University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Archive for the ‘The View from the OEP’ Category

House and Senate Education Committees Meet

In The View from the OEP on July 20, 2016 at 11:29 am



The Arkansas House and Senate education committees met this week to hear presentations and discuss progress on broadband upgrades and career/technical education planning.  A report on isolated funding took a side trip to broader transportation issues and ended with a request for an attorney general’s opinion.

Broadband Upgrades

We’re about halfway through the two-year project timeline to provide all Arkansas public schools with better and more cost effective high speed broadband access, and Chief Technology Officer Mark Myers reported more districts are connected and connections are faster than planned. Security and content filtering safeguards are in place, and performance monitoring is such that DIS will know immediately if a district’s email goes down. Issues with vendor deadline commitments and previously-existing contracts have been resolved thus far. DIS is on track to finish all the APSCN upgrades by July 2017, and you can track progress with this linked map.

CTE Emphasis in Education and Employment

A common thread through several presenters was improving the employability and earning power of Arkansans through coursework and credentialing that align with labor market demands and job growth. Outgoing ADHE Director Brett Powell said new jobs are going to applicants who have at least some college education, and while more Arkansans need to earn all kinds of degrees, the most growth is expected in jobs requiring a CTE certificate.¹ Department of Career Education (ACE) leaders reported their work with high schools and secondary technical centers to assess career and technical programs and enrollment in light of employer needs and future economic impact for students and communities.²  Bureau of Legislative Research (BLR) staff also reported extensively on CTE program offerings and student enrollment and achievement data.³

Isolated and Transportation Funding

Reporting on the distribution and expenditures of “isolated funding” intended to help districts with geographic challenges, BLR Assistant Director Richard Wilson said the majority of those funds are spent on instruction-related expenses and transportation.  Committee members’ discussion veered to the broader topic of inequity in transportation funding as allocated through the budget matrix. Lawmakers have repeatedly expressed frustration that distributing transportation dollars on a per-student basis results in a profit for some school districts while others must supplement transportation costs with money meant for student learning. Ultimately, the committees voted to request an attorney general’s opinion on how the courts might view changes to the transportation funding mechanism in light of educational adequacy.





Outstanding Educational Performance Awards 2014-15!

In The View from the OEP on May 25, 2016 at 2:38 pm

As the school year draws to a close for most students and teachers throughout Arkansas, there are many awards ceremonies and celebrations of student success. Here at the OEP  we are excited to celebrate the achievement of the highest-performing schools across the state in our 2014-15 Outstanding Educational Performance Awards (also known as the OEP Awards)!  Today’s awards are based on the performance of students on the PARCC Math and English Language Arts assessments (we released the OEP awards for Science earlier this year).

We celebrate two types of schools: “High-Achieving” and “Beating the Odds”.  High Achieving schools are those whose students demonstrated the highest performance on the PARCC tests, and “Beating the Odds” are the highest performing schools serving low-income communities.

Like the past three years, the awards are based upon a GPA measure. The OEP calculates a GPA for schools in each subject based on the number of students that perform at each level on the exam.  We slightly modified our procedure this year, due to the five performance levels reported on the PARCC exams (Exceeded Expectations is assigned a “4”, Met Expectations is assigned a “3”, Approached Expectations is awarded a “2”, Partially Met Expectations receives a  “1”, and Did Not Meet Expectations was assigned  “0”). GPAs are lower overall this year, due to more challenging assessments, and are not directly comparable to prior years because of the change in assessment.

Congratulations to all our OEP award winners!

Highest Achievement


The top elementary school in both math and literacy hails from the Little Rock School District: Forest Park Elementary! At Forest Park, 70% of students Met or Exceeded Expectations on the PARCC Math exam, and 81% did so on the PARCC Literacy assessment.

The remaining top 5 elementary schools for overall achievement are: Vandergriff (Fayetteville), Park Magnet (Hot Springs), Don Roberts (Little Rock), and Baker Interdistrict (Pulaski County Special).

We were pleased to see a lot of new schools on our lists this year and noted that nearly half of the top 10 elementary schools were newcomers to this award. We particularly celebrate the increased representation of schools from the Central region of the state who are receiving High Achieving awards!  Way to go!

You can see the rest of the top elementary schools, as well as the high achievers by subject and region in the full report.

Middle School

The top middle school in both math and literacy is McNair Middle School from the Fayetteville School District! At McNair, 56% of students Met or Exceeded Expectations on the PARCC Math exam, and 72% did so on the PARCC Literacy assessment.

The remaining top 5 middle schools for overall achievement are: Bright Field (Bentonville), East Hills (GreenWood), Greenbrier Middle (Greenbrier), and Benton Middle (Benton).

Many of the middle schools that made our top 10 lists have been recognized previously,  but there were several newcomers to these lists as well.  Once again, we saw a greater representation from Central Arkansas, especially in literacy performance.  You can see the rest of the top middle schools, as well as the high achievers by subject and region in the full report.

Junior High School

The top junior high school in both math and literacy is J.William Fullbright Junior High from Bentonville School District! At Fullbright, 55% of students Met or Exceeded Expectations on the PARCC Math exam, and 68% did so on the PARCC Literacy assessment.

The remaining top 5 junior high schools for overall achievement are: Valley View JH (Valley View), Woodland JH (Fayetteville), Greenbrier JH (Greenbrier), and Lincoln JH (Bentonville).   To find out what other Junior Highs made the list, as well as the high achievers by subject and region check out the full report.

High School

The top high school in both math and literacy is Haas Hall Academy!  At Haas Hall 95% of students Met or Exceeded Expectations on the PARCC Math exam, and 97% did so on the PARCC Literacy assessment.   Congratulations to the students and teachers of McNair!

The remaining top 5 high schools for overall achievement are: Bentonville HS (Bentonville), Benton HS (Benton), Rogers New Tech (Rogers), and Concord HS (Concord). To find out what other High Schools made the list, as well as the high achievers by subject and region check out the full report.


Beating the Odds: High Achieving with Low-Income Populations

These are special awards for schools whose students are achieving well even though they face some significant challenges.  While poverty impacts learning, these schools are demonstrating that they are “Beating the Odds.” The highlights are below, and you can read the full report here.


The top elementary school beating the odds in math is Cowsert Elementary from Clinton School District.  Despite serving a student population that is 71% eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch,  63% of students Met or Exceeded Expectations on the PARCC math assessment. Norfolk Elementary (Norfolk), Centerpoint Primary (Centerpoint), Green Forest Elementary (Green Forest) and Paron Elementary (Bryant) round out the top 5 elementary schools Beating the Odds in mathematics.

The top elementary school beating the odds in literacy is Norfolk Elementary from Norfolk School District.  Despite serving a student population where 83% of students are eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch,  60% of students Met or Exceeded expectations on the PARCC literacy assessment. Forest Heights STEM Academy (Little Rock),Dover Elementary (Dover), Omaha Elementary (Omaha) and Cowsert Elementary (Clinton) round out the top 5 elementary schools Beating the Odds in literacy.


Clinton School District also boasts the top middle school beating the odds in math. Clinton Intermediate serves a student population where of students are 77% eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch, and 34% of students Met or Exceeded Expectations on the PARCC math assessment. Atkins Middle, McRae Middle (Prescott), and Helen Tyson (Springdale) ranked 2nd -4th on Beating the Odds, while Nettleton Middle and DeQueen Middle tied for the fifth place spot.

The top middle school beating the odds in literacy is Nemo Vista Middle. Sixty-six percent of students are eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch and 57% of students Met or Exceeded expectations on the PARCC literacy assessment. Lingle Middle (Rogers), Clinton Intermediate (Clinton), Oakdale Middle (Rogers) and Nettleton Middle are the other schools that made the top 5 for Beating the Odds in literacy.

Junior High

The top junior high school beating the odds in math is DeQueen Junior High.  Despite serving a student population that is 73% eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch,  31% of students Met or Exceeded Expectations on the PARCC math assessment. Southwest JH (Springdale), Clinton JH (Clinton), and Douglas MacArthur (Jonesboro) ranked 2nd-4th, while Clarksville JH (Clarksville) and George JH (Springdale) tied for the fifth place spot for the top 5 junior high schools Beating the Odds in mathematics.

The top middle school beating the odds in literacy is Clinton Junior High. Sixty-eight percent of students are eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch and 45% of students Met or Exceeded expectations on the PARCC literacy assessment. Nashville JH, Southwest JH (Springdale), Douglas MacArthur (Jonesboro), Hot Springs Middle and Nettleton Middle are the other junior highs schools that made the top 5 for Beating the Odds in literacy.

High School

The top high school beating the odds in math is Marshall High in Searcy.  Despite serving a student population that is 68% eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch,  41% of students Met or Exceeded Expectations on the PARCC math assessment. Norfolk High, Marked Tree High, Cave City High and Omaha High complete the list of the top 5 high schools Beating the Odds in mathematics.

The top high school beating the odds in literacy is Norfork High.  Despite serving a student population that is 81% eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch,  65% of students Met or Exceeded Expectations on the PARCC literacy assessment. Cave City High, Marshall High (Searcy), Timbo High (Mountain View) and Marked Tree High are the other top high schools Beating the Odds in literacy.

Congratulations to all the OEP award winners and we look forward to recognizing you again next year!

Northwest Arkansas Report Card: 2015

In The View from the OEP on May 18, 2016 at 12:00 pm

In our latest report, the Office for Education Policy summarizes the 2014-15 assessment results for Northwest Arkansas districts and charter schools. In partnership with the Northwest Arkansas Council, we are proud to release the 2015 Northwest Arkansas Report Card, our annual look into standardized test performance, graduation rates, and all things K-12 in our region.2015 NWARC

How are Northwest Arkansas Districts Doing?

Northwest Arkansas districts outperformed the state on 2014-15 assessments and high school graduation rate.  NWA districts spend less per pupil, enjoy more National Board Certified Teachers, and boast eight high schools ranked in the top 10% in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. In addition, data recently released by the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford University, presents a new method for comparing the state assessment performance of Northwest Arkansas districts to other districts across the country.  These data show that Rogers School District, despite serving a large population of students At-Risk outperforms 72% of other districts across the county.  Fayetteville School District outperforms 77%, and Bentonville School District outperforms 84% of districts nationally.

What’s in the Report Card?page

The Report Card presents a ‘district dashboard’ format that makes it easier for educators, school administrators, parents, and state lawmakers to see how regional school districts are performing. A change in the assessment administered in 2014-15 (to PARCC) resulted in a substantial decline in student performance statewide, but because the NWA Report Card compares districts to their peer group in the region (either the ‘Big 5’ districts or the ‘Small 10’ districts) we can still get a measure of how performance compares.  Information includes key metrics about assessment results, graduation rates, student demographics, and financial indicators.

District Highlights:

  • Bentonville and Fayetteville were the highest performing traditional school districts on state assessments overall, and serve the lowest percentage of At Risk students.
  • Gentry had the highest proficiency rates for At Risk students.   Proficiency rates for  students were higher than the “Small 10” average, even though Gentry serves a higher percentage of students receiving Free/Reduced Lunch and Limited English Proficiency services.
  • Bentonville, Fayetteville and Prairie Grove were the highest performing traditional school districts on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills for students in grades 1 and 2.
  • Elkins graduated 96% of seniors in 2014-15:  the highest traditional school graduation rate.
  • Charters  are also performing well; Haas Hall reported near 100% proficiency and graduation rates, and no At Risk students.

In addition to the ‘district dashboards’, we also included spotlights about programs that extend beyond the classroom. Athletics, arts, advanced coursework and academic challenges are all areas where students in NWA districts excel.

Continued Improvement Needed

Benchmarking against other districts regionally and nationally is a comparison districts should welcome.  Making reasonable comparisons of student performance allows us to celebrate, and recognize that we can still do better. Northwest Arkansas offers many benefits to its residents, and outstanding public education for all students should be one of them.

This spring, students in Northwest Arkansas and around the state completed ACT Aspire, another new assessment.  Although the results of these assessments will not be directly comparable to the results presented here, they are the first step in a stable assessment system that can be easily used to measure changes in student performance across years.  There is no single measure of successful education, but improvement in graduation rates, advanced coursework completion and fiscal efficiency along with improved performance on other state assessments is something all our NWA districts should strive for.

For more information about current education issues, check out OEP’s Policy Briefs and Blog.  The more we can share the good news and look for ways to improve, the better Arkansas and Northwest Arkansas will be.

We invite you to share this report card with anyone who might be curious about the state of education in our region.  If you want more information on schools in Northwest Arkansas or the state as a whole, head on over to our website, where you can dive into all of the publicly available data on school demographicstest scores, and finances.

Arkansas’ Education Pipeline

In The View from the OEP on May 4, 2016 at 12:38 pm

How many Arkansas kindergartners will finish college?


First off, we would like to clarify a number reported in Monday’s Democrat Gazette.  The print article stated “Nearly two-thirds of students who started at an Arkansas public university in fall 2009 graduated four and six years after they enrolled, according to data from the state Department of Higher Education.”

The suggestion that 66% of Arkansas college students graduate in four or six years caught our attention, as the national average is less than 60%.  The reality is that only 27.6% of Arkansas students who attend four-year institutions actually graduate in four years. An additional 12.1% graduate after six years, bringing the total percentage of graduates to 39.7%.

Let’s follow the progress of a classroom of kindergartners, given what we know about the educational pipeline in Arkansas.


While the numbers aren’t actually tracking individual students through the Kindergarten->Post- Secondary system, we are applying high school graduation, college- going, and college completion rates to the Kindergarten class of fall 2002.

  • 35,283 students were enrolled in kindergarten in Arkansas’ public schools in fall of 2002.
  • 29,955 of these kindergartners graduated on time in 2014-15 (applying Arkansas’ statewide graduation rate of 84.9%)
  •   9,286 of these high school graduates are headed off to an Arkansas university after graduation (applying Arkansas’ college-going rate of 31% to four-year in-state institutions)
  •   2,563 of those who go to university will graduate in four years (given historical college graduation rates of 27.6%) and 1,123 more students will graduate in six years

These numbers indicate that  ONE in TEN Arkansas’ kindergartners will successfully complete a four-year university in six years.

Some high school graduates also attend two-year colleges. Recent data show it is 16.2% so 4,852 of our kindergartners are headed in that direction.  Of those, 742 (15.3%) will complete in two years, and an additional 223 will finish in three years.

A small percentage (3%) of Arkansas graduates attend private or independent colleges or universities in the state.  That would be 899 kids from our kindergarten class. 334 (37%) will graduate in four years, and an additional 124 would complete in six years.

Essentially, 3 kids from each kindergarten classroom of 20 students (14.5% of our kindergartners) will complete a college degree by the time they are 24.


There are several suggestions that we have to improve the percentage of Arkansas students getting college degrees.  What do we recommend?

1: Be accurate and clear. We are sure that the two-thirds error on Monday was unintentional, but it is important to share correct data and it helps to put these numbers in a context we can all understand.  We also wish we had better data about how many high school graduates go to school out-of-state and how successful they are. While better data won’t directly help students graduate, it can help identify the problem areas.

2: Look deeper into graduation rates.  High school graduation rates in Arkansas are above the national average, but many of our students are still not prepared for success in post-secondary education. Over 54% of Arkansas students will need remediation to be successful in college English or math courses.

3: Provide more effective support for students entering post-secondary schools. This could include enhanced transition activities while students are in high school, innovative ‘meet students where they are’ supports like frequent text reminders to students to complete important financial aid forms, better data systems linking K-12 and post-secondary systems,active reduction of stigma associated with ‘needing help’ be it academic or financial, and student advisors who are well-trained and strategically assigned students to support.

Arkansas site near the bottom of the nation in the percentage of adults with college degrees.  Unless we do more to ensure our students are ready for success in college, and to support them through college graduation, it looks like we will stay where we are.







Reflections on AP

In The View from the OEP on April 27, 2016 at 1:39 pm


As thousands of high school students throughout Arkansas prepare for Advanced Placement (AP)  Exams next week, we thought it would be a good time to take a closer look at AP in Arkansas.  Below is a short summary of today’s policy brief which explores the topic of AP in Arkansas in more depth. You can find district-level AP data here, and we recommend district personnel check out the new Commissioner’s memo regarding PSAT administration here, and sign up for free administration next fall.

Since 2003, Arkansas has boasted one of the most aggressive AP programs in the nation.

‘4 Core’

All high schools are required to offer at least one AP course in each of the ‘4 Core’ areas (math, English, science and social studies) each year. This mandate, established through Act 102, has greatly expand access to AP courses: in 2015, 87% of the students in Arkansas attend districts that enroll students in at least these ‘4 Core’ AP classes.

Fee free

In addition to expanding course access, the legislation pays AP Exams fees for ALL students. Without the state support, AP Exams would cost the student $92 each.  Low income students can get a reduced fee, but cost of the exams could be a barrier to participation. Participation of Arkansas’ minority and low-income students in AP Exams has increased by double digits since the fees were waived in 2005.

Increasing Success

In 2003, fewer than 5,000 public school students completed an AP Exam. Those students received a score of 3 or higher on 47% of their exams.  Eighty-three percent (83%) of AP Exam takers were white.

In 2015, nearly 26,000  public school students completed an AP Exam. Those students received a score of 3 or higher on 32% of their exams. Sixty-seven percent (67%) of AP Exam takers were white.

AP participation has increased over 400%!

Minority students are an increasing large share of the AP participants! 


Yes, passing rates have declined since 2003, but Arkansas has opened the AP door to a much more diverse population. Black and Hispanic student participation in AP Exams has increased 7 percentage points each, and low-income student participation has increased 23 points.

In addition, while the passing rates for these groups are lower than we would like, Arkansas’ minority and low-income students are performing similarly to their peers nationally.

Here at OEP, we would like to see our kids do even better, and we make several policy recommendations to support the continued success of AP in Arkansas.

  • Accountability: 30% of Arkansas school districts do not have students enrolled in the four AP core classes. Support should be provided to these districts to ensure that all Arkansas students are provided the “4 Core” requirement of offering one each of the four core classes in math, science, English, and social studies every year.
  • Innovation: Small schools who have consistently offered, and had students enrolled in the “4Core” at their schools appear to be offering classes in sets that vary by year to better meet the need of AP student cohorts within their schools. This and other innovations, such as co-oping with other small schools to provide brick and mortar or virtual classes, as well as the potential of online classes, would insure all students have better access, regardless of where they live in the state.
  • Pre-AP Pipeline to Success: While passing rates have improved, many students are not adequately prepared for success in AP courses. This could be helped by better defining the pre-AP pipeline, where students are developing needed skills before they sit in the AP classroom. While Arkansas does encourage pre-AP courses, better guidelines with accountability could ensure better student preparation across the state and, again, promote better student success equity.
  • Teacher Quality: Similarly, students may not be succeeding at higher rates because teachers are not adequately prepared or supported in the teaching of the AP courses. We must ensure teacher quality and recommend increased high quality training for new AP teachers and teachers in high need school districts. We also recommend the formation of an AP teacher support network within the state where novice teachers can receive support from a mentor AP teacher for longer periods of time.


For school leaders, board members, and/or assessment folks:

We were pleased to see the Commissioner’s memo explaining that ADE will fund the administration of the PSAT/NMSQT to all 10th graders next fall.  While participation is voluntary, here at OEP we highly recommend that Superintendents take advantage of the opportunity to administer the PSAT/NMSQT next year.  The PSAT/NMSQT provides information through AP Potential that helps schools identify students who show potential to be successful in AP coursework including student populations who may be underrepresented. An informational webinar to discuss the benefits is tomorrow at 2pm.  Sign up here by May 13th if you want your district to be included!




Good News Hidden in the Little Rock Controversy?

In The View from the OEP on April 22, 2016 at 5:49 am

On Wednesday (4/20), we at the OEP blogged about the controversial change of leadership in the LRSD. A handful of critics and commentators complained that the tone of the OEP essay was condescending as we described what we called “5 Facts” from our perch in Fayetteville about Little Rock. Fair enough. Our intent was to try to find a silver lining and report some good news, but we may not have fully succeeded!  So, this morning we will try again to “look at the bright side” on our blog and in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette Opinion section.

Published in Arkansas Democrat Gazette, April 22, 2016


The news of a leadership change in the Little Rock School District—from Baker Kurrus to Michael Poore—sparked controversy this week. In the face of the understandable negative reaction from many in the community to the unexpected change, we want to share a few of the reasons that we remain optimistic about the potential benefits of this move for students and families in Little Rock.

First of all, Michael Poore is a lifetime educator who’s been in the field since 1984. Last year, the choice of Kurrus as superintendent raised criticism because he had no professional background in education. In fact, his hiring required a waiver from the state Board of Education. Kurrus’ expertise was in finance and management, and it is undeniable that he worked doggedly to address the organizational and fiscal issues faced by the district. Poore has the background to lead the academic improvement needed in Little Rock public schools.

Second, Poore is a respected school leader with experience in a variety of school settings. Currently the superintendent of Bentonville Public Schools, Poore has served as a leader in several districts (large and small) in Colorado and Arkansas for more than a decade. Notably, he served as superintendent in Sheridan, Colo., with a student population that was 74 percent minority and 76 percent free/reduced-lunch eligible, and led the Sheridan district off the state’s academic ‘”watch list.”

Although not from Little Rock, Poore has learned the Arkansas context through his leadership of the fourth-largest district in the state over the past half-decade. Yes, Little Rock is unique; but all school districts come with their own set of challenges, and it seems Poore’s experiences have prepared him to meet this challenge.

Third, the leadership change does not appear to be the result of a Waltonite conspiracy to dismantle the Little Rock School District. Voiced by many over social media, this idea seems to stem from the fact that Poore currently works in Bentonville, home to Wal-Mart and the Walton Family.

On Tuesday night, journalist John Brummett tweeted that “I don’t actually think Poore of Bentonville is a Walton disciple. His politics may be a bit … uh, left?” After further investigation, Brummett wrote on Thursday that “And I also am advised reliably that the Waltons were as surprised by the Kurrus ouster as anyone.”

So, if it’s not a Walton conspiracy, then why did Commissioner Johnny Key make the change? At his press conference, Commissioner Key thanked Baker Kurrus for his strong management of the schools. While systemic organizational change is an important starting point, Key believes that Little Rock students and teachers may now benefit from a leader with a stronger academic background. This surely seems reasonable.

As for Poore, he says he is taking on this job because he wants to accept the challenge of turning around a struggling district and improving the lives of thousands of students. Given our past experience with Superintendent Poore, we’ll take him at his word.

While we believe that Superintendent Poore has the right mindset and experience to tackle the very challenging job of managing a large urban district, we understand the criticism voiced by many local (and vocal) leaders in Little Rock regarding the process. The communication about the change certainly could have been better, and one of Poore’s first challenges will be to engage the community and continue to develop strong relationships the way that Kurrus has done.

And this leads us to the fourth reason to be optimistic about the future of Little Rock schools. The recent controversy has reinforced what many of us already knew—many talented, energetic, and passionate people care deeply about the students in Little Rock. Vocal critics of the leadership change, like Sen. Joyce Elliott, care about Little Rock students. Commissioner Key is willing to face substantial criticism to make the changes he thinks are best for students. Poore cares enough to leave his relatively comfortable post in Bentonville for, by all accounts, a much tougher job, because he wants to make a difference for the students in Little Rock.

This controversy reminds us of an important fact: Various stakeholders, despite having different ideas and proposed strategies, all share a common goal—to improve the educational experience for students and families in Little Rock. We would all do well to keep this in mind!

From our post in Northwest Arkansas, we have been fortunate enough to observe Superintendent Poore closely. As a leader, he engages the broader community, considers competing views, and, most importantly, critically examines district practices in search of ways to improve the schooling experience for his students.

In our view, any district would benefit from Poore’s leadership, and we can’t help but feel optimistic that he will soon be working for the 20,000+ students in our state’s capital.

Gary W. Ritter and Sarah C. McKenzie direct the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas.

Half Full or Half Empty?

In The View from the OEP on April 20, 2016 at 12:56 pm

Monday night, news broke that Little Rock School District Superintendent Baker Kurrus’ contract was not being renewed.  Wow- that was a surprise!

Tuesday morning we learned that Bentonville Superintendent Michael Poore was going to replace him as the new leader of LRSD. Double wow!

Oh boy- the Little Rock folks and internet commenters started raging.  Some were mad that Commissioner Key was “dumping” Kurrus. The conclusion most seemed to jump to was that Baker was being ‘let go’ because he had opposed the expansion of two Little Rock charters.  From the comments, it is clear that many folks believe Commissioner Key selected Poore because he is a charter-friendly Waltonite who will dismantle the Little Rock School District.


Here at OEP we want to share with you what we see as the 5 facts:

1.   Baker Kurrus wasn’t ‘fired’.  Kurrus was hired on a one-year contract and it is not being renewed. It is undeniable that Kurrus has worked doggedly to address the organizational and fiscal issues faced by the district.  Commissioner Key had very positive words for his work in Little Rock; “He did everything right. He set the stage for the next direction of leadership.” Key also stated that he hoped Kurrus would continue to work with the district in some capacity. It’s not clear how that might work out, but both Key and Kurrus were professional and cordial at yesterday’s press conference.

2.   Many of the same people who are now upset that Kurrus is being ‘let go’ were also upset when Kurrus was first selected. When he was selected last May,  folks were unhappy about Kurrus’ lack of education experience, and, apparently, that they hadn’t been consulted. Now that a lifetime educator has been selected, some folks are still unhappy that they weren’t consulted.  Although you can’t ever make everyone happy, communication about this process could definitely have been better.

3.   Poore is an experienced and respected educator, with a variety of districts under his belt. Little Rock is unique, but all school districts come with their own set of challenges.  Although Bentonville’s student population is different from Little Rock’s, Poore has learned the Arkansas context through his work in the 4th largest district in the state. Although currently leading a large, low poverty district, Michael Poore has been at the helm of a racially diverse and high poverty district as well.  When he was Superintendent in Sheridan, Colorado, 74% of students were minority and 76% of students qualified for Free/Reduced Lunch. See table below for comparison of Little Rock to other districts led by Poore.Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 11.31.54 AM

4.   Academic leadership is critical to Little Rock students, and low achievement was the cause of the takeover. There seems to be general acknowledgement that Baker Kurrus has done some great work in Little Rock.  He has, according to Commissioner Key, “restored LRSD as an organization”.  Kurrus’ expertise was never in academics, but in finances and management. Although some have pointed to improvement in recently released Little Rock test scores as evidence of Baker’s positive educational impact, it is important to note that these scores are from tests taken last spring, before Kurrus was Superintendent.  Poore has not been a leader skating by on high test scores.  He has consistently asked us here at OEP to make data presentations, in PUBLIC, highlighting areas of weakness so they can be identified and fixed.  Recently, despite high test scores and above average graduation rates, Poore was seeking strategies to improve the graduation rate for At Risk students.

5.   Sometimes people do things for the right reason.  According to Commissioner Key during yesterday’s press conference, Poore has “servant’s heart”.  We assume he means that Poore is taking the position because it is the right thing to do for kids. Heading up LRSD is a tough job.  The money isn’t that much more, the Bentonville School Board was not trying to oust him, and as for the suggestion that he was pressured by the Waltons – apparently they were as surprised as the rest of us.  Kids are kids, communities are communities.  While angry community members are pointing out shortcomings (that Poore hasn’t worked in a majority African-American district, or that he isn’t from Little Rock, or that they weren’t consulted), here at OEP we believe that Poore is heading to Little Rock to make a positive difference for the kids.

Annual Salaries of LRSD Superintendents: 2011-2016

Holmes (2011-13) Burton (interim) 2013 Suggs     (2013-2015) Kurrus (2015-2016) Poore    (2016-?)
 $         226,806  $            149,676  $            228,000  $            150,000  $       225,000



When Poore was leaving Colorado, he discussed the skills he felt were needed:  “One, is that you have to have data to create the case for whatever direction you’re going to go, and second, the ability to communicate.”

Responding to Poore’s imminent departure, one of the Bentonville school board members vows you’ll never see a leader who knows staff better and who gets out in the community more tirelessly than Poore.

These are the SAME qualities that the community admired in Baker Kurrus.  Here at the OEP we feel that any district would benefit from a superintendent like Michael Poore.

The first time Johnny Key picked a superintendent for Little Rock,  people liked him so much they are ‘stunned’ that his contract was not renewed.  Why would anyone suggest that Commissioner Key would now make an inferior selection for Little Rock?

Little Rock- start looking at the glass as half full.  

With your support, it may begin to overflow.


Report Cards Are Out!

In The View from the OEP on April 15, 2016 at 12:08 pm

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 10.32.29 AM

Today, OEP is pleased to release our annual “Report Card on Arkansas Public Schools”.  Also today, the Arkansas Department of Education released the annual School Performance Reports.  Although both reports provide information about student performance on state and national assessments, the reports have different perspectives;  OEP’s Report Card compiles the information to inform a state and regional analysis, while ADE reports school-level information.

A-F Grades


Included in both reports are school A-F letter grades.  Because these are relatively new and very public measure of school performance, we would like to address this first.

The 2015 A-F letter grades (buried deep within the report cards again this year- but available in a downloadable spreadsheet here) may come as a shock to some schools and communities, especially on the heels of last week’s identification of 105 schools receiving over $4 million from the state for high performance.  Although many schools were given awards, only 10 Arkansas schools received an “A” grade this year (compared to 162 schools last year).   Twenty-one percent of schools received a “B”, but most Arkansas schools (54%) received a “C” grade.  The chart below shows the number of Arkansas schools receiving each letter grade.

A-F Grades 2015

What’s in a grade?


Similarly to the letter grades that a student receives from their teacher, school letter grades are an overview of several different performance measures: Performance, Growth and (where applicable) Graduation. Although still based on student performance on state assessments, the indicators changed some this year, and here at OEP we like the new calculations better, because they include a Value-Added score.  Value-Added is simply a way of examining how much academic growth students at a school made from one year to the next.  Schools that improved student scores more than we would have expected received higher growth scores, while schools where students did not improve as much as expected received lower growth scores. For more information about A-F, read this handout, view a parent- friendly video or enjoy a more detailed video of the ‘nitty gritty details’.

We at the OEP will be digging into the grades more deeply in the coming weeks, but want to caution against getting too caught up in the grades.  Seventy-six percent of Arkansas schools received a ‘passing grade’ of “A”, “B”, or “C”, which is about the same as last year.  Schools receiving “D”s or “F”s, however, are in the bottom 25% of schools in the state and are facing many challenges in terms of student performance.  Schools should take a hard look at the (very interesting) charts that accompany the Letter Grade reports and see how their performance compares with schools educating students with similar poverty levels.  By collaborating with schools that are experiencing greater success, perhaps these schools can provide more opportunities for their students.

But wait – there’s MORE!


OEP’s Report Card includes summary information and analysis of student performance, graduation rate, college readiness and education spending in one easy-to-access report.

Highlights from this year’s report include:

  • PARCC:  The first state assessment aligned to Common Core State Standards and the first that allowed for cross-state comparisons of student performance. Although proficiency rates were much lower than they had been on previous state assessments, Arkansas’ PARCC scores were in line with what we would expect given the background characteristics of our students and the scores from students in other states.
  • NAEP: The 2015 NAEP scores show that Arkansas’ fourth grade students score similarly to the national average in reading, although eighth grade students are still below average performance. In mathematics, Arkansas students still score well below national performance averages.
  • Science assessments: In the last year for these tests before we begin assessing science annually with ACT Aspire, there was a slight increase in 5th grade science scores, but the 7th grade scores declined.  Biology scores remained consistent with 2013-14 performance.
  • ITBS: Although still above the national average, scores for first and second grade students declined in both reading and math.
  • High School Graduation Rate: Arkansas’ 2013-14 graduation rate of 87% is above the national average and continued an upward trend.  The 2014-15 graduation rate released today, however, dropped to 85%.
  • Education funding is consistently supported in the state budget, and progressive for regions in need of support.

We hope the 2015 Report Card on Arkansas Public Schools can inform parents, teachers and policy makers as they work to ensure all Arkansas students are on track for success.





A Plan for Little Rock

In The View from the OEP on April 6, 2016 at 3:13 pm

Have you heard?  Little Rock needs a plan for its schools.

Last week, OEP participated in the special State Board Meeting to review decisions made by the Charter Authorizing Panel regarding some Little Rock charter schools.  Today we are summing it up and giving you our take.

There were LOTS of people at the meeting signing up for public comment either FOR or AGAINST. The meeting opened with many legislators speaking in favor of charter expansion, including Lt. Governor Tim Griffin.

Covenant Keepers

First on the agenda was Covenant Keepers, a charter school serving a population of students who are 100% minority, 31% ELL and 96% Free/Reduced Lunch eligible. Covenant Keepers’ charter renewal was approved by the Charter Authorizing Panel, but the State Board elected to review the Panel’s decision. (In an earlier post here, OEP suggested that the State Board should defer to the decision of the Charter Authorizing Panel, which is comprised of experienced educators who had carefully considered the decision they rendered.) The only person who signed up to speak against the renewal of Covenant Keepers actually spoke against the expansion of charter schools, which was not relevant to the Covenant Keepers item.  No one from Little Rock School District opposed Covenant Keepers. After heavy questioning of the school’s leaders, the State Board unanimously affirmed the decision of the Charter Authorizing Panel and renewed the charter for 3 years.

LISA Academy

Next up was LISA Academy, a charter school serving a population of students who are 69% minority, 4% ELL and 45% Free/Reduced Lunch eligible. LISA’s amendment to its charter, expanding the enrollment cap by 600 students in conjunction with opening a K-6 campus in West Little Rock, was approved by the Charter Authorizing Panel, but the State Board elected to review the Panel’s decision.

After the school presented materials demonstrating community desire through long waitlists and the detailed plan of implementation, Representatives Clarke Tucker and Charles Blake joined Senator Joyce Elliot in speaking in opposition to the  LISA expansion. Rep. Clarke Tucker (D) urged the State Board, “To create an opportunity for a city that has both charter schools and traditional public schools, to come up with a plan and work together for the betterment of the public education for the entire city.”   Rep. Tucker stated, “You need quantitative analysis, discussion and collaboration. You have to know the impact (on LRSD), before you can make the decision.”

Next up to speak against the LISA expansion was LRSD Superintendent Baker Kurrus. Superintendent Kurrus gave a nearly 20 minute presentation, showing data comparing LRSD and the charters.  I can’t link you to it, because it was not part of the public documentation posted by the SBE, but essentially he suggested that LISA was intended to serve a small number of at-risk students when it opened in 2004, and that LISA’s current expansion was far afield from the original intent because it serves a less at-risk population that LRSD. He believes the expansion will hurt LRSD, by leaving the district with a greater percentage of challenging students.  Superintendent Kurrus said he needed a plan of what was going to happen in regards to charters in the future in order to develop plans for LRSD.

After a handful of public comments, the Board began to discuss the issue.  Board members had a copy of the information being presented by LRSD, but Board member Vicki Saviers noted that the information the Board had received from the two sides (charter and LRSD) “Just doesn’t add up… there are two sets of information.”  In addition, she asked, “Is it the State Board of Education’s job to create a plan for Little Rock School District, or a plan for Pulaski County at large?”

It was up to Commissioner Johnny Key to answer that question.  “How do charters and traditional public schools work together?” Johnny Key asked. He mentioned numerous places around the country where such partnerships appeared to be working well. Next, Commissioner Key read a summary from a Detroit study that he felt was relevant.  In it, researchers indicated that parents made it clear to us that they didn’t care what their school is called, “What they want and need is for someone to take responsibility for making sure that when their child heads to school each day he or she will be safe, cared for and well educated.”

He noted that a plan for Little Rock needs to happen, that he had started that process, and that there are “A lot of smart people that want to make this work.”

The Board affirmed the Charter Authorizing Panel’s decision to grant the LISA expansion by a 5 to 3 vote, and unanimously agreed to place an action item on the April agenda about developing a strategic plan for the Little Rock area.


By now 10 pm, it was time for eSTEM, perhaps the most contentious item on the agenda. ESTEM is a charter school serving a population of students who are 57% minority, 2% ELL and 32% Free/Reduced Lunch eligible. ESTEM’s amendment to its charter, expanding the enrollment cap by 2,382 students in conjunction with several campus shifts and relocations was approved by the Charter Authorizing Panel, but the State Board elected to review the Panel’s decision.

After the school presented their materials demonstrating community desire through long waitlists and the detailed plan of implementation, Baker Kurrus spoke again in opposition for fifteen minutes or so.  “I hear a train coming,” said Kurrus, recognizing that the Board was likely going to approve the expansion.

Contrary to when he spoke in opposition to LISA, Supt. Kurrus was no longer calling for a plan for LRSD. “We don’t need plans to serve kids who are approx. 80% proficient or advanced,” said Kurrus. “We are doing a great job of that in Little Rock already.”  It’s interesting to consider for a minute what ‘great job’ Mr. Kurrus is referring to.  We have to wonder, if LRSD is doing a great job with these students, then WHY ARE THEY LEAVING?

Superintendent Kurrus also seemed to imply that kids who were scoring proficient are getting all they need out of their education, and should be happy with that. “The state of Arkansas has NO OBLIGATION to provide anyone with anything other than a free and efficient education,” said Kurrus, “and a kid who is scoring at proficient/advanced level is getting such an education.”

Making an interesting comment in light of the plan of collaboration proposed earlier by the Board, Kurrus continued, “There’s no need for us to collaborate with eSTEM or anyone else to serve the kids they currently serve.”

The Board affirmed the Charter Authorizing Panel’s decision to grant the eSTEM expansion, and eSTEM supporters that had been waiting six hours cheered.

So, what is our take here at OEP?

  1. This process, while lengthy, has been good for everybody.  The charters have had to make their case several times, and LRSD has had to make theirs. The public has had opportunities to make their voices heard.
  2. The anti-charter attitude seems to only apply to ‘certain charters’.  LRSD and the public were not protesting Covenant Keepers, which serves high poverty students.
  3. It’s tough to be a charter. If you serve very disadvantaged kids, you get pressured for low performance.  If you have high performance, you get attacked for ‘taking’ proficient kids out of the school system.
  4. And just so we are clear: Charters can’t ‘pick’ students.  They CAN, however, pick their teachers, which can make a big difference for students.
  5. We love the idea of using data to support quality policy making and working to develop a strategic plan for the Little Rock area. There are several districts around the country that are working ‘portfolio districts’ where traditional and charter schools work effectively together.  We hope the group will be clear about the mission and focus.  We would suggest considering the following questions:
    • What are the measurable goals for schools and what data should we be collecting?
    • Should traditional public schools be required — in public forums — to demonstrate effectiveness  in meeting the goals as charter schools are?
    • How can we get quality information without spending a lot of money or putting an undue burden on the schools?
    • How can we convince all policymakers and observers that high quality comparisons of student growth — not simple proficiency rates — are vital to the discussion.
    • How can we incorporate fiscal efficiency in these discussion?
    • How can we gather community input, that so is critical to successful planning?

Little Rock isn’t the only community that is going to have to figure out a plan to incorporate charters into their school systems.  We are happy to help however we can, and look forward to keeping what’s best for students at the forefront of the discussion.



Big Day in Little Rock

In The View from the OEP on March 30, 2016 at 11:40 am

Tomorrow is a Big Day in Little Rock.  The State Board of Education will decide whether two public charter schools, eSTEM and LISA, will be allowed to expand their programs. The charter school issue in Little Rock continues to stir lots of emotions regarding education, equality, opportunity, and what’s “right”.  In Today’s blog, we take a look at how we got here, what the issues are, and what we think is best for the students in Little Rock.

2004: LISA Academy opened in Little Rock.

2oo8: eSTEM charter school opened in Little Rock.

January 2015: The State Board of Education assumed control of LRSD because six campuses were labeled “Academically Distressed”

January 2016: LISA and eSTEM applied to amend their existing charters- expanding their offerings.  LISA requested an expansion to include K-6 students, and an increase of 600 students to its enrollment cap. ESTEM requested a multi-faceted and multi-year expansion plan that includes adding a new elementary school,  an adjoining junior high, and moving the 10th-12th graders to a new location at UALR. ESTEM is requesting an expansion to their enrollment cap- from  1,462 students to 3,844, an increase of 2,382 students.

February 2016: The Charter Authorizing Panel approved the expansion plans for eSTEM, and conditionally approved LISA’s elementary school request.  As we discussed in an earlier blog, the panel, which consists of top-level staff members at the Arkansas Department of Education, asked challenging questions about many facets of the proposals and discussed the difficulty of making the decision. (Click Here to read the article that was posted on the Arkansas Times)

March 9, 2016: The State Board of Education voted to hold hearings on  the expansion of eSTEM and LISA.  The board has the legal authority to either accept the Charter Authorizing Panel’s decision on a charter school or hold its own hearing at a later date. (Click here for more information)

March 31, 2016 (tomorrow!): State Hearings will be held at 5:00 at the Arch Ford Building in Little Rock.  The decision of the board will impact education in Little Rock and, likely, throughout the state.

So, in sum – two charter schools want to expand, a group of state department education experts thought the issue through carefully and approved the expansion.  The additional seats would be phased on over several years and would represent a small percentage of Little Rock’s enrollment.

What’s the big deal? Why so much drama?

There are several issues that opponents to the expansions have raised:

Creaming’: Opponents of the expansion, including Baker Kurrus, state-appointed superintendent of LRSD, claim that eSTEM and LISA are ‘creaming’ students from LRSD.  They suggest  expanding the charters will lead to a downfall of LRSD, because the students going to eSTEM and LISA are easier to educate (fewer students of poverty, with special needs, and limited English speakers).  As we discussed in our earlier blog, charter schools have no control over which students attend.  Unlike traditional public schools, students from anywhere can apply to eSTEM and LISA. The students are selected through a lottery process, where every applicant has the same chance to enter.  Schools cannot select ‘good kids’ to get in, nor can they give extra chances to at-risk kids.  It’s random.

Money:   Were LRSD to lose these 2,128 students to eSTEM and LISA, LRSD would lose nearly $15 million in annual per-pupil funding. That seems like a big number, but it is less than 5% of LRSD’s overall revenue of $340 million.  Moreover, while Little Rock SD would have fewer dollars available (after a one-year lag since funding is based on prior year enrollment), we should not overlook the obvious fact that the district would be responsible for educating fewer students. Finally, it is worth noting that eSTEM and LISA both spend substantially fewer dollars per pupil than does LRSD. According to the 2014-15 Annual Statistical report, eSTEM spent $7,907 per pupil, LISA spent $7,268 and LRSD spent $13,704.

Student Learning:  Well, actually, no one is really talking about this directly.  It seems assumed that eSTEM and LISA provide good education for kids.  Some say eSTEM and LISA have good results because their students are ‘better’ to start with, but here at OEP, we find these schools typically produce positive student outcomes even when we compare to other kids who performed just like them academically before attending the charter. But parents think eSTEM or LISA will be good for their kids, and thousands of students are currently on waiting lists for these two charter schools.

So what do we recommend?

The State Board should not overrule the thoughtful decision made by the experienced education professionals on the Charter Review Board. Thus, the State Board should vote to allow the expansions that were recommended after the thorough consideration of the Charter Review Board.

Some folks are framing this as Traditional Schools vs. Charter Schools showdown.  As State Board member Vicki Saviers said at the March 9th meeting,  “If we are unable to work together to effectively educate our students, I believe that the only losers will be the students and families in Little Rock.”  Little Rock is not the first city to struggle with how to incorporate effective charter schools into the education landscape, and Ms. Saviers mentioned the Indianapolis school system as one where the district has developed partnerships with charter school leaders.

Indianapolis and many other districts throughout the country are members of a ‘portfolio’ network at the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE).  CRPE has developed seven key components to implementing a portfolio structure which is “A problem-solving framework through which education and civic leaders develop a citywide system of high-quality, diverse, autonomous public schools.”   In our opinion, the Board should approve the expansion plans, because eSTEM and LISA are effective and efficient.  Following the approval, the Board should work to support collaboration and communication between LRSD and the charters.  It is not Traditional Schools vs. Charter Schools, it’s problem-solving. We see this type of collaboration as a way to move forward and do what is best for kids.

In our view, the goal of the State Board of Education, and of every local school board, should be to provide as many high-quality public school options (whether they be traditional public schools or public charter schools) or as possible so that each student in Arkansas has the best chance of having a positive educational experience.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 267 other followers