Education Accountability Principles, or Show. Me. THE MONEY?

Over the past several years, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser led the Legislature to adopt school grading, an education reform pioneered more than a decade ago by Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Before Florida embraced school grading, the average Florida student scored well below the average Utah student.

Within a decade of embracing school grading, the average Florida student was scoring substantially higher than the average Utah student. Moreover, after school grading Florida’s low-income Hispanic students, which statistically tend to score lower than nearly any other group of students, substantially outscored average Utah students.

School grading shines a light on what every parent and teacher knows – some schools do better than others. Unfortunately, Until now no one was sure which schools were better. Under school grading, every school receives an easily understandable letter grade (A, B, C, D, F) based on how much academic progress students make, and whether students have met the academic standards prescribed by the State Board of Education.  High Schools’ grades are based on one additional standard – how well the student is prepared for life after high school, as evidenced by graduation rates and ACT scores.

In spite of the fact that everyone intuitively understands these letter grades, the Utah Public Education Coalition (UPEC) has opposed school grading from the beginning. Rather than beginning a meaningful conversation with parents, teachers, students and other community stakeholders about the real state of public education, the UEA, School Boards Association, State PTA and other members of UPEC opposed school grading. When that failed, they tried repeatedly to delay implementation. (Utah will publish its first school grades next week, on September 3.)  Last session they tried to kill SB 271 because – as they have admitted –  it improved the school grading law.  Damage to students notwithstanding, these dangerous political hucksters were fighting for an unimproved policy they could disparage more easily.

Just over one week ago, UPEC unanimously adopted five “Guiding Principles for School Accountability,” principles they want implemented rather than school grading. UPEC’s principles reveal a great deal about the group’s priorities. The fifth principle provides the best insight into UPEC’s goals.

They will support and advocate for a system which “provides assistance to schools which have created an improvement plan, and the resources to implement that plan.” If you’ve got an improvement plan, no matter how foolish, apparently UPEC will “support and advocate” for the Legislature to “provide the resources to implement that plan.” In other words, “Here’s an improvement plan. Show. Me. THE MONEY.”

Other UPEC “principles” sound better, but do not bear scrutiny any better than the fifth principle. On the surface the fourth principle sounds fine. They want “a system which accurately reflects the performance of the school and has a common perception as to the meaning.”

Recall that UPEC opposes publicly evaluating schools based on students’ academic progress, whether students have met standards set by the State Board of Education, and assigning letter grades based on those criteria, using the same grades schools assign to students (A,B, C, D, F). If that system doesn’t “accurately reflects the performance and growth of the school,” and doesn’t have “a common perception as to the meaning,” it’s hard to know what the fourth principle means, let alone what it tells Legislators about the “improvement plans” UPEC wants funded.

UPEC’s second principle emphasizes the need for a system that rewards “even small increments of improvement.” Presumably this shows what kinds of “improvement plans” the Legislature should fund. I doubt many Utahns actually want this. If a student makes less than a year’s worth of progress (i.e., “small increments of improvement”), or if the student doesn’t know the material the State Board of Education says they should, the school is not doing its job, and should not be rewarded. This principle is just another way of rewarding failing schools.

I’m sure we’ll hear public wailing and gnashing of teeth from UPEC and their members when school grades come out next week. Don’t take them seriously. Just as happened in Florida, when low performing schools are revealed, communities will rally together to assist teachers and help students achieve success. The transparency and sunshine may be painful at first, but not nearly as painful as pushing unprepared students into an unforgiving world.