Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A la carte education

How customizable should public education be?  In some states, you can go to the public school you're assigned to, and that's it.  In others, you can choose a charter or another neighborhood school.  Utah really is a leader in allowing students to tailor their education. We have very open ruels regarding enrollment, even allowing students to choose between schools within districts, across districts, or charter schools.  The state has about 30 accredited online education options, including those in charters and districts.  The Statewide Online Education Program allows students to attend one school most of the time, but then take classes at other schools at a distance.

Now comes a proposal that would greatly expand the a la carte nature of public education, allowing students to order off the vast menu of public education options.  Rep. Brian Greene's bill would create a pilot program to provide a small number (1,000) of students an Education Savings Account that they could use to pick and choose which classes they want to take from which source to fully customize the educational options to their goals, pace, and interests.

I'm, of course, all for such customization. I'm completely unpersuaded by UEA President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh's claim that "We cannot afford" to provide educational choices to families because multiple "systems" cost too much money.  She and those system-firsters like her have a fundamental misunderstanding of public education.

They think that students are the product of public schools and that society is the customer. As long as that mentality leads the way, the needs of the families and children in public schools will be subservient to what politicians and lobbyists think are in The System's (that is, their own) best interests.  Families and children are the customer in public schools.  And they come first.

Monday, October 13, 2014

UAPCS is approved as Mentor

Today UAPCS announced that it had been selected as the recipient of the state's Charter School Mentoring program funding.  The Association will now be the official training and support arm of the  State Charter School Board.  This is a wonderful development.

Utah's charter schools will now start seeing some real funding and some real expertise put toward training and supporting the state's charter schools.

New Supe

Brad Smith, until about right now the Superintendent of Ogden School District, will lead Utah's public education system as its new super, after a contentious vote of the board that gave him the board's majority by a single vote.

Smith, also a former board member at Ogden, rankled education establishment-types when the district opted out of negotiating with the Ogden branch of the UEA and instead made individual teaching offers to teachers.  At that time, only a small handful of teachers declined the district's offer, though since that time, about half the teachers have left the district.

Is that cause for concern?  Not on its face.  The education establishment needs some real shaking up.  When it's shaken, people who want to maintain the status quo for their own sake will be upset, make noise, and may leave.  That's a good thing.  I've never met the man, however, so I suppose it's possible he's just a bad boss and no one likes working for him.

Here's hoping that the former is the case.  Let's shake things up at USOE and within Utah's school districts. Let's have those who are in it for themselves decide that now is a good time to retire.  Then let's help a remade Office and Board of education really focus on gathering relevant data and using it to prod all schools to focus on student achievement.

While Smith is reputed to be a charter school supporter, this process won't be an easy one for charters either.  Our movement as a whole is also not focused enough on the collection of relevant data and increasing student achievement.  Don't expect Smith to ignore charters in his quest to improve Utah's public education system. Charters need improving.  Let's take the market-based incentives that are part of charters, pair that with strong leadership and a focus on student achievement, and then help failing schools improve or have them taken over by more successful models.

Good luck, Superintendent Smith. You've got my high hopes and support.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Utah's student assessment system sucks

The State Charter School Board declined to adopt academic performance standards in large part because the state does not have a consistent and effective system of student assessment.  In the two months during which the proposed standards (sent out to all schools about two weeks ago) were drafted, the system of assessment changed again.

I supported school grading under the theory that being held accountable for student outcomes would entice the education establishment and politicians to develop a system that could actually measure student growth over time.  You know, measure things that schools are graded on.

Unfortunately, that hasn't happened as the establishment's response has been to say, "You can't hold us accountable," instead of, "We need to be held accountable to actual data."

Just what I was afraid of

The State Charter School Board engaged in a discussion today about how to handle things if a school falls below the standard of any part of the Board's financial performance standards.  Chair Tim Beagley said that schools should be placed on warning status by failing to meet even one of the standards. (The standards were initially drafted such that the vast majority of schools failed at least one standard--often the occupancy costs standard.  The state has not released how schools fell in the formally adopted standards.)  Beagley also said that if the standards are important enough to measure, they are important enough to hold accountable.

This trend is what I worried about. In drafting the standards, the message was always that the standards should serve as an "early warning" sign for charter schools whose performance are falling below the "best practices" that are encompassed in the standards.  But standards really are standards, not best practices.  And that's the problem.

When you turn best practices, like having occupancy costs at 28% of revenue or lower, into standards that you are put on warning status for not meeting, It is possible to spend more on your building and still have no financial problems.  It's a question of priorities.  In fact, it is the best practice to have facility costs below that standard.  But about 40 percent of schools don't.  Many of those are in great financial shape, falling below standard only in a year when there are large facility expenses.  Some, like Mountainville, just have expensive buildings, fall outside the facility standard, but make up for it by spending less in other areas or raising more local revenue.

It would be silly to put such a school on a warning status, when they are doing well financially in the standards (cash on hand, debt covenants, audit findings) that are more than just "best practices."

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Lincoln: "The way we elect board members is stupid." Judge: "It's also unconstitutional."

It was only a matter of time before disgruntled candidates for the State Board of Education, weeded out by a committee who decides who has the right to run, sued.  A group of candidates and interest groups sued, and they won.

Education establishment-types, like the PTA, the School Boards Association, the UEA, and the candidates they support hate the current system because the nominating committee is a roadblock.  They used to be able to stack the deck in their own favor, but the committee prevented that.

That might sound like I'm praising the committee, which I'm not.  I've written for several years against the process.

The State Board should reflect the will of the voting public, as the legislature should.  The State Board oversees the largest part of the state's budget.  That's why candidates for it should go through the same primary and vetting process as candidates for state legislature and other state government offices.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Royce Van Tassel selected to lead UAPCS

The UAPCS board has announced that it selected Royce Van Tassell as its Executive Director, replacing Chris Bleak, who successfully remade the Association into a powerhouse at the legislature.

By way of disclosure, I served for seven years on the board at UAPCS and have known and worked with Royce since 2005.

Royce most recently was the Vice President of the Utah Taxpayers' Association.  Prior to that, he had been the director of Education Excellence Utah, which evolved to become (after Royce left) Parents for Choice in Education, one of the most influential charter school supporters in the state.

Royce has big shoes to fill, but has the right experience and temperament to do so.