Tom Smart, Deseret News
As a patron of our state's public education system, the spouse of an elementary school teacher and longtime volunteer on a number of both school- and district-level committees, I read the recent editorial "Choice and accountability in education" (Dec. 18) with great interest. There are three issues in this editorial that I would like to address.
First, the editorial includes several apples-to-kiwis comparisons in the statistics regarding international students. Other countries' compulsory education, including New Zealand's, ends at age 15 or 16, essentially making high school optional. Therefore, the statistics used in comparative reporting include only college-bound students and exclude those who have opted out for trades or who have just dropped out.
Some countries also require longer school years, with many requiring upwards of 200 days in class per year, as compared to Utah's 180 days. If we could make the same types of statistical exclusions or would require a longer school year, I'm confident the U.S. would climb in the rankings.
Second, it is hypocrisy for our Legislature to praise local educators for their hard work and above-average efficiency and then sentence them to a status quo (or worse) budget that condemns them to a reality of never-decreasing class sizes and punish and deride them when the results are flat, at best.
The editorial points out that Utah's results in reading, math and science lag when compared to peer states. But the average class sizes in those peer states are nearly half what they are in Utah. If we want to see improved results as compared to those peer states, we need to mandate, and more importantly fund, a budget that allows for similar class sizes. It is the height of folly to expect stellar results from our algebra teachers, for example, when we allow class sizes well over 40, on the basis that the school average is within standard because there are only 16 in French or drama.
It is not just the educational establishment who must abide by choice and accountability, but the state must as well, and the state is now seeing the results of the choices made in previous years' budgets. I recognize the overall economy has something to do with that, but if the state wants to talk the talk, they must also walk the walk and "buck up" for education, even when times are tough. Legislators will proudly say, "We kept the WPU (weighted pupil unit) funding flat to last year," but the reality is that in the face of ever-increasing health-care and utility costs, the student-related WPU actually declined.
Last, the editorial implies that the current educational framework is stagnant and only competitive disruption can rescue us from ourselves. The reality is that such an inference is far from accurate. If that phrase equates to a hierarchy of district officials overseeing school administrators who in turn supervise teachers, then yes, perhaps that aspect of the framework is not changing. But within those walls, there is much that is moving forward to try and address the state's changing educational needs. Three examples follow:
(1) The Granite Technical Institute (GTI) offers courses in more than 50 technical and academic topics to 2,500 students daily. GTI students can earn college credit in pre-med, pre-engineering or biomanufacturing, finance and accounting or earn technical certification in cosmetology, dentistry, food and nutrition and numerous other subjects.
(2) District committees are already at work mapping out professional growth and evaluation criteria to ensure that the existing system facilitates an appropriate evaluation for all levels of employees and is up to date and captures all areas required by the State Office of Education. Such a system could eventually be used as the basis for a merit pay system.
(3) Utah is one of more than 40 states who has adopted the Common Core standards in math and language arts, moving away from the NCLB paradigm and getting past its unrealistic goals and standards.
I agree 100 percent with the idea that we all, including the great majority of those working within the current educational framework, "want better student achievement." However, to complain about "investing more funds into the same system" and "burden schools with greater accountability" when we have failed to sufficiently staff our schools is merely an exercise in shifting blame and avoiding accountability.
Our educators have a right to expect to educate children and parents who are willing participants, and most importantly, they deserve the financial support from the state Legislature that pays more than just lip service to the value of and need for a full investment in the state's future. We cannot continue to de-fund, or minimally fund, public education and hope that the collective commitment of our educators will make up the difference.
John Haglund is a member and past chair of Cottonwood High Community Council and a member of Granite District Community Council.
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