Over the past several weeks there has been a flurry of reports, announcements and events that highlight the challenge and opportunity that exists in Arizona education. From higher standards and assessments to student achievement and school performance there is no shortage of data or dialogue — and now that the election is over — there has never been greater need for action.

As a state we are moving in the right direction to better prepare our students for success in college and career. Arizona’s Common Core Standards are being implemented in classrooms across the state. These critical new bar-raising measures are designed to develop the skills and knowledge our students need to compete with their peers across the nation and around the globe.  And the forthcoming internationally benchmarked assessments aligned with these new standards will provide meaningful information to students, parents and teachers alike to help all Arizona students reach their full potential.

In addition, Arizona is moving forward with the implementation of key education policies to ensure young children are reading at grade level by third grade, teachers and principals are evaluated, in part, based on student academic achievement and our school evaluations exhibit their success in demonstrating academic growth amongst even their lowest performing students.

In reflecting upon the improvements taking place in Arizona education, it’s easy to breath a sigh of relief and to assume we are well on our way to excellence in education for all students. However, without sustained commitment and the strategic investment of resources, we could easily falter on our path to progress.

First of all, when you look at Arizona’s current student academic performance, raising the bar to meet world-class levels will require hard work, persistence and a culture of high expectations.  But, it must be done for the long-term prosperity of our state.

Today, more than 70% of Arizona fourth graders are below proficient in reading and nearly 70% of Arizona eight graders are below proficient in math. Only 20% of Arizona’s high school graduates who took the ACT last year met all four benchmarks in English, math, science and social studies. That means 80% of Arizona’s graduates currently fail to meet key college and career readiness benchmarks.

A recent report by Change the Equation, a national CEO-led initiative to improve science, technology, engineering and math education in the nation, highlighted the concern of Arizona business leaders in finding workers with the necessary skills to meet demand for STEM-related jobs.  As a result, not only do we need to increase the number of students pursuing and completing postsecondary education, but we also need to increase the number of students pursuing degrees and certificates in the high demand, higher wage STEM professions.

The Center for the Future of Arizona’s Beat the Odds Institute celebrated it’s fifth year of cultivating educational leaders who have “beat the odds” in demonstrating that schools serving mostly low-income, Latino students can, in fact, exceed expectations and compete with Arizona’s high-performing schools.  And in a state where 43% of Arizona’s K-12 students are Latinos who consistently trail their White counterparts, that’s cause for celebration and replication.

Fortunately for Arizona, there is excellence in education happening in many programs, schools and communities across the state.  The challenge is that we need to expand those pockets of excellence and make a world-class education available to every student regardless of background, zip code or special needs. And we need to do it today by strategically investing the appropriate level of resources to construct it efficiently, effectively and with greater accountability.

According to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, the Arizona legislature has cut more than $1 billion from K-12 funding over the past four years.  Tuition at our state’s public universities has increased more than 60% over the same four-year period due to state budget cuts.  Needless to say, the cuts have been deep, stressing our current educational system, eliminating vital programs and making expecting more from a schools and teachers a challenge.

The bar-raising measures being implemented in Arizona are critical, and they require the strategic investment of new and existing resources.  If we don’t invest to provide our students with world-class educational excellence and prepare them for the global market, we are failing them and our state.

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