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.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Fancy building is no reason to limit choice

A fancy new elementary opened in Davis County. It's green, energy efficient, and innovatively designed. Good for the architects and designers.  Even good for the educators, one of whom said, "Odyssey feels like a perfect fit for her education philosophy."

And that's awesome.  I'm so glad that educator found a school whose approach and building match her philosophy of education.  I wish that students and families all had the same opportunity--to enroll at schools that match the educational approach that works best for them.

Many kids and parents love the new building, I'm sure.  Some may even love it for reasons other than it's fancy and new.  But that school isn't going to be right for all the kids that are assigned to attend it, and those kids deserve the ability to choose the school that works best for them.

Two parents quoted in the above story make this important point, though they may not have meant to:
Tucker's mom, April Farris, said she likes the new technology available at the school and the way her son's classroom (complete with rolling desks and chairs, fun shaped stools and countless customizable white board surfaces) fits with his active personality. "Kids like to move and so, in some ways, I think it could help them focus if they have some leeway," Farris said. "He'll either thrive or get distracted." 
That's all well and good for the students who thrive. But what of the students assigned to attend that school that "get distracted" by the open setup?  Shouldn't they have another option?
Farris has two older children now in junior high. In the nine years her family has lived in Woods Cross, her kids have attended three elementary schools. "We're the neighborhood that always gets moved," she said. "We're hoping we're good for a while."
Yes, parents and students are shuffled around from school to fancy, new school not because of what's best for the kids, but for what makes it bureaucratically easier on the district.  I hope her kids are "good for a while" too.  But I hope that she'll never again be forced to change her kids' school so that the district can balance out class sizes across town.  Instead, I hope her district and the entire system will offer her the choice of attending the school that works best for her children.

Politics in education

There have been several stories in the news this last week about political shenanigans in the State Board and State Office of education.  (A sampling: Here, here, here, and here.)  Based on this reporting, my own observations, and gossip that has made its way to me, it's alleged that Board Chair Dave Crandall has been running roughshod over the rest of the board and high-level USOE staff, which has led to Superintendent Martell Menlove's and his deputy, Brenda Hales's regisnation.  Joel Coleman, currently the superintendent of the Schools for the Deaf and Blind, has been appointed (not without controversy in decision and methods) as interim superintendent while the Board searches for a permanent replacement.  Speaker of the House Becky Lockhart has applied and is lobbying heavily for the job.

I have three comments.

First, notice how Paul Rolly blames everything on charter schools?  It would be nice if his column was ever more than gossip, innuendo, and a rehashing of old matters that were controversies to no one but himself.  For Paul, a controversy exists anytime a Republican or school-choice supporter does anything that the gossip columnist can snark about.

Second, all this political strife is happening on a "non-partisan" board, which should surprise no one. I've written before on this topic.  The idea that the board is or could be above politics in its current configuration is laughable. There are billions of dollars running through the State Office, and its board, dealing with public money and public officials, subject to the legislature, and publicly elected, will be political.  It's the nature of political offices.  Making them partisan doesn't make them more political, it makes them more transparent.  Those who think that partisan elections will inject politics into the state board simply aren't paying attention.

Third, staff at USOE is feeling stress and doesn't like the current brouhaha at the Board level.  Key people are resigning. That's not necessarily a bad thing. There are wonderful and dedicated public servants at the State Office of Education.  But for the most part, they've moved upward through a bureaucratic system that, like all government agencies, removes accountability and incentives for excellent performance for its career employees.  Upsetting that system is necessary if public education is to be reformed.

I'm not sure that what's going on is the right way to achieve that end, or that having a very politically savvy and successful former House Speaker as Superintendent is the best way either.  But having career establishment leadership step aside and make room for fresh blood and (hopefully) new ideas and approaches, could end up being just what USOE needs to return its focus to students.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

New schools open

Spectrum Academy opened its second campus in Pleasant Grove this week, and the Trib gave the unique school that primarily serves students with Autism big treatment about the expansion.

And another unique charter, Utah Military Academy, opened near Hill Air Force Base with "Plebe Week," a week of school before the official "start" of school.  Students are introduced to military culture.  I bet you've never seen this at a charter school before:
Just a trim above the neck and ears, please.