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Horne key to success of reforms
Arizona Republic
Jan. 9, 2004 12:00 AM

Robert Robb, columnist

There is a natural aptitude for politics, just as there is for foreign languages or music.

Although he has ample political ambition, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne doesn't have a natural touch for the business.

The stage management for his "State of Education" address Tuesday had all the right ingredients: a high-performing, low-income school; captive but charming fourth-graders singing patriotic songs; even "Promises Made, Promises Kept" wallpaper behind him.

Despite the immaculate staging, however, there was a forced, contrived feel to the thing, beyond the usual artificiality of such occasions.

Although politics may not come naturally to Horne, he appears on his way to becoming an important transformational figure in Arizona public education, the guy who provides some stability to the state's education reform regime.

There has been a general dissatisfaction with public education in the United States for several decades.

There are two fundamental problems. The first has to do with societal and demographic changes beyond the control of schools.

Academic achievement remains highly correlated with family circumstances. But an increasing number of students come from family circumstances not conducive to learning. The second has been flabby curricula and educational philosophies.

Arizona, along with many other states, has adopted a system of accountability to address the latter, in hopes of overcoming the former.

States that have stuck with an accountability regime - standards, tests that measure the standards, consequences for the tests - have experienced academic improvement. While it's too early to make conclusions about the extent to which accountability regimes can improve student learning, they are pushing achievement in the right direction.

Arizona's accountability regime, however, has been a moving target for a decade or so. The standards have undergone fundamental changes, as have the performance requirements for schools and the consequences of not meeting them. AIMS as a high school graduation requirement has been postponed several times.

Educators, skeptical about accountability regimes to begin with, have understandably felt whipsawed.

Horne appears to have made good progress in stabilizing Arizona's accountability and reform structure.

His most visible effort has been with immersion for English learners, a policy adopted by voters three years ago.

Horne campaigned for the office largely by criticizing his predecessor, Jaime Molera, for not doing enough to enforce the law.

Arizona's political and media elites denounced this tactic, even claiming that such criticism was racist. The accusation was that Horne was implying that Molera wouldn't enforce the law because he is Latino.

Of course, the denouncers were implicitly contending that Latino politicians should be immune from criticism on certain subjects, itself not exactly a color-blind position.

In any event, Horne proved his point by taking action - aggressive monitoring and threatening to withhold funds - that has largely ended fairly broad evasions of the law that were taking place.

Under the old accountability standards, which emphasized the current status of student achievement, a large number of Arizona schools were going to be designated as failing, up to half by some estimates.

Horne built on changes initiated by Molera to place greater emphasis on yearly progress, a fairer measure of school performance and one that doesn't penalize as much schools with harder educational tasks due to the socio-economic profile of their students.

He also continued efforts to make the AIMS test more reflective of what reasonably should be expected of all high school graduates, particularly in math, where the standard had been set way too high.

Hopefully, the accountability regime will now have some stability and not be a constantly moving target for educators. But the hard part remains enforcing the consequences.

There will still be a politically bothersome number of students who fail the high school AIMS test. And a politically sensitive set of schools - disproportionately low-income and minority - will still be deemed failing.

The test for Horne will be whether he fights for the consequences or proposes yet further dilution of the standards.

At that point, it may be good that Horne isn't a natural politician. Because a politician's instinct will be to flinch.

Reach Robb at robert.robb@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-8472. His column  appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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