Arkansas Media Campaign: Students Need Tougher Classes

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The Arkansas Department of Education has a message for parents across the state: Students need to take tougher classes.

The campaign plans to send posters, such as the one above, to secondary schools.
The campaign plans to send posters, such as the one above, to secondary schools.
—Courtesy of the Arkansas Department of Education

To get that point across, the state launched a media campaign last month to promote its new Smart Core high school program—a 22-unit curriculum designed to improve students’ college and work readiness.

But while Smart Core is the default curriculum for students who entered 9th grade this school year, 10 percent of parents have invoked their option of keeping their children out of the program in favor of an easier course load. State officials say that opt-out rate is too high and hope their media campaign, which includes a Web site and radio and television commercials, will encourage more parents to forgo the option.

The campaign comes at a time when other states are also raising high school standards and looking for ways to better prepare their graduates for work and college.

“[In Arkansas], we have large groups of kids who, because of where they live or how much money their family has, are not enrolled in the same rigorous classes or facing the same high expectations from their teachers,” Gov. Mike Huckabee said in a speech announcing the campaign at a state meeting held in Little Rock last month.

“This is immoral, and it must change,” he said. “We must prepare all students for success after high school.”

Creating a New Culture

The Smart Core curriculum requires students to take four years of mathematics and English, and three years of science and social studies, among other courses, for high school graduation. Certain courses, such as Algebra 2 and grade-level English, are required under the Smart Core program, but not under the alternative 21-unit course plan.

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Parents can choose to keep their children out of the Smart Core program as early as 7th grade, the year that students begin taking high-school-preparatory courses.

“We’ve got a lot of the systems [for high school reform] in place,” said Julie Johnson Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas education department. “It’s just a matter of getting people to buy in to it.”

The most likely reason for parents to opt their children out of the curriculum is that they don’t understand the benefits of Smart Core, program supporters say.

For example, parents may think that high school graduation alone is still “the pinnacle” it was when they were younger, said Barry Owen, the director of secondary education for the 13,700-student Fort Smith School District.

But, he said, the real pinnacle is “graduating with the skills you need to get where you want to go.”

The radio spots, which are to begin airing this month, will tell parents that today’s college and workforce environment is “not the world they graduated in,” according to Ms. Johnson. Television commercials aimed at middle and high school students will hit the airwaves this week.

“We want to create a culture in Arkansas where people want to take the harder courses,” Ms. Johnson said.

The advertising agency that is under contract to lead the ad campaign “worked hard to make things that kids wanted to look at,” said Matthew Gandal, the executive director of Achieve Inc., a Washington-based nonprofit organization that promotes raising academic standards and has worked with Arkansas on its high school initiative.

He noted that one commercial is modeled after Apple Computer Inc.’s distinctive iPod ads that feature silhouettes of people dancing to popular music.

The television spots tout the benefits of the curriculum, as well as the opportunities that may be lost by opting out, Mr. Gandal said.

Vol. 26, Issue 07, Page 21

Published in Print: October 11, 2006, as Arkansas Media Campaign: Students Need Tougher Classes
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