Group: Utah Education Policy Gets a D+

(KCPW News) In an annual state policy report card, Utah wasn’t given much to be proud of. The state received an overall grade of D+.

StudentsFirst, an organization led by former Washington D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, looked at issues such as teaching quality, parental choice, and wise management of schools. While a D+ sounds pretty bad, Utah certainly would benefit if StudentsFirst graded on a curve: Utah was ranked 16th in the nation, with the national average also being a D+.

“Unfortunately, most of the states in the country were in the D-range, and that’s about what we saw last year,” said StudentsFirst VP of National Policy Eric Lerum.

Lerum noted that, despite the bad grades, many states improved.

“I think you see that with Utah’s grade as well. It was a D last year, with a GPA of 1.21, and it went up to a D+ this year (1.58 GPA),” Lerum said. “So not a huge shift, but definitely improvement.”

The report card identified two specific areas where Utah could improve: making teacher performance more integral to the decision-making process, and giving parents more and better choices for their children’s education.

StudentsFirst pointed to the state’s school grading system as a positive step forward. Lerum said that gives parents a sense of the quality of education their children are receiving.

“If you start with that premise that you’ve got to get information to the parents, then it’s really incumbent on the state to do so,” he said. “We think A to F provides a really good way of doing it. It’s easy to understand.”

“And then what you get into are questions about, ‘OK, what do you do with it?’ Because parents are going to be making these decisions. They’re going to be making choices,” Lerum continued. “But at the end of the day, if a school isn’t performing, that’s not a place we should want to send kids. We want to see growth in our schools, we want to see them improving, and we want to see them meeting the needs of all their learners. If they’re not doing that, we think parents need that information so that they can either make a different choice, or they can demand change and force school leaders and administrators to do something different.”

Still, by its own A-F scale, Utah’s D+ is nothing to write home about. But Mark Peterson of the Utah State Office of Education says he doesn’t put much weight in the Students First analysis.

“Certainly Utah collects all that data. We have all the data on teacher effectiveness. We have classroom-level details, student-level details, on all of our CRT exams, and that is stuff that is all being evaluated by principals, superintendents, and charter school directors,” Peterson said. “It’s all being done at the local level. It is not written into official state policy. Therefore, we get a bad grade on it.”

One area where Utah did well was spending funds wisely. Peterson agreed with that assessment.

“We are the lowest per-pupil-funded system in the country, yet our ACT scores—we have a hundred percent of our students take ACTs,” he pointed out. “There are 19 states where that happens. Utah is one of them. Utah has the highest scores of the hundred-percent states. To me, this says that our money is being spent effectively because it’s producing academic results.”

While the report card did look at how well money was spent by school systems, Lerum notes that whether or not schools are well-funded is not included in the group’s analysis.

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