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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Will the new grading system help or hurt Utah schools?

Published: Sunday, Sept. 29 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

The Legislature's school grading system has drawn a lot of fire. Will it help or hurt Utah's public schools?

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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Random thoughts on random issues:

The Legislature's school grading system has drawn a lot of fire. Will it help or hurt Utah's public schools?

Pignanelli: "Good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths pure theatre." — Gail Godwin Hey guys, thanks a bunch. The newfangled school grading caused a night of turmoil at the Pignanelli household (we have enough mayhem already). My daughter's high school received an "F" and my sons' middle school was awarded an "A." This led to hours of "my school is better than yours" and "the stupid test doesn't mean anything because you're still ugly" and so on. Then the focus was on me to support the insults or compliments of the grades. I strained all my political resources of dodging and weaving (which never fool teenagers anyway) and retreated with the excuse that something in the garage required my attention.

After the combatants went to bed, I tried to discern the meaning and impact of the grades. As with thousands of parents whose children are enrolled in a school that received a less than commendable rating, I am unsure about the effect on my child and what I can do about it. Further, a bell curve was used (which I hated in college — unless I got an "A"). Lawmakers' desire to develop stronger accountability in public schools is commendable, especially in regards to graduation rates for Utah minority populations. But the missing component is how families can improve or maintain quality by utilizing the evaluations.

Webb: It's impossible to take into account all the individual characteristics of a school and the diverse challenges it faces. So no grading system is going to be ideal or entirely fair. Lawmakers want to work with educators to make the system better.

But some in the school community dramatically overreacted as the grades were published, attacking the entire concept and mounting an organized public relations campaign to incite families to rebel against school grading. But most people accepted the grades with a shrug, and few parents were scandalized if their school received a low grade. Wise school officials will use the grades as motivation to do better. The reality is we all are graded, formally or informally, in many areas of our lives — in school, by an employer or by the marketplace. Let's make school grading work right and assist schools that need help.

The federal Justice Department has declined to prosecute Attorney General John Swallow. Where does that leave the other investigations?

Pignanelli: Many lawmakers remain concerned that the public has lost confidence in the attorney general because of perceived ethical lapses, which will drive the House inquiries. The legal community — especially prosecutors — understand that the attorney general and his predecessor may not have broken any federal laws but are disturbed about the admitted conduct by the state's top law enforcement officials. The general public doesn't want money spent on the matter but senses there were problems. All this will continue to foster investigations by the Salt Lake and Davis County attorneys.

Webb: I wish the Legislature would have waited for the other investigations to be completed before jumping into this messy affair. The inquiry is going to be lengthy, expensive and unpredictable. Most people close to the situation assumed Swallow would resign given the pressure of all the investigations. He did not do so, and certainly will not resign now, especially with the feds declining to prosecute. The Legislature ought to put its investigation on hold, see what the remaining investigations uncover and then decide whether to proceed.

The Republican Party is sharply divided, both in Utah and nationally, between the mainstream establishment and the tea party firebrands. Nationally, the schism is manifest in the battle to defund Obamacare and possibly shut down the government. Is Ronald Reagan's Republican "big tent" collapsing?

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