Arizona education ripped in study

I like to believe Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction, is being honest and factual when he says the quality of education has improved for Arizona children since he took office in 2003.

Then my faith (and perhaps yours) is tested when an independent research and publishing company comes out and in essence says, "It ain't so." Morgan Quitno Press proclaims at the top of its Web page, "17 years of reliable rankings." The company has just released results of its 2006 Smartest State Award and guess which one finished at the bottom?

Arizona is the dumbest state in the union, preceded by Nevada, Mississippi, California and Alaska. Vermont is at the top of its Smart State rankings, followed by Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and Maine.

You will note that four of the five smart states are in New England and the other is in the Northeast. I had to go beyond the company's home page to find out it is located in Lawrence, Kan. That immediately dispelled my notion of regional bias in the rankings.

Arizona's ranking is unchanged from the preceding year in the listings. Vermont maintained its No. 1 position.

Morgan Quitno generates its list based on a variety of factors. Those factors include money spent on students, standardized test scores, graduation rates, teacher salaries and teacher-student ratios. Arizona test scores generally are above average even though the state historically ranks near the bottom in dollars spent per student. Morgan Quitno founder Scott Morgan told the Associated Press that the amount of money spent on students is a legitimate way to measure schools, if only as an indication to a state's commitment to education.

Horne's reaction to release of the report Wednesday was swift and predictable.

A news release from his office states, "In response to an incompetently performed study by an obscure company that does not know what it is doing; Arizona schools Superintendent Tom Horne today released a copy of a report based on test scores prepared by the American Legislative Exchange Council. It shows Arizona ranks 22nd out of 50 states." Horne is quoted in the release as follows: "While it is our goal for Arizona to be in the top 10 states, the current ranking of 22nd out of 50 is above the national average. Considering that Arizona ranks last in funding per pupil, the fact that Arizona is above average in test scores is a tribute to Arizona teachers and administrators, who do not deserve unfair criticism by incompetently performed studies."

The DOE release went on to state the ALEC report tracks more relevant data that reflects student performance based on test scores, which is the most valid methodology for gauging student achievement. Horne also notes Arizona students outperformed the national average on SAT scores and standardized Terra Nova tests that compare state students with their peers in reading and math.

John Hartzell, director of public relations, put out a news release for the Arizona Education Association soon after Horne. He perceives the report more as an indictment of state lawmakers than of educators. The AEA release stated the Morgan Quitno Press survey discusses test results and graduation rates as related to 21 criteria, including poor teacher pay and large classroom sizes.

"The Arizona State Legislature and other public officials are letting down our public school children and parents by not properly funding our public schools," AEA President John Wright stated in the release. "It's not that public schools are failing our children, it's that Arizona is failing our public schools." Wright goes on to say Arizona must invest in the future by better supporting public schools, reducing class sizes, and compensating teachers with fair pay. The state ranks among the lowest in the nation in a teacher's starting salary, which in some parts of the state is just $22,000.

It is interesting to note that on Tuesday, the day before the Morgan Quitno report came out, Horne announced his department is going to partner with The History Channel in a first-of-its-kind statewide history education initiative. Arizona's history standards are regarded as among the most rigorous in America. A comprehensive, integrated plan is to be developed in four phases that will ultimately reach every K-12 student in Arizona. In the first phase, The History Channel Multimedia Classroom would be distributed to every public middle and high school history and social studies teacher, a news release states. The curricula will be closely correlated to Arizona standards and made available pending the development of funding.

"I am tremendously gratified that The History Channel has recognized the hard work it has taken to strengthen Arizona's history standards," Horne stated in the release. "When I took office in 2003, one of my first goals, which was accomplished within a year, was to make sure students in high school revisited important topics such as the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, Revolutionary War, the ideas on which this country was founded and the Greco-Roman basis for western civilization.

"For too long, these subjects were covered only in the middle school years when many students are not mature enough to absorb these concepts in depth."

So, who do you believe about education in Arizona - Horne or Morgan Quitno?