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Jay Evensen: Utah’s school grades are opportunity for real reform

Published: Thursday, Sept. 5 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Lawmakers and school boards should use the results of the school grades as a reason to reallocate resources. Perhaps a statewide equalization plan, in which school funds are spread evenly over all districts, is worth a closer look.

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Some schools received F’s, a lot were deemed mediocre, and many children in low-income areas performed poorly.

Lots of educators, meanwhile, hopped around and complained like they had been forced to walk barefoot on hot coals.

Reactions to Utah’s first-ever exercise in the grading of public schools on Tuesday were about as predictable as turkey on Thanksgiving. When the education monopoly is knocked out of its comfort zone, excuses fly faster than comp tickets at a lobbyists convention, and fingers point so quickly it’s a wonder no one loses an eye.

And on the flip side, state lawmakers and education leaders keep their deer-in-the-headlights look, with little real consensus as to what to do.

A lot of folks seem to think the grades were predictable. Rich kids do better than poor kids. But I don’t get it. If this is true, why isn’t everyone — from politicians on down to principals —doing more to fix the inequity? Or is it OK to doom poorer kids to a substandard start in life?

Are people angry only because school grades make these problems evident to all the world? Or is it OK to have different standards of achievement for low-income students? Would that be a fair way to send them out into a world where the standards for success don’t take into account a person’s background?

As for lawmakers, how many changes are they going to make to the grading system after this initial splash – enough to make it impossible to do any realistic comparisons from year to year?

I have written through the years about Utah’s need to find radical solutions to an education system that consistently ranks in the middle of the pack in a nation that is woefully behind much of the rest of the world. Assigning grades to public schools could hardly be considered radical.

A recent Deseret News report found that 15 states now do so, with another 10 applying stars or labels the way a critic might review a film. Many of them point toward Florida as a success story.

Floridians seem a lot less sure about that than everyone else. For one thing, lawmakers there keep fiddling with the rules. The St. Petersburg Tribune reports that, despite the grades and the threats that poor-performing schools might be shut down, a lot of Florida schools are seeing their grades drop, and some people feel a new rule that limits schools to dropping no more than one grade per year distorts the real picture.

However, Florida’s scores in the annual National Assessment of Education Progress exam have improved since the grading began, and the gap between poor kids and wealthier kids has shrunk. That seems to be why people think grading is worth a shot. So why not see if it works?

Utah’s system doesn’t come with any penalties or incentives, other than a few days of intense publicity in early September. That is a serious flaw. If that publicity is allowed to be blamed away until the heat dies down each year, the program will be a huge failure.

Instead, the grading system should be an opportunity for everyone involved to improve Utah education, but here’s the key: This can be so only if the interests involved stop treating each other as enemies and start working together. This shouldn’t be a matter of teachers and school administrators fighting against Capitol Hill. It should be a matter of the welfare of the state’s children.

If a school isn’t performing well, it should be everyone’s business to make sure it does better.

Lawmakers and school boards should use the results as a reason to reallocate resources. Perhaps a statewide equalization plan, in which school funds are spread evenly over all districts, is worth a closer look. Maybe districts should move their best tenured teachers from high-performing schools to places where their skills are needed most.

Meaningful, radical reform is not found in school grading or other accountability measures. However, it might be found in how people react to them.

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his web site, www.jayevensen.com.

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