Monday, November 04, 2002

My Kids' Schools

We'll leave it for another day whether it makes any sense for a particular school district to have so many advantages over every other district in the state. But there really shouldn't be any argument that the district in metro Phoenix with these advantages isn't making the most of them, and that none of the discussion about Scottsdale schools ever concerns that fact. My hat's off to the long-suffering leadership of the Scottsdale Unified School District.

In other developments, isn't it interesting that Republicans are allowed and expected to be outraged for weeks, months, or even years over Mel Carnahan's death and Jean Carnahan's election, or over the political nature of the Wellstone funeral service. However, Democrats are supposed to get over it in a couple of days, max, when the Supreme Court decides to determine a presidential election.

East Valley Tribune, Nov. 3, 2002

For all the occasional public uproar surrounding the Scottsdale Unified School District, it’s good to remember that it would be pretty hard to mess up the actual schools. Based just on the demographics, student achievement always will rank at the top in Arizona.

Forget about teaching, facilities, textbooks, or computers -- the best predictor of student achievement, in education and life, is parents’ income and wealth. Period. Unless everyone in Scottsdale suddenly takes a vow of poverty, our students always will do just fine when compared to Arizona peers.

So it’s probably no surprise that when this paper or parents talk about Scottsdale schools, one of the last things discussed, if ever, is actual education. Instead, we have last month’s editorial decrying the district’s decision to stop paying to have school board meetings broadcast on cable television.

When all governments are being urged ad naseum to cut costs to the max, Scottsdale found a way to save about $100,000 that had absolutely no impact on what happens in classrooms -- and both The Tribune and the Scottsdale teachers union opposed the cut.

What are the most important issues facing the Scottsdale School Board? If you read the newspapers and listen at parent forums, it’s school construction, attendance boundaries, the traffic situation at Cherokee (imagine, making all those drivers of all those fancy cars dropping off their kids at the same time wait in line!), administrator contracts, and televising board meetings.

All these things may be important in their own right, but they have one thing in common: None has anything serious to do with student achievement.

This lack of focus on educational excellence is a species of the “tyranny of soft expectations” that President Bush used to mention back when he cared about education. The Scottsdale schools always will rank among the best Arizona districts, and that seems to be enough for most folks.

It doesn’t seem to bother anyone that overall, Arizona really doesn’t have very good schools, so what Scottsdale is accomplishing with all of its advantages is the equivalent of hitting .300 in the low minors. Sure, Scottsdale contends for the batting title, but it’s the Instructional League. Too bad that our kids, once they graduate and head to college and the work force, will face truly Major League pitching.

The real competition for Scottsdale isn’t other districts in Arizona, a state that underfunds, undervalues, and underperforms in education. Instead, based on the demographics, Scottsdale’s real competition is America’s top 50 school districts serving similarly-advantaged, wealthy suburbs around the country: New Canaan, Connecticut; Piedmont, California; Belmont, Massachusetts; Bethesda, Maryland.

That’s the league in which Scottsdale should be playing. We need to match up with Scarsdale, not worry about whether we can beat out Peoria or Agua Fria -- districts that simply cannot touch Scottsdale’s advantages.

Scottsdale student scores shouldn’t be among the best in the state; those scores, and college placements, and student success should be as good as anybody in the nation, because the district has the same (or greater) advantages as any district in the country. Instead of demanding the ability to watch school board meetings on cable (it’s so much easier for reporters to cover those boring meetings from the comfort of home, you know), parents and citizens should be demanding, and working cooperatively to achieve, levels of student achievement that match Scottsdale’s economic and demographic advantages.

Most times in life, “good enough” is good enough. And even if the most vocal parents and voters want to spend more effort on traffic flow than education, the Scottsdale schools will be good enough.

But given Scottsdale’s advantages, it’s a shame we don’t fight about doing better.

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