Emergency Response Plan
While Arizona charter schools are exempt from many of the regulations that apply to our district counterparts, the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) has stated all public schools are required to have an emergency response plan. The State provides a template which lays out the minimum requirements. As a public charter school, we follow the ADE requirements. I don’t understand why any school would ignore the these resources. It would be ludicrous for a school to claim state statute may not technically require them to have an emergency response plan if something tragic actually happens.

North Pointe Security
In Arizona, most schools do not have one central building. North Point has 11 buildings. When we moved into this campus, anyone could walk off the street and into a classroom. About seven years ago we re-configured North Pointe and our two elementary schools, Canyon Pointe and Pinnacle Pointe, so there is one entry point and a buzzer is required to enter the campus. When we first implemented these measures, we received a lot of complaints. Our students and parents said we looked like a prison. Now, our students and parents understand. After the recent shootings, North Pointe Prep did not receive a single call or email from a parent about the incident or the school’s security measures. Our parents get it. They know who we are and why we are so vigilant.

Students are Key
According to the 2002 Safe Schools Initiative report, in 80 percent of the school shootings, at least one other person had information that the shooter was planning an attack. Most school safety threats are from internal rather than external sources.
•       The communication we have with our students is important to us and is a vital part of keeping our campus safe.
•       Our students tell us when there is a concern. They know their identities will be protected and they know we take their concerns seriously. We have consequences for “failure to report” and we have been known to financially reward students for reporting. We choose to fight the small stuff so we don’t have to fight the big stuff.

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Querelaphobia – The Fear of Complaints

Every now and then someone disagrees vehemently with a decision one of our administrators makes and files a formal complaint. That is the right of every stakeholder and I support that right. However, sometimes people genuinely believe threatening to “complain up the chain” will force the administrator to make a different decision. Teachers across the country experience the same thing. Sadly, that is how our society currently operates. Decisions are made based on politics; not on policies, procedures, or what is right. A teacher interviewing with us asked how many parent complaints it took to trigger the automatic reversal of an established, approved classroom policy. The principal was stunned to learn the teacher was accustomed to being required to change policies if a specific number of parents complained.

I recently responded to a complaint dealing with this mindset and my principals thought part of it was worth sharing.

I do not evaluate my administration based on their ability to avoid complaints.

One of the reasons Pointe Schools has been so successful in providing safe educational environments is our strong stance on bullying…whether it comes from students or adults. Our faculty and administration are secure in the knowledge they are not required to accept verbal abuse or harassment from parents. Teachers do not have to worry about being undermined when someone complains up the chain. As long as teachers act within Pointe Schools’ policies and procedures and make decisions in the best interest of students, they know the administration will support them. Likewise, school-level administrators know their responsibility is to carry out our mission and to comply with state and federal regulations – not to make decisions based on the fear of complaints.

Most of our parents are thrilled with our schools! They rarely write letters to our authorizer but they verbally thank our teachers and administrators daily. Our full classrooms and waiting lists are also testament to their satisfaction.

Sometimes I forget how unique we are in today’s culture. Yes, Pointe Schools employees have accountability. They are required to follow policies, procedures and do what is in the best interest of our students. However, they are not forced to suffer from querelaphobia.

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School Safety

On behalf of Pointe Schools, I want to let you know we join the nation in sadness and shock at the horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT last week. Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone affected by this heartbreaking tragedy.

Our principals have received numerous e-mails and phone messages thanking them for the school safety policies we already have in place. I know our procedures can appear cumbersome and even come across as a bit neurotic at times. Unfortunately, when events like last week occur we are all reminded why they are necessary.

Pointe Schools implemented new school security measures several years ago and we regularly review, practice, and seek to improve them. Our current safety protocol includes monitoring all entry points during drop-off and pick-up, requiring proper identification before releasing elementary students, strictly enforcing our volunteer and visitor campus access policies (available in the Parent/Student Handbook), locking each campus immediately after drop-off, and utilizing a single entry system requiring a second person to remotely unlock the door to enter the school. Although events like last week’s are rare and schools are one of the safest places for children during the school day, it is a sobering reminder why we cannot allow our vigilance to waver.

Because of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, our politicians, the media and the general public are once again focused on school safety. This heightened cultural intensity will most likely lead to new ideas, new technology, new legislation and new accountability. However, new approaches to school safety will not alleviate the burden we carry with us knowing we are responsible to return your child safely to you at the end of the day. It is a responsibility we eagerly embrace because we love your children and we appreciate the remarkable privilege it is to influence them each day. However, it is a burden because it seems, short of armed guards outside each classroom, our ability to protect every student, in every situation, is impossible. As was demonstrated this past Friday, a secure campus with effective lock down procedures and the heroic sacrifice of life was not enough to prevent such tragedy. It is humbling to know you understand this and trust that we will do our best to prevent harm when possible and that we have plans in place that are intended to minimize injury and loss of life if a similar tragedy was to occur.

As always, thank you for entrusting your precious children to us here at Pointe Schools. We never take the privilege for granted.

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