As state superintendent of public instruction, John Huppenthal said he would take what he's learned from examining schools and through research models to put the best ideas out there for principals across Arizona to study and implement.

Citing numerous studies and research, Huppenthal told the East Valley Tribune's editorial board last week that Arizona schools perform "ever so slightly above average" in progressing students through school. But because students enter kindergarten behind their peers nationally, it's difficult to make great gains.

"They're starting school academically behind. They don't know 7,000 words. They know 5,000 words. Our average student ... ranks 46th" in the nation, Huppenthal said.

He said there are schools in Arizona that progress students, and it's those models he wants others to learn about and adopt.

"We know if one school can do it with the existing resources, then every school can do it," he said. "That's the nature of competitive enterprise."

Students need more motivation, he said. That is a "fundamental problem" in Arizona's schools.

Huppenthal said he's seen teachers motivate students simply by allowing them to vote on what they want to do next in the classroom.

"What I've done is looked at, ‘What are school districts actually doing?'" in terms of moving students academically, he said.

Until students have achieved the basics - reading, writing, math and speaking skills - Arizona's schools are "under a tight grip," Huppenthal said. And moving beyond the basics is what makes a good school. "A good school is a school that develops students in all dimensions. That's critically important. There's so much pressure on schools to narrow down," he said.

Huppenthal said he's seen in laboratory classrooms efficient ways to teach that don't take any more time.

And, he said, Arizona's school choice environment can help improve the entire system. "Everyone has to match the No. 1 guy or go out of business," he said.

Huppenthal is a trained engineer who has spent 17 years on the state House and state Senate education committees, including tenure as the Senate Education Committee chairman. He served as a Chandler councilman from 1984-1992.

As state schools chief, Huppenthal would have a position on the Board of Regents. He would use that to encourage change in the Colleges of Education in Arizona's public universities, including more focus on phonics for reading rather than whole language.

He would also like to make it easier for "highly qualified people" with degrees in areas other than education to become teachers.

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