SALT LAKE CITY — The differences in style among the four candidates being considered for the position of superintendent of public instruction were apparent Thursday as each was interviewed by the Utah Board of Education.
But one concern they all shared was that academic performance in Utah is not where it could or should be.
Richard Crandall, who served as the director of the Wyoming Department of Education and as an Arizona lawmaker, identified teacher quality, literacy, and college and career readiness as areas that need additional focus.
"It's not a stretch to say that with our efforts being focused the way they could be, and with consistency in leadership, we could be the most literate state within six years," he said.
Crandall also said his experience in the Arizona Legislature would be beneficial in working with Utah lawmakers in negotiating education policy and funding.
"I think I know what lawmakers are looking for," he said. "We're going to need them on our team. They can be strong allies, especially in the governor's office."
Brad Smith is an attorney and the current superintendent of the Ogden School District. He cited data as a tool he uses to determine what role policies such as the Common Core play in the classroom.
"If our purpose is about preparing children to be college- and career-ready to compete in the 21st century, I believe standards-based education is absolutely critical," Smith said.
Without hesitation, he enumerated the "mass exodus" of teachers that have left his district during academic turnaround initiatives. In three years, about half of the district's 725 teachers have left, Smith said. Only "three or four" were terminated, he said. High school graduation rates, however, increased by 12 percent in some schools within one year.
"Our performance was not acceptable. Our system was letting our children down," Smith said. "I am exactly what I appear to be. I'm a fat, white, middle-aged Mormon Republican lawyer. But I go to church on Sunday and I sing 'I Am a Child of God,' and I can't go to school on Monday and ignore that fact."
For John Barge, Georgia's State Board of Education superintendent and former candidate for governor of the state, the answer to the question of why to come to Utah is simple: "Why not?"
In addition to "significant achievement gaps," Barge identified exponential growth in the student population as an increasingly relevant challenge for Utah.
Part of the solution, he says, lies in "making sure that you have not just highly qualified teachers, but highly effective teachers in every classroom."
Barge noted that lack of funding, compounded with poverty, is a challenge he has dealt with as superintendent of Georgia's State Board of Education. He said education is the best tool to help families overcome financial difficulty wherever they live.
"I think it's important to know that poverty does present a set of challenges, but it is, in my opinion, never an excuse," Barge said. "The best answer to generational poverty is education."
Martin Bates, superintendent of the Granite School District, said the key to preparing children for college and life in the 21st century lies in an improved partnership between teachers and parents.
"I believe in families. I believe in parents, and I think that parents know their children better than any organization can ever get to know those children," Bates said. "I also believe in teachers. Those two expertises that each group brings, if they can work together, that's a powerful partnership."
Bates also emphasized a greater need for counselling that helps students discover skills and talents early on that will translate into college and career readiness.
"We need counselors who recognize their roles in the education profession as opposed to the school profession," he said.
The board is expected to make a decision Friday.
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