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The Arkansas Board of Education will meet at 3 p.m. Wednesday to consider approving a revised set of state standards for accrediting schools and school districts that removes some of the existing specifics on class-size limits, course offerings and graduation requirements.

If the proposal is approved, the standards for accreditation document will no longer contain in one place most of the minimum requirements for operating schools. Instead, school district officials will have to rely for guidance on multiple sets of laws and rules, and on requirements routinely updated on the state Department of Education's website. In some areas, the districts and schools will have the flexibility to decide how to operate without specific state requirements.

The proposed standards, for example, list only the broad subject areas that must be taught in elementary, middle and high schools, such as English, math, and social studies. They do not specify that high schools must teach world history, physics, instrumental music, journalism, drama or other specific courses.

State graduation requirements aren't listed by subject and course in the proposed standards. The draft rules instead call for school districts to adopt graduation requirements and for students to acquire "a minimum of 22 units of credit for graduation as determined by the state Board of Education."

And while the current accreditation standards cap kindergarten at 20 children per teacher, and primary grades to an average of 23 children per teacher with no more than 25 in a room, the proposed draft standards simply direct school districts to comply with state laws and department rules.

A separate, proposed set of rules on class-size limits and teaching loads is pending. A public hearing on those rules is set for June 6.

Arkansas' accreditation standards are important to school districts because a school or district's failure to meet the standards over time puts the district or school in jeopardy of a range of sanctions levied by the state Board of Education.

The sanctions include directing a district to replace its curriculum or it leadership. A school or district can be placed under "alternative public governance," or the school or district can be closed down or annexed to another district.

A school's accreditation status or lack of it also has the potential to affect a high school graduate's ability to be accepted unconditionally into a college or university.

The proposed Rules Governing Standards for Accreditation are a remake of accreditation standards that in large part date back to the mid-1980s when then-Gov. Bill Clinton appointed first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and others to write new standards for the public schools.

That high-profile Education Standards Committee of educators and civic leaders wrote the set of standards -- almost a checklist or a one-stop-shop of minimum rules for school and district operations -- after holding public hearings in each of Arkansas' 75 counties.

Department of Education staff have been working on the accreditation revisions for several months.

"The proposed changes amend the Standards for Accreditation and seek to streamline the process, making the requirements that a school/district must follow in order to be accredited easier to understand," Arkansas Department of Education staff explained in the materials prepared for the Education Board's meeting next week at the Arch Ford Education Building.

"The changes include corrections/deletions based in legislation, removing inconsistencies in reporting dates and requirements, and removing obsolete requirements to ensure schools/districts are being held to measurable standards," the staff materials state.

About a dozen organizations and individuals submitted written comments to the Education Department in recent weeks about the new rules.

Some responders were supportive of the changes; others were critical or questioning of all or portions of the new document. Still others suggested clarifying language.

"This is a dramatic departure from what we currently have," Alma Superintendent David Woolly wrote to the Education Department. "In general it looks workable."

Cory Biggs, associate director of the Forward Arkansas initiative, complimented the restructured system the Education Department plans to use to review operations within a school district. He also endorsed "the increased focus on students' readiness for college and, particularly, for their future careers."

Forward Arkansas is a public-private initiative of the state Board of Education, the Winthrop Rockefeller foundation and the Walton Family Foundation to improve public education.

Tammy Long, who identified herself as a former Arkansas principal in comments sent to the state agency, said she was very concerned about the proposed new standards and that new principals will be confused by them.

"I fear the state is not providing districts with the necessary information for a baseline of governance," Long wrote. "This is a disservice to everyone! Students will not be receiving a good education!"

Jonathan Williams, a Malvern High School counselor, wrote: "Thank you for removing drama and journalism from the required 38 credits. These courses have so few students each year, they take up places on our master schedule that could easily be filled by other English/language arts courses (such as creative writing, critical reading, debate)."

The proposed rules were drafted by Education Department staff in recent months and given preliminary Education Board approval to go out for public review -- including scrutiny by the governor's office.

Education Board Chairman Jay Barth of Little Rock said on Friday that a special meeting of the board is necessary to get the rules -- if approved -- to a legislative review committee and fully implemented in a timely manner for districts.

"There were quite a few public comments," Barth said about the proposed rules. "I don't know that there will be major issues but I can imagine there will be some discussion," he said about the coming board meeting. "The public comment may have activated some new concerns."

[DOCUMENT: Read proposed rules governing the standards for accreditation of public schools and school districts]

The bulk of the eight pages of draft rules focus on the process for accrediting schools and districts, including the means that will be used to cite or place on probation the schools and districts that fail to meet the standards, the enforcement actions to be applied if problems are not corrected, and the appeal process.

The draft rules state that a district or a school shall be assigned accredited-probation status when it has failed to meet the same standard for two consecutive years. No school or district shall remain in accredited-probation status for violation of any standard for more than two consecutive school years.

The state board shall take action against a school or district that has failed to meet the standards of accreditation for two consecutive school years unless the state board determines that the violation could not be remedied due to external forces beyond a district's control.

One of the actions the board can take is removing a school from the jurisdiction of a district and establishing for it an alternative public governance.

That raised questions from representatives of the Arkansas Education Association teacher association and the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators. AEA leaders Cathy Koehler, Tracey-Ann Nelson and Susana O'Daniel called the "alternative public governance" language "extraordinarily problematic."

"This language appears to allow local school districts to be taken over by non-publicly elected entities," the teacher leaders wrote, "thus stripping local taxpayers of their ability to democratically elect and influence a school board."

Mike Mertens of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators asked in lengthy written comments: "What is the meaning of 'alternative public governance and supervision?' This term needs to be further clarified or a definition added."

Attached to the draft rules is a 10-page draft appendix of the standards on curriculum and instruction for kindergarten through 12th grades, student support services, district operations and fiscal governance, human capital, stakeholder communication/family and community engagement, and facilities and transportation.

The curriculum and instruction section of the appendix, for example, starts by saying that "The academic system of a public school district ensures all students have access to a guaranteed viable curriculum aligned to the Arkansas Academic Standards for all academic areas."

The section calls for school boards to annually adopt and implement written curricula "in accordance with the laws of the state of Arkansas and the rules of the Department. Reading, writing, speaking and personal success skills shall be incorporated into all curriculum areas."

The document lists the areas of instruction for kindergarten through fourth grade: English/language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, fine arts, health and safety education, and physical education.

In grades five through eight, the areas of instruction to be delivered annually are English/language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, physical education, fine arts, health and safety, and career and technical education. Arkansas history is to be taught in every elementary grade, including one full semester in seventh through 12th grade.

For grades nine through 12, schools are to annually offer 38 units consisting of six units of English/language arts, five units of science, six of math, one of computer science, two of the same foreign language, 3.5 units of fine arts, four units of social studies, 1.5 units in health/safety education/physical education, and nine units of sequenced career and technical education representing three occupational areas.

Those proposed standards are less detailed than the current requirements. For example, the current requirements for mathematics in the middle-level grades specifies that math instruction must include number sense; properties and operations; measurement; geometry and spatial sense; data analysis and statistics; and patterns, algebra and functions.

At the high school level, the proposed standards list the broad subject areas to be included in the minimum 38 units. The current standards, in contrast, specify courses within a subject area including biology, chemistry, physics, algebra I and II, geometry, and pre-calculus to include trigonometry. Fine arts must include one unit each in art, instrumental music, vocal music and a half unit of fine arts survey or advanced art or music course.

Jennifer Wells of the Arkansas Public School Resource Center was one who questioned the removal of specific courses from the proposed standards document.

Mertens focused on a provision that says a list of the required courses approved by the state Board of Education is posted annually on the department website.

"Districts need to know who, and how, this list will be determined," Mertens said.

Woolly, the Alma superintendent, noted that the draft rules make frequent use of the phrase "in accordance with the laws of the state of Arkansas and the rules of the department."

"This provides enormous flexibility to districts, since, in many cases, there are no rules that address the issue," Woolly wrote.

"While for many districts this provides an opportunity to innovate, it is also a cause of concern. A district that is struggling financially, has weak leadership, or for other reasons is searching for ways to make decisions that will have the result of weakening their programs is afforded increase opportunities to do so," he said.

A Section on 05/26/2018

Print Headline: School-accredit redo in works; State education board gets plan to ‘streamline’ process

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