Weighing Penny Kotterman and Jason Williams

By Jenn


Superintendent of Public Instruction isn't often a race that a lot of voters care about — after all, how many of us know what the job description of this position is, let alone how to pick the best candidate for the job?

Yet, I think that Superintendent of Public Instruction is the most interesting, and woefully underhyped, contest for Democrats to consider this year. 

Compared to the vitriol that has characterized other races on the Democratic side, the two candidates for School Superintendent — Jason Williams and Penny Kotterman — have quietly and deftly elevated the level of debate between them. Both are liberal Democrats (dare I say "progressives"?), and both face the unenviable task of pulling Arizona from the bottom rung on public education, yet both propose well-reasoned – and distinct – plans for addressing this problem. The battle between Kotterman and Williams is truly an intellectual and philosophical one: voters aren't being asked to choose between the lesser of two evils, but between the better of two ideas. 

Unfortunately, the School Superintendent race on the Democratic side has been over-shadowed by the sheer stupidity spewing from the mouths of their Republican counterparts. John Huppenthal and Margaret Dugan are best characterized as completely inept when it comes to public education policy, and this fact has largely obscured the fascinating debate going on between Williams and Kotterman.

To address that failure of mainstream media to properly cover this contest, I'm writing this post to help highlight the intellectual differences between Penny Kotterman and Jason Williams. Hopefully, this will help voters going to the polls tomorrow to pick the candidate that best espouses their viewpoint on how to fix public education. Issues I do not address here are ones where I generally find both candidates agree with one another.

Why School Superintendent Matters

The Arizona Education Network has published some facts and history about why this post matters. In brief, School Superintendent is the top education official in the state, and chairs the state's Board of Education. He or she has influence in all aspects related to education, including school finance, curriculum design, and the interaction between federal and state-wide control of public schools. The Superintendent also influences more esoteric topics like the separation of church and state that stems from prayer in public schools, and matters of public safety arising from cyber-bullying.

Notably, current School Superintendent Tom Horne single-handedly spear-headed HB 2281, which banned ethnic studies programs in Arizona public schools. It is clear that a Democrat in Tom Horne's position would have prevented HB 2281 from even being considered — and indeed, both Williams and Kotterman have spoken out against the current ethnic studies ban.

Resumes and Experience

One of the key differences between Kotterman and Williams is in their resume — both became involved in education from different backgrounds. And not surprisingly, these different backgrounds are a profound influence on the priorities and perspectives each candidate has to offer on how to improve Arizona's public education.


Penny Kotterman has roughly 30 years of experience as a public school teacher (18 of those years are in Arizona public schools), including time spent as a teacher in a special education classroom.  

Kotterman has also served for six years as president of the Arizona Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union that specifically advocates on behalf of Arizona public education. She also served six years as a member of the National Education Association's Professional Standards and Practices Committee. She currently owns her own consulting firm, which helped advise Governor Janet Napolitano on matters of public education.


After graduating from Boston College with a B.A. in political science, Jason Williams worked with Teach for America as a teacher for three years in East Oakland, teaching math and science to 6th graders. In 2000, Williams moved to Arizona where he served for five years as the Phoenix-area Director of Teach for America. Currently, Williams works with a variety of education-focused committees and groups, including the PAC that he founded, AZ School Works.

In 2006, Williams won the Democratic nomination for School Superintendent, but lost the race to current School Superintendent Tom Horne. 

On Student Assessment and "Gateway" Years

Both Kotterman and Williams would like to change how Arizona conducts student assessment, to better track student growth and to identify struggling students earlier so that they can be helped by teachers. Both advocate for the development of "personalized student portfolios" that can help parents and teachers determine a student's personal growth from year-to-year.

However, Kotterman and Williams differ on their outlook on "gateway years".


Jason Williams is strongly campaigning on the platform of instituting gateway years at Grades 3, 8, and 12. In brief, students at these grades would need to demonstrate proficiency to a state-wide standard (it's unclear to me if this would involve administering additional state-wide standardized tests or not). Students who do not pass these standards will not be promoted to the next grade.

Williams argues that implementing such gateway years will help students achieve the level of education they need in order to stay competitive in the national market. In addition to demonstrating personal growth via their personalized portfolios, students must meet a certain universal standard in order to progress through their education, says Williams.

Williams further says that such gateway years would only be implemented with appropriate support for students and teachers. Students in danger of not demonstrating sufficient proficiency would be identified at least two years prior to the gateway year, and would be offered opportunities and interventions to bring them up to speed, such as summer schools, tutoring and student action plans.


Penny Kotterman argues vehemently against the implementation of gateway years, saying that instituting high-pressure grade levels will stress students and teachers, and reduce the quality of learning in classrooms. In the Clean Elections debate between Kotterman and Williams, Kotterman suggested that implementing a state-wide proficiency test at these grades will encourage teaching towards the test (and possibly even teacher "fudging" of results) in order to push students along.

Instead, Kotterman advocates measuring student growth principally through the aforementioned personalized student portfolios, and performance on the AIMS test (see below). 

On the AIMS Test

The AIMS test stands for Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, and is used to assess a student's growth every year from grades 3 – 8, in four sections: Reading, Writing, Math and Science. High school students must meet a certain state-wide standard on the AIMS test in order to graduate.


It appears as though Penny Kotterman generally favours the current use of the AIMS test to help assess student growth. However, Kotterman writes on her website that she would like change how data from the AIMS test is collected and analyzed. She would like to use the results of the AIMS test to help identify schools with struggling student populations, and specifically to help develop programs that would improve student achievement in these schools.

Kotterman also says that she would re-examine the AIMS test in order to ensure that certain populations of students are not disadvantaged by the test's contents. And, to be sure, there's plenty of data out there to show that some of the most common standardized tests out there (including the SATs) are culturally biased.


Jason Williams would like to completely overhaul the AIMS test program (he identifies changes to the state's student assessment program as his "top priority"), and opposes what he calls the "watering down" of AIMS standards in order to improve student graduation rates. He believes that lowered standards damages students' college- and career-readiness.

Williams also argues that the AIMS test emphasizes certain topics to the detriment of other topics students need to succeed. He believes that additional or altered standardized tests should be implemented that assess students on a more broad range of criteria than those addressed by AIMS. In a recent Tucson-area debate, Williams cited an ASU study showing that 70% of social studies teachers were told to teach less history in order to teach towards the current AIMS test.

On Teacher Recruitment and Incentives

This issue is where Williams and Kotterman really show their differences. Both Kotterman and Williams would incorporate growth identified in personalized student portfolios as an indicator of teacher quality. However, Williams and Kotterman disagree on how to improve the quality of teachers in Arizona.


Jason Williams' background with Teach for America clearly informs his position on this issue. Williams believes that public schools can do a better job of recruiting non-traditional teachers, and to built a "talent pipeline" to Arizona's schools. Not surprisingly, he also believes that doing so will help elevate the quality of education in public schools.

While Williams acknowledges that improving teacher pay will produce a financial incentive for effective teachers to come to (or remain in) Arizona schools, he also suggests that monetary incentives are not the sole (or even most effective) method for attracting these teachers. He promises to work with teachers and administrators to develop a broader incentive program for attracting high-quality teachers to Arizona's low-income schools (which would likely include appeals to a teachers' desire to teach).


Penny Kotterman's 30 years of experience as a traditional teacher influence her position on this matter. Kotterman argues that recruiting non-traditional teachers are not beneficial to Arizona's students — and that students need teachers with a demonstrated commitment to the teaching profession. On her website, she explicitly writes,"Teachers are the backbone of our educational system. They are dedicated professionals, and we need to honor their profession while recognizing that just as desire alone is not a qualification to teach, merely holding a certificate is not sufficient in today's economy, and continuous improvement is required."

Kotterman emphasizes that teachers must demonstrate talent in teaching and professional growth, and that Arizona must use financial incentives (see below) to recruit and retain these teachers in Arizona's schools. 

On Teacher Pay


Penny Kotterman, not surprisingly given her experience with teachers' unions, advocates strongly in favour of improving teacher pay in order to honour and reward teachers. And, it's true that most high school and secondary school teachers are paid abysmally given their integral role in preparing our children for their future: the average high school teacher makes about $35,000 annually, which is less than the annual salary brought in by the manager for your local Starbucks.

Although Kotterman believes that teachers must demonstrate continued excellence in the classroom in order to earn higher compensation, Kotterman also proposes that teachers' base pay be raised, so that it can become a competitive profession against other fields. Notably, an increase in teacher base-pay is not performance-based, and would apply to all teachers.


Jason Williams argues primarily in favour of performance-based increases in teacher pay. Teachers would be paid according to combined indicators of their performance in the classroom. Williams would reward teachers who can demonstrate that students have experienced personal growth over the year, regardless of what their start-point is using the aforementioned personalized student portfolio; an example Williams gives is that a teacher should be rewarded if a student who enters the 4th grade reading at a 5th grade level leaves reading at a 6th grade – not a 5th grade – level.

Williams would also reward teachers based on demonstrated professional development and continued career training.

Summary and Jenn's Take

Both Penny Kotterman and Jason Williams would be excellent representatives of the Democratic party in the race for School Superintendent in November. As I wrote above, your vote tomorrow should depend primarily on which of these two candidates you think proposes better ideas for improving public schools in this state.

I see this race as a fundamental juxtaposition between two schools of thought in the field of public education. Kotterman, as a veteran of the classroom, takes a specific teacher-focused position (we need to give teachers the resources they need, and they will improve classrooms), while Williams, as a former director of Teach for America, takes a more student-focused position (we need a broad- and performance-based approach to better cater to student needs and reform classrooms). Both positions have merit, are supported by the data, and simply represent different philosophies on how best to improve learning in Arizona schools.

Penny Kotterman has collected several endorsements from political big-wigs from around the state; by comparison, Williams' endorsement list isn't nearly as long. Notably, Kotterman has also received a personal endorsement from Blog for Arizona's David Safier, who is well-versed on matters of public education. As someone who knows a great deal on this subject, his reasons for supporting Kotterman are well-reasoned and worth checking out. 

I won't go so far as to endorse either of these candidates over the other, but I personally tend to favour Williams' proposals and ideas on how to fix public education in this state. I'm sure that's in part because I tend to favour a more student-centered approach to teaching, in general, and so Williams' platform resonates with my existing teaching philosophy. I support Teach for America's mission and I've always felt that teachers should be held more accountable to how their classrooms perform.

I hope this post has helped you make a decision on who to vote for tomorrow. I'm interested to hear your thoughts on this race and on the candidates in the Comments Section below, particularly if you think I've missed a key platform difference between these two candidates in my post.

10 responses to “Weighing Penny Kotterman and Jason Williams

  1. Thanks for the dialogue, folks. I hope we can all agree, including the candidates, to support whichever of these two emerges victorious from the primary.

  2. Thanks folks!!! I guess we’ll know in a few hours.

    Bill Astle

  3. @Jwright:

    I’m confused — are you criticizing Williams (and non-traditional teachers in general) for teaching subjects that they have not received a college-level degree in? He taught 6th grade math — are you saying that by virtue of not having been a math major, he was unqualified to teach students fractions, decimal places, ratios and the number line?

    I think that’s a little unreasonable.

    Williams’ major platform points are to hold teachers accountable for student performance. Unqualified teachers who fail to educate their students on the state standard are — under Williams’ platform — not rewarded or given a pass.

    Personally, I DO think that caring and enthusiasm is a good thing to encourage in teachers, and shouldn’t be pooh-poohed. Non-traditional teachers think outside the box because they haven’t been trained within a box; some of the most engaged teachers I know entered the classroom through non-traditional routes. If their students perform, exactly what criteria can we use to still call these teachers unqualified?

    Further, just having a college degree in a subject doesn’t necessarily make a teacher qualified to teach it. There is a high school gym teacher at a local school who teaches a sports medicine class a friend’s son took last year — it was the WORST class I have ever seen. The teacher did not engage or interest students in the material, but simply inundated them with hundreds of boring bulleted Powerpoint slides (like any college lecture class). The class managed to destroy whatever interest its students had in the subject matter. This teacher was a traditional teacher, with a background in exercise physiology.

    Not all traditional teachers are qualified to teach, and not all non-traditional teachers are unqualified. It should be less about judging CV’s, and more about letting a teacher demonstrate his or her talent in a classroom.

  4. @ Bill

    Good question — sorry I only read it now!

    As Frank writes, Penny Kotterman has a massive number of endorsements compared to Wiliams’ — and (without being too harsh) her endorsements are of a better … uhm… callibre than Williams’. Beyond elected officials, she has, of course, the AEA backing her — that is also a massive number of politically interested voters who will come out to the polls for her.

    On the other hand, Williams has proven himself a capable fund-raiser, and raised a lot of money when he was planning on running traditional (he eventually opted to run clean and returned the extra money he received to help him qualify). If I’ve done my math right, he has raised $83,000 compared to Kotterman’s $39,000 — which makes him competitive with the presumptive Repub nominee, John Huppenthal (he’s raised $90,000). Williams came close to beating Horne in 2006 (losing by about 10 points). And, I’m of the personal opinion that he’s a better public speaker. In debates, Williams’ answers are much more cogent, well-articulated, and thought-out than Kotterman’s when unscripted.

    I don’t think it’s easy to say which of the two candidates have a better chance in the general. Kotterman has the better party support, but Williams is the better debater and fund-rasier. Williams, in my mind, is more progressive, Kotterman proposes less radical changes to the education system.

    I’m inclined to say that Williams has slightly better odds in the general — but, really, it may be a toss-up. I think both are infinitely more electable and have a great chance against the Republicans in November.

  5. @Bill. Good point. I’d refer you to David Safier’s endorsement of Penny to partially answer your general election inquiry. I’d also suggest you visit Penny’s web site at http://www.pennykotterman.com to check out endorsements (PK has received endorsements from 60+ organizations). Finally, given the similarities when the candidates answer questions, I’d have to go with a career educator over a Political Science major. We’ve had many years of non-educators in the SPI position to the detriment of public education in our state. Penny’s experience has been in all aspects of public education; she’s been a classroom teacher, an administrator, a teacher trainer/ mentor, a respected member on national education panels, and an education advisor to several Arizona governors. In short, Penny’s experience is both a mile wide AND a mile deep. She would clearly have the best chance in the general election.

  6. An important distinction Jenn misses relates to teacher quality and preparation. Jason had no university level preparation for the classroom, and while his degree was in political science, during his 2 years in the classroom he taught math. That belies real accountability for content knowledge or teaching ability, and it’s an indicator of his philosophy that good teaching is more about caring than about knowledge and practice. There is certainly a place for “non-traditional” routes to the classroom, but there is no room in our schools for unqualified teachers. Kotterman holds teachers to high standards for knowledge, skills, and practice without exception.

  7. Jenn;

    Given how close these two are on most issues, and how bad the Repub candidates are, it would be useful to see an assessment of which would have the best chance of winning in the General election.

    Bill Astle

  8. Thanks for the detailed comparison, and the effort to remain unbiased.

  9. It’s surprising no rightwing Republicans signed up for this race as Green Party candidates as they did for the majority of posts being contested tomorrow: http://www.ballot-access.org/2010/08/23/arizona-green-party-primary-invaded-by-insincere-outsiders/