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The opportunity to rethink Arizona’s education system is now

Rachel Yanof, Executive Director, Achieve60AZ

Originally published on AZCentral.com

There is a lot of talk about “returning to normal” and what that means, post-pandemic.

Over the past few months, in the scramble to move to online and distance learning, the challenges of our education system have been exposed like never before. As a former teacher, principal, school-system leader, and now head of an organization that supports the statewide goal to see 60 percent of Arizonans have a certificate or degree by 2030 – I propose that we can never go back to “normal” in education.

I laud educators for their tremendous work in this moment. They have shown that the system can be nimble and responsive, and make big things happen.

Now, we need to scale that change and build for the future, designing a system that addresses the most underserved and, ultimately, meets the needs of all students.

Arizona’s educational system has been wildly disrupted. It’s time to reimagine it. 

In my career, I’ve had to fit into the existing education box, then find ways to think outside of it. With that in mind, Achieve60AZ is launching a new blog series, “Road to Attainment,” expanding on what we’ve learned during this time from education, business, and community leaders, parents, and students.

We hope you’ll engage with us as we explore the possibilities, including:

Early start. What if school starts at age 3? Research shows an early start would position all students to achieve more through extended opportunity for play, access to healthy food, and learning social skills. Parents with stable childcare are able to work more and attend school to better their family’s economic status.

Year-Round Calendar. Other countries see better performance from students when they go to school year-round. As a teacher, I remember spending the first six weeks of every year reteaching from a summer off, exacerbated for students who are less likely to go to camp or without consistent access to books and computers. With a year-round model, students have stable access to food, counseling, and infrastructure basics like air-conditioning or heating, and internet. 

Extended school day. Right now, working parents must rely on family or pay for before- and after-school care in order to accommodate a 40-hour work week. A longer school day could integrate activities kids need: outside time or more recess, longer lunches so they really eat the veggies, regular art and music, and longer class periods for deeply-engaging projects and experiments.

Achievement-based learning. Currently, rules say a learner is “ready” when they have been in each class for a prescribed time. Why not, instead, create competency-based classes, work-based learning, and meaningful apprenticeships worth credit for high school and postsecondary students, at scale? This pandemic has taught us that learning is not a function of time, but mastery of content.

Employers as education leaders. Employers must rethink how they are investing in their workforce. Now is the time to push for innovative career training, expanded education benefits, and rethinking employees as lifelong learners – all changes that serve employees as well as the current and future needs of the workforce at large.

Taken individually, each of these changes helps increase opportunities for learning. The larger task is integrating many changes and designing a system that has the potential to dramatically change educational outcomes.

In the old normal, African-Americans, Latinx, and American Indian students still trail in all academic areas, as do students with special needs. Most distressingly, income is still the main determinate of educational success.

Big shifts are uncomfortable, but, if we all can forge ahead through the discomfort, and support our leaders when they do things differently, even bigger successes are the reward.

Our kids’ future will be defined by COVID-19 response 

I have spent a lot of time with my three young kids lately.  A lot. Their generation will be defined by our society’s response to COVID-19.

We must use this moment to lay the groundwork for a better future. Achieve60AZ exists to keep Arizonans focused on the ambitious education goals we have set for all learners.

Going back means we will not meet our Education Progress Meter goals — metrics that were set intentionally to get students on track for academic and career success.

Together, we can write an Arizona story that starts with a pandemic, but ends with every student achieving, every adult working, and our state thriving.  

Join the conversation at Achieve60AZ.com/RoadtoAttainment. Let’s seize this opportunity and create a better normal, where Arizona is a leader in education and economic prosperity.


Rachel Yanof is the executive director of Achieve60AZ, an initiative of more than 150 organizations committed to achieving the goal of 60 percent of Arizona adults obtaining a postsecondary credential or degree by 2030.