Arizona schools chief Tom Horne got a thumbs-up from educators and parents Tuesday for his state of education speech that promised a new focus on the arts and social studies.
Horne, sworn in a year ago as state superintendent of public instruction, urged public schools not to ignore social studies or cut funding to the arts while focusing more energy on the reading, writing and math that are on standardized tests.
"One unfortunate, unintended consequence of the testing culture, has been that some schools focus on the subjects tested . . . to the exclusion of the other vital subjects," Horne said in prepared remarks at Madison Lane Elementary School in Phoenix.
Diana Boman, whose son is a freshman at Gilbert’s Highland High School, said Horne’s remarks were welcome news.
"Just reading, writing and math doesn’t make it in the university setting," Boman said.
She added that her son is fortunate to attend Highland, where principal Ken James finds ways to weave basic subjects, such as writing, into electives. For example, the marching band had to write a paper, she said.
"Gilbert’s trying to be proactive, and I give them kudos," Boman said.
Mike Cowan, assistant superintendent for curriculum in the Mesa Unified School District, also was positive about Horne’s speech. He pointed out, though, that it can be difficult for schools serving at-risk populations to give the arts as much attention when students need extra help in basic subjects tested on Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards and the Stanford 9 achievement test.
"There is an old phrase: That which is tested is taught," Cowan said. "Schools and principals and teachers focus on reading, writing and math because that’s where they’re held accountable."
Cowan said the public schools do try to balance the basic subjects with other courses, "but I think we’re in a difficult spot trying to maintain the academics that are tested and provide a comprehensive education."
Horne also reviewed efforts by the Arizona Department of Education to improve the service it provides to schools. Educators praised the changes Horne has made in that regard.
"He has committed to the primary role of the Department of Education that it be service — as opposed to enforcement," said John Baracy, superintendent of the Tempe Elementary School District. "I hope he remains true to that goal."
Chuck Essigs, director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said Horne’s successful first year as state superintendent "is really a compliment to his staff at the Department of Education, who have really done well in working with schools."