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JOHN UNGER: Innovate for kids

One-size-fits-all education fails by John Unger Special to the Democrat-Gazette | September 26, 2019 at 3:02 a.m.

Arkansas is leading the way in education! I know that seems crazy, but there is one aspect of education policy in which Arkansas is leading the way.

A little-known law, Act 601 of 2013, allows flexibility to exist in our schools in Arkansas. Sen. Joyce Elliott, an educator herself, wrote this law to help schools look at innovative ways to design their educational systems. That flexibility is something our state needs to help our failing schools. This law helps address the status quo and gives schools an opportunity to look at new hiring practices, curriculum models and teaching styles to redesign a school for today's global education.

Education is a tricky thing. We have grown up to think that kids hop on the bus and head to school for 190 days a year all across the state and that they will all learn to read, write, and do math. The problem: That isn't how education works at all--that is how the status quo works. There is so much more than that.

You should see the list of mandates and compliance issues that school districts have to sort through each year that have nothing to do with student learning or skills. There is so much red tape in public education that no wonder more parents are choosing to send their kids to private or charter schools, and teachers and administrators are leaving the profession at a high rate.

The rules and laws that are in place are for a one-size-fits-all system. How can it be that a kid in the Fayetteville School District would have the same interests as a student in Jasper? Also, how would those two school districts even have the same resources to follow rules and compliance issues that state legislators have put before them? These two districts are completely different, but it all goes back to society thinking that school is all about getting kids in the work force, and assuming that each school district is equal.

Are we in the business of just pushing the kids out that can make it through our system, or are we going to provide the flexibility to help all of our students make it out and help them become unique, valued members of our society?

Each district and community has its own unique culture and values. Flexibility and equality in education are needed throughout the state so that each school district can focus on the needs of its community, not of a law that requires teachers, students, and administration to follow mandates that have nothing to do with the families and students served. The public needs to be educated about what is happening in our schools and about the flexibility available for our districts so that more schools can make the changes needed to serve their students' needs.

When it comes to flexibility and equality in educational practices in Arkansas, the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education is leading the way in the nation. Over the past few years, with the leadership of state Education Secretary Johnny Key, who was a co-author of Act 601, Arkansas is beginning to provide opportunities for school districts to provide equality in education. Mr. Key's department has been slowly pushing the idea of innovation throughout Arkansas and providing school districts an opportunity to look at ways to provide flexibility to their schools. I have been to a conference where Mr. Key told attendees to try new things, make it work for your school and your kids, and to not be afraid to go outside the box.

This push for flexibility has led to many School of Innovation programs popping up over the state. With this flexibility, the schools are able to look at what is needed in their communities, then design and implement a new school model. It has worked wonders in a few school districts in the state.

The Springdale district has its own School of Innovation, which is the "mothership" of innovation in Northwest Arkansas. Star City School District, a more rural district, is another example of flexibility to meet the needs of the community. Many other school districts have provided equality through flexibility using the School of Innovation processes with positive results throughout Arkansas, but more is necessary. We still have so many schools falling further behind.

Flexibility in our educational practices is greatly needed. Our society, our students, the technology, and the culture of our school districts across Arkansas are unique. There is no way the one-size-fits-all process can work.

I would argue that we need teachers and school leaders to provide innovative ways to improve education in their school districts and to think outside the box when it comes to what school should look like in today's world. I would also argue that the old way of doing things isn't working. Arkansas is continually in the bottom rankings when it comes to education when compared to the other states.

Mr. Key is on the right path, but we need teachers, school leaders and parents to step outside their comfort zone and begin to provide the flexibility that our students need so all can learn.


John Unger of Fayetteville is the West Fork Middle School principal for grades 5-8. He holds an education specialist bachelor's degree from Arkansas State University, and a master's in education degree from LSU-Shreveport.

Editorial on 09/26/2019

Print Headline: Innovate for kids


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