Matthew Ladner

Noble legacy in education is on table for Napolitano

Posted on November 20, 2006 | Type: Op-Ed | Author: Matthew Ladner
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Congratulations are in order to Gov. Janet Napolitano. Most people would take a celebratory pause after a landslide re-election, but I'd be surprised if our governor did.

In a sense, Napolitano's greatest race has only just begun: a race to establish her legacy before the clock runs out.

Napolitano's first term will be remembered as a time of strong economic growth. Revenue poured into the treasury, letting lawmakers increase spending and cut taxes simultaneously.

Pundits tend to judge lawmakers by input, but history judges them by output. When it comes to education, for example, it is best to judge governors not by what they put into schools, but by whether or not their reforms improve learning.

The most reliable indicator of academic achievement, The Nation's Report Card, reveals almost half of Arizona's public school fourth-graders can't read at a basic level despite current taxpayer funding of more than $8,000 per student. We all should be deeply disturbed by this.

Americans view public education as an egalitarian institution that promotes equal opportunity. The reality of the system, however, stands in stark contrast to this ideal.

How did our public school system get into this mess?

Today's system of training and compensating teachers is one reason. Our colleges of education produce too few high-quality instructors. And because teachers are not paid based on performance, we lose many quality instructors to other fields.

William Sanders, the nation's leading expert in teacher quality research, has examined the impact of teacher quality on learning. He compared teachers on a "value-added basis," measuring how much students learned over the course of a year with a given teacher. He found that students learning from teachers in the top 20 percent of effectiveness for three years in a row learn 50 percent more than students with teachers in the bottom 20 percent. Sanders also found that given the same quality of instruction, the Black-White achievement gap almost disappears.

Far from egalitarian institutions, public schools today incubate inequality. If we tried to design a system that would covertly but systematically discriminate against the disadvantaged, we would have a hard time coming up with something better.

Much can be done to improve this situation. Expanding school choice would give disadvantaged students greater opportunity to learn from high-quality teachers. And, liberalizing teacher certification requirements could transform schools.

We can accurately measure teacher productivity with student test scores. Tying compensation to results would introduce rewards for success and consequences for failure.

This, without a doubt, is a lot for one governor to take on. Napolitano, however, demonstrated an independent streak in her first term. If there is to be a lasting education legacy, bold action will be required.

Half the fourth-graders in Arizona can't read, and sand is running through the four-year hourglass. Show us what you're made of, governor.

The writer is vice president for research at the Goldwater Institute, a free-market-based public policy institute in Phoenix.

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