Guest Column

Constitutional Promise for A New School Year

Together let’s welcome a new healthier school year with hopeful positive collaboration that puts our students’ learning at the center

By Elsie Arntzen

When school doors open with the first bell ringing, the focus in Montana will be on student learning! The basics of math and reading are the keys to delivering educational excellence to our Montana students. In Article X, our Constitution states that it is “the goal of the people to establish a system of education which will develop the full educational potential of each person.” The 2022-2023 school year brings new opportunities and innovative solutions to that constitutional promise for the success of our students and teachers.

Let’s look back a year ago. There were constraints of masking and quarantine that lead to inconsistent opportunities to learn. Adding to these challenges, parents were given three minutes at the microphone. A divide clearly existed between parents and school. And to top it off, the current federal administration’s overreach referred to parents as “domestic terrorists” at the request of the National School Boards Association. As a result, our students suffered. According to the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Study, Montana has a 30-year high of 41% of high school students reporting feelings of sadness or hopelessness.

The opportunity to learn math and reading suffered. The statewide assessment scores for grades 3-8 in 2021 showed 46% proficiency in reading and 34% proficiency in math. Our most precious resources, our Montana students, deserve better. I am joined by parents, students, and teachers that know the old “pencils up” one-size-fits-all end-of-the-year assessments are not a true reflection of student knowledge. I am committed to utilizing every tool in our tool belt and even fashioning and modernizing new ones. I am redefining the way we measure academic growth in the classroom through the Montana Alternative Student Testing (MAST) pilot program.

This program is designed to alleviate the stress on students and teachers while producing immediate results that reflect true learning growth. The MAST pilot program will include 30 school districts and 5th and 7th-grade math and reading students this year. This innovative approach is designed to be a “through year” assessment comprised of smaller testlets that are taken closest to the learning of the skill.

Our state math teaching and learning standards haven’t been overhauled for over a decade and have lingering Common Core attributes. Research and deep review of our math content standards are in process. It is necessary to align math with technology and online learning. These new math standards will be implemented through math innovation zones with a focus on personalized student learning. Teaching confidence in math to students and teachers is the primary goal.

From a family of teachers to myself, a teacher of 23 years, my focus is on having a quality teacher in every classroom across our state! This school year begins with new innovations that:

• support certification of substitute teachers

• invest in student teachers through the Teacher Residency Program

• allow retired teachers to reenter the classroom

• grant more flexible opportunities with a new efficient virtual TeachMT portal that will house professional development and grow a quality teacher pool

• remove barriers in the state licensing rules to allow other states reciprocity and new pathways to increase access to Montana’s teaching profession

Together teaching and learning determine quality education. I am grateful to the Negotiated Rulemaking Committee which recently engaged in a meaningful redesign of school quality through Montana’s school accreditation rules. The new accreditation system will implement accountable and responsible local control measures while removing a simple check-the-box notification. This ensures that every public school will be putting our Montana students first.

Quality teachers + student learning + parent involvement = academic success. Together let’s welcome a new healthier school year with hopeful positive collaboration that puts our students’ learning at the center. I’ve done my homework and I know I serve students, parents, and teachers.

Elsie Arntzen is the Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction.

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