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Forum examines challenges, solutions for Ariz. education

February 14, 2011

A panel of Arizona educators and policymakers met Feb. 10 in Tucson to explore “Education in Arizona: Is it broken? If so, how can it be fixed?” The spirited, wide-ranging discussion addressed issues including the critical need to attract and retain outstanding teachers in Arizona classrooms; the effects of new technologies in the teaching and learning process; U.S. competitiveness in the global economy; the need for feedback leading to improved educational outcomes; and the importance of professional development for teachers and educational leaders as a tool to boost student achievement.

The panel discussion was moderated by Arizona State University president Michael M. Crow and featured Pima County Schools Superintendent Linda Arzoumanian; Amphitheater Public Schools Superintendent Vicki Balentine; Michael Block, co-CEO of BASIS Educational Group; Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal; Mari Koerner, dean of ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College; Helios Education Foundation President and CEO Paul Luna; and Tucson Unified School District Superintendent John Pedicone. The event at the Doubletree Hotel at Reid Park drew a capacity audience of approximately 300 educators and community members.

“All of the stakeholders represented in the panel today, encompassing a wide range of interests and perspectives, are serious about transforming schools – public, charter and independent – to meet the needs of all PreK-12 students in Arizona,” said Koerner, who has served as dean of ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College since 2006. The College now serves students on all four of ASU’s campuses in metropolitan Phoenix, in partner school districts across Arizona, and online with a total of more than 5,000 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students. Teachers College is among the largest in the nation and prepares more than half of Arizona’s new teachers.

In his opening comments, Crow said Arizona is one of several high-growth, highly diverse states that are underperforming in education. “The challenge and opportunity this situation presents is for Arizona to become a model for the future,” he said.

“It takes courage to stand up and offer a solution, because it could be wrong,” Koerner noted. “In these difficult times, we need educators who are courageous. We also must remember that diversity in classrooms is a strength of Arizona’s schools.”

Panelists agreed on the importance of recruiting, retaining and motivating excellent teachers. Regarding teacher motivation, Huppenthal called for greater use of 360-degree feedback techniques in evaluations. “If teachers are rewarded for their own performance as well as that of their school and district, this creates a team atmosphere that positively impacts motivation,” he said.

Koerner described efforts under way at ASU to attract talented students to careers in teaching. “We are revising our curriculum to emphasize greater content knowledge and more time in classroom internships for our future teachers. We also are engaged in partnerships with organizations including Teach For America and the Arizona Business and Education Coalition. ASU is not saying ‘one size fits all’ in terms of paths people can take to become teachers. But we are saying we need the schools to work with us to help produce great teachers.”

Crow raised the issue of technology in the classroom, which elicited a variety of responses from the panelists. Block commented that “gizmos are not the solution,” but that innovation must come from putting highly skilled and motivated teachers in the classroom. Luna said he believes that we must “teach differently to the way kids learn today, given their ability to multitask.” Luna heads the Helios Education Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to enriching the lives of individuals in Arizona and Florida by creating opportunities for success in postsecondary education. Last summer the Foundation collaborated with ASU and the University of Arizona to offer the Teach Tec Program, which taught dozens of middle-school teachers innovative ways to use technology to better teach and inspire students.

Audience members repeatedly applauded statements by Luna and other panelists about the need to see teaching as a valued profession. Arzoumanian pointed out the special importance of resources and support for teachers in rural areas.

“There has been a common thread throughout our discussion of the need for society as a whole to value education,” Crow commented near the end of the forum.

Koerner spoke with passion about her view as to why teaching is and will continue to be a great profession. “It’s about relationships with hundreds of students that you build over time. Sometimes you don’t know how you’ve affected someone until they contact you years later. That’s irreplaceable.”

The forum was hosted by ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, co-hosted by the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, and organized by ASU Public Affairs. Promotional support was provided by Expect More Arizona.