Educating Arizona – Adding up to Fail

A few years ago, in the north-central of the state, we regularly watched the Native Indian tally up the bill for a list of what was once commonly known as “dry goods” – cans of tomato paste, boxes of tea, packages of coffee, assorted sachets of spices, canned evaporated milk and so forth, usually about thirty items. The shopkeeper’s assistants would pile the purchases on the counter, hold up a can or carton and call out the price for each one so the owner could write it down with a pencil on a scrap piece of paper as the staff packed the things to be purchased into boxes. When the invoice list was complete, the addition began. Running his pencil down the column, he would lean his elbow on the counter and murmur, 5-9-14-17-21… and so forth, his pencil rising each time to the top of the next column to mark to carry over another ten. It was a pleasant bit of idle entertainment watching him, the mind stimulated by the calculations in progress, discreetly peering at the paper for a little silent competition to see if we could keep up. After about three minutes of adding over thirty, three digit numbers, the man would straighten up and consider the total he’d written at the bottom. Then, after all that had been completed, he opened a drawer next to him, pulled out a calculator and added it all over again to double-check his work.

This week, in a north-central region of the state, we watched the local staff of a restaurant, frozen in ineffectualness, unable to sell the mountains of food ready to be sold behind them; they hunched over a scrap of paper, pens clutched in nervous hands because the computer system had gone on the fritz and they didn’t know how to add up the orders. That restaurant, dependent on a huge morning business was practically deserted, customers abandoning the unmoving queue, the blocked off drive-through, to rush off to find some other establishment elsewhere to buy their meal, all because the staff, even though hard-working and diligent, couldn’t handle simple addition and multiplication.

The Native Indian shopkeeper is not in this state of Arizona, but in-between the states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana; not of the Yavapai-Apache or Navaho Nation, but of the nation of India; in the capital of New Delhi. India is amongst the world’s poorest countries. Power outages are common even in the capital – a bustling city of over ten million people, with theaters, shopping malls, open air markets, silks, sarees and computers. Elephants, horse carts, donkey carts, three wheeled rickshaw taxis, busses, camels, and all sorts of vehicles share the busy streets. But that merchant, due to his day-long practice of adding, subtracting and multiplying could out perform in speed and accuracy most of the American public. He’s not brilliant, he’s a normal fellow with a small, but active business with rent and employees he must pay, and he’s not of the upper castes so his highest achieved education level is no more than what we would call, “Middle School.” If the power went out or not, he can sell. In contrast, this week in Arizona we watched aghast as a restaurant lost hundreds of dollars of profits in a few hours, because the employees, all having high school diplomas from schools in the world’s richest country, did not have reliable skills in basic arithmetic. They were totally dependent on the computer to think for them and when the computer died, their productivity died with it. While the shopkeeper of India turned to the calculator after he did his manual calculations, trusting his work more than the machine, the Arizonians searched about desperate to find a calculator to simple work they should have been able to do, but couldn’t, having no confidence in their abilities.

This should not have happened. If one of the world’s poorest countries, “Lower Middle Income,” according to the World Bank, (compare with Arizona’s neighbor, Mexico – an “Upper Middle Income” nation),, can produce average working people who can do their arithmetic, at levels of education funding that redefine Arizonians’ concept of “rock bottom” as in Grand Canyon-like depths, then America, as a World Bank “High Income” and every state in it, has no excuse for not producing the same and better for its people. Arizona may suggest its abysmal bottom national ranking in education is due to “poor people,” or “Native” people or” immigrants who don’t speak English,” but it cannot suggest its poor residents are poorer than the poor of India. It cannot claim to have a worse language problem than India has, a country where the majority of citizens don’t even speak the two national languages, Hindi and English. Arizona, with a climate very similar to north central India, has poor residents with housing and resources which exceed most of the Southeast Asian Indian middle class. So what excuse is there for not delivering the basics of arithmetic to all Arizonians, especially when all is required is a pencil and paper and practice, practice, practice? In India and Africa, it can be less than that: drawing with a finger in the dirt – a naturally occurring, zero trash-generating “write-on, wipe-off board.”

Actions and lack of actions have consequences. It’s a fallacy and a trap to tell students and parents that they don’t have to drill arithmetic, the functions on which all higher math depend – adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, because “the calculator will do it,” or no need to learn cursive writing because “everything will be typed” or memorize world geography, because one can “look it up on the computer.” If that was true, then American students, loaded with the latest computers in schools would be outperforming the Chinese, Japanese, French, Russian, Czech students. If that was true, how is it that the computer-deprived Southeast Asian Indian Middle Class outperforms the American Middle Class in basic math?

And the power will go out.

The human mind is a tremendous thing. So wonderful, we do not know its true limits. Knowledge is weightless, no bulk, it goes everywhere with them. The school stays behind; computers and calculators are costly, they break, the battery dies, they can be stolen. They should be tools, not crutches.

In this modern day and age, this nation must solidify the traditional three Rs- readin’ ritin’, ‘rithmetic. On these two pillars, language and math, is all other learning dependent.

Arizona has an opportunity, and parents cannot wait years for change. The awful performing LA United just voted to start alternatives, a start to breaking up their huge, inefficient and oppressive monopoly.

Arizona has nothing to lose and everything to gain in breaking this cycle of failure. Plenty of money is there, already exceeding other countries budgets for education, the failure is how it’s been used. Arizona’s education system achievement has been amongst the lowest in American rankings for decades, holding back Arizona’s generations to lower level work by not adequately preparing students for college and greater achievement.

The American High School diploma should be restored to its traditional purpose of providing every graduate a solid educational background to go on to a college major or to enter the trades with a high level of competency which can be built on for the rest of one’s life. Foreign students increasingly snap up slots that plenty of American students have the aptitude for, but don’t have the skills background needed to move up. Shut out of opportunity due to missing or poor skills, an increasing number of American and Arizonian youth are unhappy, aimless, and jobless.

Arizona was one of the leaders in the nation, in the mid 1960s rushing into implementation of untested and experimental progressive education which relied on “open classrooms, student “self-teaching” and faculty as “facilitators” rather than “teachers.” If it was easy enough to overturn centuries of what works, why not now lead the nation in implementing a curriculum and teaching model of, “back to the future?” If the X Prize spectacularly revived space exploration why not apply that same innovation to schools?

These are not revolutionary concepts, this is how the American education system functioned before the so-called “progressive,” untested education programs were introduced and became dominant in public schools. There is much talk of “global communities” but few dare to actually face the fact that when put up against traditionally educated foreign students, American and Arizonan students have just not been equipped properly by the education system which has been in vogue for over four decades, and worsening by the year, in the basics of their own language and the nitty-gritty of solid math, science and humanities studies. It’s a set up for failure. Arizona could lead the nation in returning to what works; cheaper, faster, effective, with busy, achieving students. Keeping to the track Arizona is currently on will deliver it to last place; more human potential wasted. It doesn’t have to be.


  1. Writer – you have written an incredible tale, weaving through the complicated reality of American and Arizonan schools. Well done! I’d like to point out a few things…

    Early in your missive you describe America as “one of the richest nations” in the world when making the point that we have no reason for lagging educational success. Using that qualifying statement you admit that funding plays a significant role in potential success. You also claim that there’s plenty of money in the system now to create success. I disagree. We may spend more than other countries dollar-for-dollar. However, our cost of living is much higher than that of the countries you’ve outlined above. Whereas those who choose to teach in other countries are high income earners in their community, those who choose to teach here must do so for a much lower wage than is available in many other professions. If we are to create a professional learning environment for our students we must first create professional compensation for the well-educated workforce necessary in public schools.

    Money is certainly not the answer to every challenge our students face but, increasing our state’s investment to an adequate level is a start, a move in the right direction.

    I’ve been given heck recently about all the news of how successful BASIS School is and how a charter school is outperforming most, if not all, public schools in our great state. While it is true that BASIS is a strong learning environment for the students lucky enough to step into one of their classrooms, it is also true that they are spending nearly $15,000 (does not include capital spending) per student. That’s 250% more than what is allocated per-pupil ($5,900 not including capital spending after the ’09 cuts) in Arizona’s public schools. Teachers at BASIS are receiving an average annual income of nearly $90,000 per year (average public school teachers earn $46,000). Getting the picture? If we are to achieve the success of BASIS for every child, Arizona must increase its investment in our state’s future economic success by investing in our students.

  2. Hallelujah! A conversation about education that is about outcomes and need…not just money.

    The first and foremost purpose in any conversation about the delivery of true educational opportunity MUST start with “What does a quality education look like?” not “How much does it cost?”, to be followed with “How do we attain that model?”

    The humanities are a very important aspect of intellectual development but the accountability models that look to the three R’s as the measure of success have damaged and neglected higher level thinking, reasoning, and eliminated learning that is beyond tasks.

    Unfortunately, the competing interests have avoided that conversation and allowed it to be ruled by the dollars only crowds on both sides…from the teacher’s unions to the GI, it is always back to money.

    When we look at what a quality education looks like, then determine how to best deliver that product in the most cost efficient way without diminished results, we will have succeeded in true educational reform.

  3. I appreciate the comments. I shall comment further on these two statements:
    “Whereas those who choose to teach in other countries are high income earners in their community, those who choose to teach here must do so for a much lower wage than is available in many other professions.”

    The teaching profession currently in the United States is better paid than most teachers world-wide, with more vacation days, and in many cases, much smaller class sizes than their foreign counterparts who are expected to manage larger classes without any sort of teaching assistants or classroom aides. First World nations have more resoucres to pay their teachers, but many teachers in Middle Income or Third World countries go months without pay, and are not well paid at all.

    “If we are to create a professional learning environment for our students we must first create professional compensation for the well-educated workforce necessary in public schools.”

    Compensation is based on hours worked, the complexity of the work and productivity. The American teacher works 3/4 of the year, with three day weekends, Winter Break and Spring break. In contrast, most US workers work 12 months and have no more than one to two weeks of annual vacation. Furthermore, American teachers are not required to be specialists in their subjects, unlike their foreign counterparts. US teaching has resisted calls for verifiable competencies in subject matter, effectively putting themselves at a lower tier of accomplishment and professionalism than the norm in other countries.
    American teaching at the moment is focused on reducing class sizes, meaning a reduction in productivity, and is not open to professionally improving their technical skills which would make them more effective and knowlegeable educators. Too many of this generation are being taught not by human beings, but by following instructions on a computer. The “teacher” is no more than the “classroom supervisor.”

    Four decades ago, US teachers knew their subjects, handled large classes and corrected all the homework and exams themselves which enabled them to get to know their students’ strengths and weaknesses.

    In contrast, the current state of American education is lower teacher competency, increased spending on additional support staff, procurement of expensive computers, plus new construction as a fix for non-performing schools. Many American schools are as elaborate as the Taj Mahal, but with the same problem, just empty on the inside. With this model of inefficiency, achievement is inversely proportional to the money being paid into the system.

  4. When looked at as a percentage of per capita GDP, US teacher salaries are in the lower third of the 27 countries in the OECD. When looked at in terms of salary per net teaching time, teachers in the US are again in the lower third. I’m not suggesting that salary increases will fix all problems, but it is inaccurate to portray them as extravagant. It is equally incorrect to claim American schools are Taj Mahal’s, in fact the average age of a school building in the US is 42 years.

    It would be helpful to discuss facts and not impressions.

    I think it would be also helpful to look at countries that have successful schools and see what works in terms of the whole system, not just parts.

    For instance Sweden has very good schools and some point to Sweden as a better model with its ‘school choice’. However in Sweden they smaller class sizes, spend more GDP on education and have 1/4 the child poverty that exists in the US. They also have free higher education. What they do is look at education and the well-being of children in a holistic way, while we don’t. I think this is what is separating us from many nations with more successful educational outcomes.

  5. The American teachers are not on par with their foreign counterparts in competencies in subjects. To compensate, classrooms are becoming not much more than rows of self-tutoring students hunched in front of screens. The give and take of human interaction is disappearing from American schools.
    American students at this point in time, are almost completely unable to shift from American schools to foreign schools, but foreign students enter easily into American schools and quickly rise to the top. As early as second grade, the American student is already critically behind European students in basic skills, handicapping their ability to keep up with the work.
    Time and time again, the solution to American school failure has not been to pick better curriculum or get teachers to teach instead of “facilitate,” but to build. School boards raise millions to construct new buildings and forget to factor in the increased monthly overhead of heating, cooling, electrical, water, and more staffing for maintenance of bigger enclosed spaces. The environment is better, but the curriculum is the same. Simply raising salaries with no additional improvement in productivity or competency raises expenses with no corresponding rise in student achievement.
    Teachers colleges could easily incorporate subject competencies into the education degrees. A hypothetical rise in salaries would in theory attract skilled people into teaching, but that isn’t actually happening, thanks to rigid bureaucratic rules on teaching credentials.
    American teachers are not producing what the American teaching profession used to produce. If they can perform, they should perform NOW. If they aren’t peforming, no additional money is going to change that.
    No other profession allows this sort of request for addtional salary without solid proof the money is going to increase output and quality of output.

  6. wanumba,
    If you want to attract more highly educated and skilled people to a career you need to raise salaries. This is true in every profession.

  7. If you want to attract more highly educated and skilled people to a career you need to raise salaries. This is true in every profession.
    It is true in every profession that salary raises come with increased sales and increased productivity. Teachers want more money for smaller classes. Everyone wants that, too. But sales and productivity are what generate the funds to PAY for the raises. If incoming money is stagnant or lower, then paying higher salaries for the same or lesser work is untenable, and makes no sense.
    American kids are not getting the education they need to achieve. If teachers were able to deliver and were actively delivering that, this column would have been unnecessary, but the fact is, our upcoming generation is not getting what their grandparents got, at less cost.

  8. wanumba – It is clear you are not interested in solutions but merely in punishing teachers. Until we stop looking for silver bullets our education system is not going to improve.

  9. wanumba – It is clear you are not interested in solutions but merely in punishing teachers. Until we stop looking for silver bullets our education system is not going to improve.
    You just hauled out the silver bullet of more money for the same old.
    And why the negative “punishment,” a word or concept that is nowhere to be found? Schools are meant not as teacher employment programs, but as institutions to impart knowledge and skills to the upcoming generations so that they can become successful and productive members of society. The clients of schools are the students and their parents, not the teachers.
    There’s nothing negative in that mix. It’s a joy to teach the youth, nay anyone of any age, new skills and knowledge they can use all their lives. But the facts of life are that schools are 3/4 of the year, and the compensation starts with that reality. Most people in education chose that, for it frees them for summer with their own children, or travel or summer work. People who don’t like that can find other work in other professions which work 12 months a year with less time off. That’s what everyone else does. Is there any fairness in establishing the teaching profession as a rigid caste that enjoys benefits that cannot be supported, a disconnect from production, investment and the ability of a sagging economy to finance? If teachers are not delivering education NOW, but want more money in the promise of delivering a better product in the future, while arguing for smaller classes, that is to teach FEWER students, on what basis are people supposed to trust that student achievement will rise?
    One would would have thought that teachers would delight in opportunities to raise their value and productivity by becoming more accomplished in their fields; math, science, language arts and such, to take on more responsibily instead of advocating to reduce it while asking for more money.

  10. You have got to be kidding says

    Okay, toss the agricultural school year out- kids don’t harvest crops anymore.

    Next, ruthlessly push kids into tracks- that gives you a Europe of elite kids that kick our generalist butts.

    Third, take kids away from parents that can’t manage to provide a safe environment. Drugs in the home- well kids got to go. I am not talking about the suburban mom who tokes a joint or two- but the meth class, well, that should be obvious.

    Kids go hungry, well I guess we need welfare to ensure shelter and food, and rudimentary medical care.

    Of course, this is all a waste of space in this state, because the left hates the thought of tracking kids, but some kids are truly dumb and should drive trash trucks.

    Further, the right hates these thoughts, because they just might cost more money in aggregate.

    As for the shopkeeper, when it is your money- you count very well. Further, you miss the component of the fact that most of the folks the shopkeeper is selling too can’t count very well either- but they bring a friend who can to check the math.

  11. Evidently, quite a few people are not aware that French kids, for example, are easily about two years ahead of American kids with essentially the same school year, essentially the same summer time off, the same length of day and amazingly nearly zero homework after school.
    The French are doing nothing more than what American schools practiced 40 years ago, before American schools shifted into “progressive” education, which added hours of homework after schools, “facilitating” instead of teaching, self-tutoring and lots of expensive bells and whistles like computers which have ruined American students’ ability to be self-reliant. They teach the lesson and make sure the students do the work in class when they check it.
    “Achievement” doesn’t have to be onerous.

  12. wanumba,
    I think you do not understand the French educational system, although I would gladly advocate for our adoption of it.

    In France kids start formal schooling at age 3 (Gasp!). Kids spend 900 hours in school per year compared to 1146 in the US. There is not extracurricular activities. French teachers work less than their US counterparts. Again, all this takes more money than what we are spending now.

  13. Todd Says:
    “I think you do not understand the French educational system, although I would gladly advocate for our adoption of it.”
    We had our six kids in it for six years at six different grades in four different countries. At a fraction of the cost of the American Schools.
    We know it intimately.

    The main characteristic I noticed was it was almost exactly what I had in America growing up. So, the French/Europeans are just continuing to do what we USED to do. America wandered off into the measurably academically weaker and measureably more expensive “progressive” education. 40 years of downward spiral is plenty of proof it doesn’t work.

    Where the French fall down is little opportunities for sports and other activities, they just don’t get organized to offer it, nothing trickier than that. But Americans easily managed that plus the same sort of academics and structure forty years ago.
    Americans do not realize how far they’ve strayed from what worked for America, and what continues to work for other countries today.

    I deliberately used the French as we are most familiar with it, but we also had years of interaction with foreign students of dozens of countries who have the same sort of education structure as the French. The Chinese and Japanese spend too much time studying for the marginal return they get to claim #1 and #2, leaving the students too classroom-trained and not enough real life experience.

    The Europeans as a whole are close behind in academic achievement to the Chinese (Singapore- 1st in math & science) and Japanese, but they have more well-rounded school lives and plenty of time to kick back and relax. We’ve seen too many Chinese and Japanese kids cheating to get by, they are under so much pressure. Not healthy.
    So, the key is solid curriculum, active teaching and supervised work IN the classroom that counts most in student achievement, not “facilitation” of self-tutoring and hours and hours and hours and hours of drone work.

  14. Wanumba:
    I have read your paper and appreciate the philosophy undergirding your thoughts. Excellent!

  15. DRJWW Says:
    October 12th, 2009 at 10:55 am
    Or to keep in the Indian theme of it, danyavadh!

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