Today, I’d like to talk about the pillars of our education system that allow Arkansans to adapt to an economy that grows more complex and more high-tech by the day. We must preserve and strengthen these pillars for our young people as they pursue satisfying careers.
The first pillar is an unshakable commitment to the fundamentals of education: in-classroom learning built upon effective instruction in core subject areas taught by high-quality teachers.
In Arkansas, we know that school isn’t really school without that pillar. That was one of the crucial considerations when we decided to continue in-person learning throughout the past school year, even in the face of well-intentioned resistance. Arkansas was one of only four states to do that.
The value of in-person school – with sports, band, socializing and teacher contact – over the isolation of remote learning was clear. In rural areas, we boosted teacher pay to retain good teachers so that all students had adequate instruction regardless of their ZIP code.
A commitment to the fundamentals goes beyond attending school in person. Core reading and literacy skills are vital to success in the classroom, in life and in every career path.
Here’s a bit of history to confirm our commitment to the basics. In 2017, we saw a pressing need to increase reading skills throughout our schools. We established the Reading Initiative for Student Excellence to provide reading instruction based upon the science of reading emphasizing phonics. We also worked to create a culture of reading in the schools, with individualized help to assure third-grade students read at grade level. This significant initiative will increase the number of students who are reading and performing at the highest level.
The second pillar is our commitment to embrace 21st century tools as we teach the fundamentals. The first step in that was the computer science requirements we implemented. These requirements have set us apart from other states and contributed to our reputation as an attractive state for innovative companies across a host of industries.
Our success in Arkansas is proof that we can quickly overcome stereotypes and increase test scores. Computer science was just the beginning. Even before COVID-19 struck, broadband connectivity was fast becoming essential for us to compete with other states. When the CARES Act opened new opportunities for funding, we redoubled our efforts to take broadband to students in rural and low-income areas.
The third pillar is our public-private partnerships. When it comes to connectivity and workforce training, the government cannot and should not go it alone. Arkansas’ Ready for Life initiative allows the private sector the opportunity to participate in building our workforce. Ready for Life is a one-stop website where job-seekers, educators and employers can find each other.
That’s our formula. No. 1. Teach the old-school fundamentals. No. 2. Enthusiastically embrace 21st century tools to teach the fundamentals. No. 3. Enhance public-private partnerships in support of education. Do those three things and success will come naturally.