What Works and What Doesn’t Work


We know vouchers, tax credits, and corporate-run charters are not the solution for improving educational outcomes for all children in Arizona. Fortunately though, we also know what works and since a student’s socio-economic status is the most important influence on a child’s educational success, addressing the effects of concentrated poverty must be at the top of the list. Fortunately, there are several additional proven solutions below that should be somewhat easier to implement.

Highly Effective Teachers and District Leaders

In the 2017 Legislative Session, the Arizona Legislature and Governor lowered the standards for teachers. Teachers are no longer required to have a teaching certificate. Although teachers are not the most important influence in a child’s education (rather, it is the student’s socio-economic status), a highly effective one can make a world of difference.

One study showed that just one year with a teacher in the 75 percentile of value-added versus 25 percentile delivers students a $6,400 greater lifetime earnings; makes them 1.7 percent more likely to attend college; and for females, makes them 1.7 percent less likely to have a child as a teenager. This is for just ONE YEAR with a highly effective teacher! Yet in Arizona, we started the second half of the 2016-2017 school year with 53 percent of our teaching positions either unfilled or filled by uncertified teachers.

We know teachers are not primarily motivated by pay, but there can be no doubt that rock bottom (lowest in the nation even after the funding provided by Prop. 123) teacher salaries are a big part of the equation. Many previous teachers still reside in Arizona; they’ve just taken other types of jobs in order to support their families.

Increasing teacher pay and support is an absolute necessity if Arizona is to improve educational outcomes for all our students. For those who might point out that teachers “get the summers off” as proof they are paid enough, a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showed that primary school teachers in the United States work as many hours as average full-time employees across other sectors. But, when their 10 month contracts are considered, they actually work much longer each day or on weekends or throughout the summer.

Long hours though, can’t make up for the critical teacher shortage our state is facing and with 25 percent of the states’ teachers eligible to retire by 2020, the problem only going to get worse. In this ever more challenging environment, high quality district administrators and governing board members are also more critical than ever. 

Smaller Classes

When states and school districts have reduced Kindergarten through third grade class sizes to under 18, students do better in school.  Students who have been in classes with no more than 18 students in the primary grades are more likely to read at grade level by 3rd grade, more likely to graduate from high school and more likely to go to college.  Small classes can make a big difference and we have the research to prove it.  

Local data from TUSD and national data from class size reduction initiatives in Indiana, Tennessee, Minnesota, Wisconsin and California shows that reducing class size:

  • Improves student achievement
  • Has long-lasting benefits
  • Improves behavior in the classroom
  • Encourages students to stay in school

Download a copy of our class size reduction report Smaller Classes. Brighter Futures. And to learn more about the success of Tucson Unified School District’s Class Size Reduction Initiative download our report “Putting Children First: TUSD’s Class Size Reduction Initiative.”

Having smaller classes is especially important in the early grades of K-3.  This is when children are taught the foundation upon which the rest of their education will be built. And if we can get it right in the early grades, the research shows that the students reap the rewards throughout the rest of their careers in education.  

West-Ed’s Policy brief, co-authored by Jeremy Finn,   found that as class-sizes shrink,  teachers “ spent more time on instruction and less on classroom management. One such study from Australia also suggested that smaller classes allow more – and more protracted – interaction between teachers and individual students.  Observations of 52 of STAR’s 2nd grade classrooms showed that teachers could better monitor student reading progress and were more consistent in managing behavior. In a North Carolina study, researchers looking at  small  and regular classes discovered that in the smaller classes, there was more time spent on teaching and fewer discipline problems.  

Teachers in Marana who taught in smaller classes in Kindergarten and 3rd grades found that they had completed their year-long lesson plans by January. This gave their students the opportunity to receive  four months of more advanced instructional time.   (See our article on Public Education Heroes:  Wade McClean and Andrew Morrill to see how Marana Unified School Distrcit reduced class sizes)

Study after study has shown the benefits of smaller class size.  But national and state policy makers are not paying attention! They are supporting policies that have no research behind them:  expanding the privatization of public schools and increased testing. 

 Since 2000 Voices for Education has been a leader in class size reduction efforts in Arizona, putting research in the hands of parents, policy-makers and community members and working to hold our legislature accountable for failing our students. Voices for Education is working to reduce class size by:

  • Advocating at the state level from smaller classes in K-3.
  • Identifying methods and funding sources in order to sustain TUSD’s Class Size reduction Initiative.
  • Joining with parents, community members and educators to reduce class size in Sunnyside School District.

What’s the ideal class size for the primary grades.? The Tennessee STAR study randomly assigned over 7,000 students to different class sizes:  18 and under, 22-25 and 22-25 with an aide.  The STAR study found that the children in the classes with fewer than 18 students out performed their peers who were in the larger classes.  The STAR study also found that there were “lasting benefits.”  The students who were in the smaller classes continued to outperform their peers even when they returned to the larger classes.  They out-performed them in reading, had less discipline problems and were more likely to graduate from high school and go on to college.  While all students benefit from smaller classes, the greatest gains were made by low-income and minority students.  

While the most research has been done on K-3 class size reduction, in Voices for Education’s youth survey, we found that 78% of 7th graders and a whopping 86% of 11th graders would prefer to be in a class with fewer than 24 students.  Arizona has some of the largest class sizes in the United States.  Only Utah has larger class sizes than Arizona.  In a state, where we underfund education, reducing class size may seem like a luxury, but it we want to compete on a global level and live  in a economically viable state, we must make this investment.

Check out our report on TUSD’s efforts to reduce class sizes in Arizona.  This district reduced class sizes in Kindergarten in their most at-risk schools–they saw improvements in reading in just 4 months.  The improvements were so great, that they expanded the program to small class sizes in all Kindergarten and First grades.  

This program was stopped after four years due to state budget cuts.  It was paid for by 301 money.  Check out our  reports:  Putting Children First:  TUSD’s Class Size Reduction Initiative and Putting Children First:  TUSD’s Smaller Class Size Initiative; Year 2.

What can you do to help  Arizona students receive the benefits of smaller classes?  Work with Voices for Education to develop, support and pass a state-wide initiative to reduce class sizes.   Work with your districts to ensure that when the economy turns around, a portion of 301 money(check out school finance section of our website) will be used to reduce class sizes.  When voters passed Proposition 301, the initiative stated that money collected could be used for class size reduction.  (The ads made it seem as if all of the money was going to class size reduction) Tucson Unified School District was able to reduce class sizes to 18 and under in all Kindergarten and first grades with just 3% of 301 money.   

Join us on facebook (Voices for Education) to keep up with the latest information on efforts to reduce class sizes! 

Quality Early Childhood Education

We know that quality preschool helps provide children a solid start to their entire educational experience and payback on investment has been shown to be as much as $13 for every $1 spent, especially for disadvantaged students. These costs savings come from reduced health care costs, reduced crime, greater earnings, more education, higher IQ and more. Yet, the state of Arizona does not fund preschool and only funds half-day kindergarten. Educational professionals recognize how critical these programs are and often — with the help of locally supported funding from either overrides or their schools foundations (where they exist) — find a way to fund these programs. Where additional funding is not available, these programs are sometimes offered at the expense of educational opportunities for other grade levels of students.

Wrap-Around Community Schools

This model focuses on bringing together health and social supports, family and community engagement, and a rich curriculum with expanded learning opportunities both during and after normal school hours. It requires results-focused partnerships to harness the human, financial and institutional assets of a community to enrich their students’ educational experience. One such example is the Tucson Community Schools Initiative. Another is the 10,000 community schools model promoted by Journey4 Justice. (PHX) Research shows that providing wraparound services at schools can:

  1. Help reduce health-related issues that can impact education;
  2. Help meet student and family basic needs creating more classroom stability;
  3. Encourage parents to communicate more with teachers and empower them to help their children more by offering family programs such as English language learner classes; and
  4. Free up teachers to concentrate on instruction versus other student needs, reducing their stress levels and burnout tendencies.

Less Testing and Yes … More Recess

In October 2015, a two-year study showed the average student in America’s big-city public schools was taking an average of about eight tests over 20-25 hours per year. Yet, these tests have not been shown to even shape, let alone help, academic outcomes. The over-the-top focus on standardized teaching has instead, reduced autonomy and enjoyment for teachers, and sometimes, made school less relevant for students.

A more valuable approach would be to increase the amount of time students have to play. The American Academy of Pediatrics have said, “recess can be a critical time for development and social interaction” and “children need to have downtime between complex cognitive challenges” and “they tend to be less able to process information the longer they are held to a task”…they “actually have to take a break.” Children, it turns out, need to be allowed to be children.


Just to set the record straight, there is no current school choice alternative to public schools that produces better across the board results. Public schools are where 85% of Arizona students CHOOSE to go to school.  Some members of our legislature don’t get this.  The keep expanding vouchers (aka Education Scholarship Accounts, ESA’s, Empowerment Scholarship Accounts) and charter schools, calling it “School choice.” In reality School Choice is usually about schools choosing children, not children and their parents choosing school.  Here’s a big difference-a public school educates every child who walks through their door.

The ongoing dilution of available education monies between all the various forms school choice takes is taking away money from public schools (who, again, educate the majority of Arizona students), and move us closer to a two-tiered education system.  This dilution is not efficient nor is it effective for ensuring all of Arizona’s students are provided the opportunity to succeed. Governor Ducey and our Legislature have made it clear they do not intend to raise additional revenue via either tax increases or rolling back corporate tax cuts, so the pie available is only so big. If private schools are to be given bigger pie pieces via vouchers, the pie pieces given to district and charter schools will be smaller. Yet, 77 percent of Arizonans polled in December 2016 and every state-wide poll since, said they support more funding for education and 61 percent said they are willing to pay more taxes for that purpose. Over 85% of Arizona students attend district public schools. Why doesn’t the Governor put the money where the students are? Governor Ducey’s Classroom First Council studied the school finance formula for over a year and came up with the same conclusion – that reworking the formula would do no good without additional funding to push through it.

Arizonans understand the problem and know what will help solve it. It is time for us to ensure our lawmakers know whom they work for.