Does Arkansas Have the Solution to America’s Public Education Crisis?

As seen in The New York Times
Sunday, May 7, 2023

Arkansas' Revolution for Student Learning

By Johnny Key and Dr. Robert Eaker

While many schools and districts in America remain caught in a quagmire of dismal student achievement data, Arkansas schools working with Solution Tree are experiencing an education revolution. The difference? Arkansas educators not only see the hope and possibility in every child, they have strategies and action plans in place to ensure each student reaches their full potential. Education thought leader Robert Eaker and former Arkansas Secretary of Education Johnny Key share their story.

The global COVID-19 pandemic was a unique stress test for the American education system. For nearly three years, it disrupted the cadence of traditional learning and has had extensive downstream effects on public schools. Among the issues that have been thoroughly reported and attested in the literature are rampant absenteeism, slipping student performance and poor teacher retention. The resulting loss of confidence in the status quo has precipitated an unprecedented uptick in homeschooling and left the public asking, “How do we fix public education in America?” A revolutionary approach, proven in the Arkansas public school system over the past five years, could hold the solution.

Improving Outcomes

In 2017, Arkansas State Legislature and the Arkansas Department of Education, in partnership with Solution Tree, began implementing the Professional Learning Communities (PLC) at Work® process. PLC at Work adopts best practices from private sector management consulting and relies on extensive educational, organizational development and leadership research to transform public education across the state; it has proven very effective.

Since its inception, the limited, application-only project has serviced nearly 100 schools that have demonstrated both their need for and commitment to following the process. Records show that participating schools experienced 31% less COVID-related learning loss (as measured by loss in letter grade points) compared to non-project schools. PLC at Work has also drastically improved student outcomes, reduced teacher turnover and resolved behavioral issues. Let’s examine two Arkansas schools that best illustrate the program’s impacts and success.

Case in Point

Bragg Elementary School in West Memphis and the Main Street Visual and Performing Arts Magnet School in Hot Springs are two schools that typify Arkansas’ success with the PLC at Work process.

At Bragg Elementary, 100% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and 10% are enrolled in special education programs. Despite numerous challenges, fifth and sixth graders saw tremendous improvement in their standardized test scores. The ACT Aspire assessment, which measures student progress toward reaching educational objectives and gauges their chances of remaining on target, found that fifth and sixth graders scoring in the “ready” and “exceeding” categories increased from 27% to 77% in math. During that same two-year period, the total percentage of students scoring in the “ready” and “exceeding” categories for reading increased from 12% to 46%.

Like at Bragg Elementary, all students attending the Main Street Visual and Performing Arts Magnet School qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. For years, the school suffered from high teacher turnover, underperformed academically, and saw as many as 29% of newly enrolling kindergarteners identified as needing special education interventions. After just three years with the PLC at Work process, the school saw a 79% reduction in teacher turnover and a 56% reduction in behavioral referrals.

A Tactical Approach

Inspired by postwar-era Japanese manufacturers, Professional Learning Communities at Work, or PLC at Work, emphasize the importance of collaborative teaming and local-level decision-making. Manufacturing leaders of that time understood that frontline workers — much like the modern-day teacher — possessed firsthand knowledge of the problems they faced and could devise exceptionally effective solutions if given the proper tools and support. Their leaders also learned to be rigid in defining their objectives but flexible in how workers achieved goals. With PLC at Work, guaranteeing academic success across every school district remains a critical goal, but now, so is supporting teachers differently and more effectively.

Leveraging extensive research of the most effective educational, organizational and leadership practices, the PLC at Work process equips and empowers teachers by providing a model wherein they can collaborate with administrators and school district officials to rethink the determiners of student success, set appropriate learning objectives and standards, and consider funding requirements. As a result, school districts more frequently administer common assessments to verify student understanding throughout the learning process and not only upon the conclusion of a learning unit. This innovation offers insight into student learning patterns and cognitive development processes.

Additionally, teachers can better address student behavioral issues and plan special education interventions by sharing and adopting best practices and forming robust peer support communities. Ultimately, educators are being empowered to place student needs at the center of their approach, and school districts across Arkansas better meet student needs through greater collaboration and increased knowledge and capabilities sharing.

Lessons for Other States

Perhaps the most important finding here is that despite decades of failed attempts at the state and federal levels, it is both plausible and possible to implement a successful statewide school improvement initiative. As public schools struggle to rebound from both pandemic-induced and other longstanding challenges, Arkansas’ implementation of the PLC at Work process demonstrates the necessity of its structure and provides insights for other states seeking to bolster collaboration between school districts and private-sector entities like Solution Tree.

First, bipartisan leadership is indispensable. The state of public education can be a polarizing subject. However, with the full support of the Arkansas State Legislature and administrative branches, the PLC at Work process was successful from planning to implementation.

Second, incremental change can be extraordinarily impactful. With just ten schools added to the program for the first several years, the state of Arkansas could properly effect meaningful cultural change. In time, the program grew more rapidly and saw a statewide educational culture shift beginning to take effect.

Third, buy-in from school administrators — particularly the principal — is essential. The concepts and practices reflected in the these extensive offerings can only be as valuable as the time granted to teachers for collaborative work and the level of administrative reinforcement.

Fourth, higher education must be viewed as an integral piece of the school improvement matrix. These institutions often prepare teachers and school administrators to help lead statewide school improvement discussions. In Arkansas’ case, colleges and universities were encouraged to begin teaching PLC at Work principles to future teachers as well as educators pursuing continuing education courses.

Finally, statewide school improvements may correlate with higher student-teacher morale. Simply put, educators want — and deserve — to be empowered and recognized as they perform a difficult and complex job. To achieve greater results, Solution Tree not only seeks legislative action, but also creates environments where teachers and students can thrive.

By Johnny Key and Robert Eaker

Johnny Key is a partner with Strategos Group, a national education management consulting firm. He served as secretary of the Arkansas Department of Education from 2019-2023 and commissioner from 2015-2019. Key was an Arkansas state senator from 2009-2014, acting as senate minority leader and senate education committee chairman. He also served in the Arkansas House of Representatives from 2003-2008.

Dr. Robert Eaker is a professor emeritus at Middle Tennessee State University, where he also served as dean of the College of Education and interim vice president and provost. Eaker has written and presented widely on the issues of effective teaching, effective schools, and high expectations for student achievement.

Start your education revolution

Now is the time to explore Professional Learning Communities at Work®, the proven process for realizing better student results and continuous school improvement. In this time of crisis in the American education system, hope is not a strategy. But when hope infuses the research-based, data-affirmed strategies of PLC at Work, it will be a force for positive change.

Fill out the form above to start your revolution.

Fill out the form below to start your revolution.

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