[EXCLUSIVE] Former Arizona schools chief opines on politics, vouchers, Secretary DeVos and Common Core


John Huppenthal / Facebook

And John Huppental says he wouldn’t waste his time running for office again

By Phil Riske | Senior Reporter/Writer | Rose Law Group Reporter

fter more than 20 years in elective office, ranging from the Chandler City Council to both houses of the Arizona Legislature, John Huppenthal was elected Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2011. Huppenthal on his last day in office, issued a letter warning the Tucson Unified School District that it was illegally promoting ethnic solidarity and the overthrow of the U.S. government by teaching Mexican History and hip hop.

In June 2014, an Arizona political blogger alleged Huppenthal was the person behind pseudonyms used for several years to post anonymous comments on his blog, and other political Websites, which he later tearfully admitted,

He was defeated in his race for re-election in the Republican Party primary in 2014 by Diane Douglas, who subsequently won the general election. Rose Law Group Reporter [RLGR] interviewed Huppenthal by e-mail April 6.

Related: Arizona school districts plan to sue Legislature over building cash

Public and private education funding always bring about often contentious political debates, legislation and court actions. Why is education so political? 

Education is so political because it is the common experience of every single soul on the planet; we have all experienced it in a different way. That experience produces a different and very strong opinion in each of us. That common experience has also, unfortunately, frozen the education system for over 200 years in an inefficient and ineffective state for most students.

If money does not necessarily yield better students and teachers, what does? 

There are many elements of effective school districts and schools that don’t require any money at all.

a) Assemble a cohesive, deliberative school board that strongly supports the superintendent and principals through thick and thin.

b) Select a superintendent with experience and keep them on the job until they retire from old age

c) Don’t fire people unless you absolutely, absolutely have to. Allow them to learn from their mistakes.

d) Define performance not by raw test scores but by academic gain. The science of academic measurement is scale scores and student growth percentiles. Of all the students you had last year, what were their scale score gains and student growth percentiles this year? How do those gains compare with the charter schools and other districts close by?

e) Define quality not by academic gain but by your measured relationships with parents, students and teachers. What percentage of your parents, students and teachers say that you are providing, not a good education but an excellent education and place to work? Have an expectation that quality will never go down but always up by at least a little bit. Measure more than once a year, study the surveys closely and try to make every change requested.

Where do you stand on Common Core? 

My thinking on Common Core has evolved since the 2015 national assessment came in and since I have been able to experience them personally by teaching in at-risk classrooms. Even before these results came in, I never felt that standards for children were an effective way to improve education. The academic performance of students in a class varies way too much to be standardized like widgets on an assembly line, even with the very best teachers; the Common Core standards are unreachable by most of the students – in one year. As a result, many very good teachers who have done an excellent job are labeled failures. Paradoxically, standards prevent us from reaching the standards. Academic productivity has fallen 20% since 2000, 5% from 2011 to 2015 alone – the era of standards.

Common Core is the latest fad to hit education and, now that the results are in, turns out to have been the most damaging one in history. The National Assessment for the period 2011 to 2015, the four years following the implementation of Common Core, saw math scores fall for the first time ever – ever. These scores have been collected since 1977 (NAEP). Reading scores, which had been on an upward trend, did not improve. The percentage of parents grading their child’s school an A, fell from an all-time high of 36% to an all-time 47 year low of 24% (Gallup). The percentage of teachers very satisfied with their job as a teacher fell an eyepopping 37% (Metlife survey).

What was your take on Betty DeVos becoming Secretary of Education, and how can the federal government serve education in ways the states do not? 

DeVos is a naif when it comes to education policy. She is going to be crucified in the mainstream media. However, she knows three important things. The federal government is not a force which improves education; Parent choice has the potential to hugely improve education outcomes and low income and that minority student are hugely underperforming their potential. That’s all she needs to know. The best thing that the Federal Government can do is to become a nothing. Turn all the funding into per student block grants and shut down. Every single initiative in the “Race to the Top” did pretty serious damage. In the four years of Race to the Top, US educational productivity went down 4.7%.

In Arizona, does higher education get equal attention and funding with public/private education? 

Higher education shouldn’t get equal attention or any funding at all from taxation. A little noticed phenomenon has taken place. Private colleges like Grand Canyon and Embry Riddle are becoming tuition cost competitive with our public universities. Also, as funding has dwindled, students have become much more important to our major universities and their performance has improved significantly. Quality ratings are up and there has been a huge increase in graduate production. The have a long way to go but for the first time, they are on the right path. Cutting off taxpayer subsidies will accelerate that healthy trend.

A recent study showed more affluent families are taking advantage of vouchers. Good or bad? 

When I was superintendent, I led an effort to directly inform low income and minority students about the availability of vouchers. Hypocrites like Brahm Resnick screamed to high heaven saying that I had “crossed a bright red line.” More affluent citizens are always going to be more aware of their opportunities.

All competition and choice is good for the education of the public. Since Arizona started on the school choice path in 1993, murders by juveniles have dropped from 70 to 7 despite a tripling in our at-risk population. A recent, scholarly, Urban Institute study ranked Arizona schools 13th in the nation in academics. Local districts such as Chandler Unified have seen the percentage of parents grading their child’s school an A rise from 38% in the 90’s to 75% currently (Westgroup). Every scientific indicator is that Arizona is on the right path. The media rankings lack a scientific foundation.

What did you learn most from your controversial time as Superintendent of Public Instruction? 

I learned that you can a lot done with the Department of Education if you turn it into a service agency. From day one, we established a mission of excellence in helping teachers, principals, superintendents and school business officials. We tied everyone’s pay to that mission and our leadership lived that mission.

The proudest moment of my life came when I called the superintendent of the Yarnell school district to see if we could help him after the fires. He told me that reports that had previously taken him three weeks to complete he was now able complete in less than four hours because of our computerization and our helpfulness. I received feedback like this from many principals.

During my time in office, our African American 8th graders rose to number one in the nation in math, up from 6th. Hispanics rose to 11th and whites to 6th. Our combined reading and math gains were the highest in the nation. We were the only state in the nation where teachers not only supported common core, they supported it 8 to 1. We were able to take a nasty lemon and turn it into lemonade.

What are you involved in now? 

Over the past 30 years, I have read thousands of research studies and developed a completely new theory of learning. Now is my chance to implement it.

I recruited a group of whiz kid programmers to develop software for me for free and I am working on a complete redesign of the classroom. Our goal is to move at-risk students ten times as fast academically in math. I became a certified math teacher and have been running the project in south Phoenix.

Our first year, our academic gains were 40% higher than the statewide average, this year I am expecting 100% higher. Next year is likely to be the knock it out of the ballpark year where we get gains never before produced in education. We already have some low-income, at-risk minority students doing over 2,500 math problems a day.

Any chance you would run for an office again? 

My 93-year-old father got his [driver’s] license renewed yesterday (four-year renewal!), and I went down to Tucson to visit him. He was up on the roof doing repairs. If I have his genes, that means I have 30 years to fully develop the classroom project. I don’t intend to waste any of that time running for office.


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