Arizona priority: Focus on 3 R'sArizona
Arizona Republic
January 29, 2007

Literacy and numeracy belong at top of education chief's list Jan. 30, 2007 09:12 PM

For the most part, Tom Horne has done a commendable job as superintendent of public instruction.

He managed to avoid the train wreck that AIMS as a high school graduation requirement was headed toward.

He fought off attempts to eliminate a high school graduation test requirement but fiddled with what was required to pass.

In the end, the failure rate was kept to a politically acceptable level. It is impossible to discern the extent to which that is because kids learned more or because the test was diluted. Nevertheless, the structure of an accountability system was salvaged.

If it weren't for Horne, Arizona would have a judge-imposed English-learner funding program that gave schools a huge financial incentive to label kids as such and keep them so labeled. He fought for representative government when Gov. Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Terry Goddard wouldn't.

However, in his State of Education address delivered last week, Horne appears to join Napolitano in looking beyond the true, fundamental education challenge in Arizona: achieving universal basic literacy and numeracy.

Napolitano wants to make algebra an eighth-grade requirement. Whether that is a good or bad idea can be debated.

However, when 36 percent of Arizona eighth-graders are scoring below basic, defined as having just partial mastery of the fundamental skills necessary to achieve proficiency, on the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress math test, it's an irrelevant proposal. Achieving universal basic numeracy is a prerequisite for its consideration.

Horne's ideas, profiled in his address, also look beyond this fundamental challenge. For example, he wants each student from seventh grade onward to have a personalized learning plan. That undoubtedly would lead to better educational choices in high school. However, it's not nearly as urgent as achieving universal basic literacy and numeracy by the seventh grade.

Horne also proposed pilot programs for high schools where every student has a laptop and international K-12 schools, in which students would learn three languages and participate in exchange programs.

It's good that Horne is suggesting pilot programs. Too often, policymakers rush off to widely implement reforms without knowing whether they work or working out the kinks.

However, with Arizona's charter school laws and movement, top-down experiments really aren't necessary. It should be left to education entrepreneurs, and parents and students, to decide how laptops-for-everyone or international K-12 schools stack up against other education innovations.

Parity in charter school funding, which Horne has admirably advocated, would help foster these and other ideas.

Laptops-for-everyone and international schools fit into the schematic of preparing students for the 21st-century, high-tech, global economy. And that is what is fetching the attention of politicians these days.

Now, Horne has rightly insisted that the public school system shouldn't neglect the achieving students while attempting to improve the performance of those who are lagging behind. Nevertheless, universal basic literacy and numeracy is Job 1.

It's a big job. Thirty-five percent of Arizona eighth-graders also fall below basic on reading. For Latino students, it's 51 percent.

It's also a hard job. Some recent studies have given some guidance as to what is required. A ThinkAz study found that English learners who become proficient quickly narrow the achievement gap.

"Beat the Odds," a study done jointly by the Center for the Future of Arizona and the Morrison Institute, found some common approaches used by Arizona schools that had Latino and low-income students performing at or above the norm. The key component was constant assessment and fine-tuning individualized instruction programs.

Developing lesson plans for an achieving, relatively homogeneous class is tough enough. Constantly recalibrating lesson plans for individual students with deficiencies is asking a lot of teachers.

The focus should be on trying to spread and institutionalize these practices and exploring what resources can be brought to bear to make the job easier for teachers and more effective for students.

That's not as glamorous as thinking up ways to better enable high-achieving students to plug into the 21st-century global economy. But universal basic literacy and numeracy are where it all has to begin.

Reach Robb at or (602) 444-8472. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Read his blog at