The Rural School and Community Trust’s “Why Rural Matters 2011-2012” reported that 29 percent of Arizona’s rural students live in poverty — the highest percentage increase in the past 10 years. One-third of these students do not graduate high school in four years, a percentage higher than the national average.
In addition, nine out of 13 of the state’s rural counties, when compared to other counties in Arizona, have higher rates of third-graders who read below grade level. These key indicators tell us that our students are not receiving an education that will prepare them to succeed. For many of our students, this also means they will not break the cycle of poverty.
As an educator, I know firsthand the role academic standards play in enriching the quality of classroom learning and how important it is to hold students to high expectations. Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards (Common Core), which Arizona adopted in 2010, are exactly what we’ve needed to improve the quality of education we provide for all of Arizona’s students, including those living in rural areas and in poverty. These new academic standards determine what students need to know at each grade level and then build upon that learning year after year. Unlike our previous standards, these standards encourage deep learning and allow students to hone the critical thinking and analytical skills they need to succeed after graduation.
As the director of curriculum and instruction at the Casa Grande Union High School District, I also know firsthand that our teachers and parents can rest assured that Arizona is being smart in how we are implementing the standards into our classrooms. In particular, my team and I have been working hard to ensure we make the transition to Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards as smooth as possible for our students and teachers. For example, we built curriculum teams to support teachers. We then crafted unit plans and began setting benchmarks and assessments for the implementation of the new standards. We are always identifying new ways to evaluate and act on student data, integrate the standards into other courses and give teachers more planning time.
I’m excited to see how our students are thriving and discovering their potential, thanks to these more rigorous standards and the hard work of our teachers, school administrators and parents. Academic success means more of our students can break the poverty cycle by graduating from high school prepared for college and careers. It means our students can compete in a demanding economy, where proficiency in math and reading are more crucial than ever before.
As Arizona strives toward improving its economy, we cannot overlook the integral role education plays in securing our state’s economic future. By 2018, over 60 percent of jobs in Arizona will require postsecondary education, yet only 34 percent of working adults have an associate degree or greater. Skilled, talented students ensure a strong workforce, and a strong workforce will help to close Arizona’s widening skills gap and attract businesses that will boost our community’s economy. The standards aren’t just an option, they’re a necessity.
It is our responsibility to ensure that our students are equipped with the skills and knowledge they need to lead independent, prosperous and healthy lives. As half of Arizona’s high school graduates do not qualify to enroll in Arizona’s public universities, there is a lot of work to be done. Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards are exactly what our students — and our economy — need, and it’s important that we continue to work together to support this critical shift in our classrooms. One day, we will see fewer of our rural communities stricken by poverty. With the new standards along with instruction from effective teachers, we will see our students grow up to lead our state’s future.
Melani Edwards is director of curriculum and instruction in the Casa Grande Union High School District.