State of Education in Arizona

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Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal explains what he told lawmakers about the state of education in Arizona.

Ted Simons: John Huppenthal took over as Arizona's superintendent of public instruction last month. The former lawmaker returned to the capitol today to speak to the senate education committee about the state of education in Arizona. Here now to tell us what he had to say is superintendent John Huppenthal. Good to see you again. Thanks for joining us.

John Huppenthal: It's always great to be here.

Ted Simons: What is the state of education in Arizona right now? What did you tell the folks at the capitol?

John Huppenthal: Well, we have challenges. We're a border state, we have a lot of low-income minority children that don't have the advantages that many of us had when we were growing up. And as a result, we rank in the bottom 10 of the nation overall when you consider fourth and eighth grade results in the nation. So we have challenges, but we also have a lot of assets. We have a powerful system, number one in school choice for our parents, and that's a powerful asset to work with.

Ted Simons: Let's start with the challenges. The need for additional resources, how great is that need, and did it surprise you when you took office?

John Huppenthal: Well, there were some specifics. Our computer system, I wish when I was in the legislature somebody would have grabbed me a little harder and said, you got to focus on this. Because the computer system that handles and provides services to all the school districts, that equipment is so old, Hewlett-Packard equipment, when we call they don't answer the phone. They don't support it anymore. So it really is a major drag on our service systems, and the school districts rely on it, and it's not doing a very good job. So we're really focusing on that.

Ted Simons: But resources like the computer system and other aspects, I know you're looking for ways to partner with other groups, who are you looking to partner with, and how will that help as far as resources are concerned?

John Huppenthal: Well, in some ways when you have a stressful situation like this, you have to make due, and you can create assets out of it. We're partnering with the Maricopa County school system, they are going to help us, they need the information out of that computer system, they're going to provide us resources. Arizona state University, the same thing. We're working also with Maricopa County community colleges. So we in the end may turn a liability into an asset. It's forcing us to seek partners that maybe we wouldn't have been aggressive as otherwise.

Ted Simons: Are these partners, though, that are still would like to see a little more commitment at the state level?

John Huppenthal: Yes, and we do have some resources that the governor has freed up. She's been very attentive on this, and so we have a contract with her. They're very specific deliverables, and we intend to deliver on that. We brought in mark masterson as a really good career in the private sector turning around computer operations, and he's been doing a phenomenal job bringing our -- it's an antique, but we brought it up and got good service levels out of it.

Ted Simons; What is NAEP? A lot of folks hear that and it comes and goes. What is that?

John Huppenthal: It's the national assessment of educational progress, federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars creating it and making it a real good way to compare state level performance.

Ted Simons: How do we do in that --

John Huppenthal: well, we rank in the bottom 10 in the nation. Overall when you consider across the whole spectrum, math, reading, science, it's -- so we have a lot of challenges, our students rank in the bottom 10, but when you take school effects and subtract them out, our schools are average, but our students are in the bottom 10. A little bit complex to understand that, but we are -- our schools even average schools aren't good enough to move us out of the bottom 10. We need much better. And that's our objective.

Ted Simons: What's going on there with that dynamic, that disconnect?

John Huppenthal: Well, when you -- in order to compare our schools against the rest of the nation, you have to subtract demographic effects from school effects. So our school effects rank right at the national average. We're about 21st. Those school effects aren't enough to let our students out of the bottom 10. So the states are packed tighter than we would think, so we need to really be number one in the nation. We've got to take that on Florida if we're going to do a great job for our students.

Ted Simons: I want to get to Florida, but as far as NAEP is concerned, you call that the cream of the crop as far as getting that information out there. Your predecessor and other critics thought the sample size wasn't enough and didn't give it quite as much importance. Why do you think it's such a big deal?

John Huppenthal: Without getting into an argument with anybody, clearly for those I'm an engineer by training, clearly the sampling techniques, the measurement techniques, it's a gold standard. It's the appropriate way to compare states, to compare students and properly analyze to compare schools.

Ted Simons: OK. Back to Florida here. We've talked about this in the past, our big fan of what they're doing in Florida in a variety of ways. Why? And I think we understand Florida does things differently. There's more money for people in Florida, they do pre-K, they do all sorts of other things we don't do. They mandate the size of classrooms. Can we follow that particular model?

John Huppenthal: Well, the reason we're looking at Florida with so much interest is they've made the biggest move in the 40-year history of NAEP, the national assessment. When you see something like that, and it's validated by their internal state's test and the NAEP, so sometimes that's not true by the states. So clearly a huge gain so that creates interest. But they've done a lot of things there. So you have to deconstruct it piece by piece. The things we're focusing on are the Florida center for reading research, clearly cutting-edge stuff, and moving children to higher reading levels. We want to move all of that knowledge and technology here, and also the school district accountability. The letter grade system, combined with moving it up to school districts. Now when people vote on a school board, when the school board Goss to select superintendents or hold them accountable, they will know how they're comparing with other districts across the state.

Ted Simons: And in terms of this letter grade, how do you decide -- who figures that out?

John Huppenthal: We have a very good scientist, Robert Franciosi, he's as good as they come at deciphering through that. It's guided by his interactions with the technical expert panel and he's also going -- getting a lot of input from the state board and school districts.

Ted simons; So they are having some input, it's not like they're going to be surprised by the way this is done.

John Huppenthal: I think there's going to be a bit of a shock when the letter grades come out, there's going to be a bit of a shock across the land. When I -- when the legislation passed, I have a two-year transition to get them ready. There's going to be general knowledge about the letter grades but it's not going to be the accountability system.

Ted Simons: What kind of timetable for something like that?

John Huppenthal: Well, there's going to be general knowledge about what the letter grades are come July. So that's going to be released, there will be a public record, but the stuff that's going to be posted is going tonight previous system which had excelling highly performing was a little easier on the school districts.

Ted Simons: We'll look forward to that. Last question here, you mentioned today in front of lawmakers there at the capitol, your former cohorts down there, that you have a greater appreciation for how the law can impact something like education. How a simple sentence or simple phrase can make a very big -- talk more about that.

John Huppenthal: Well, the thing that's a lot more vivid to me now, I'm having to deal with the laws I created. And I'm like holy smokes, I never knew. Just a phrase in the law at the capitol can mean thousands, many thousands of hours of work in the field for school districts. So the thing I communicated to them is we're going to be more focused than ever at making sure we get it right and we're supporting them with their policy work there.

Ted Simons: And they seem to understand what you were saying, it was one of those, we'll just do what we want to do anyway?

John Huppenthal: I think senator Crandall and representative Goodale and the other members, these are as good a policymakers as I've come across in my career, so we're going to be able to work very well with them.

Ted Simons: Superintendent good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

John Huppenthal: It's always a pleasure.

John Huppenthal:Superintendent of Public Instruction;

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