by Autumn Cook, Alpine Parent Society organizer
If I learned anything at last week’s Alpine School Board Study Session, it’s that study sessions are very interesting! Board meetings can’t hold a candle to study sessions for the amount of interesting information and for getting familiar with the administrators of our school district.
But I took in plenty more than just that observation at last week’s meeting. The agenda covered aspects of the new school “accountability” systems taking hold in Utah: the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System (UCAS), SB 271 – the Grading Schools bill, and the new teacher evaluation system. If I miss or mischaracterize anything in my report, please let me know so I can fix it. This was a lot of information for someone who hasn’t been steeped in these complicated school evaluation schemes, so I’m just giving it my best shot.
The meeting began at 4:00. David Smith, the Director of Research & Evaluation for Alpine School District, went over the UCAS system, the latest in a series of changes to Utah’s accountability system over the past few years.
UCAS has replaced AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) as the program being used for Federal accountability in the state of Utah, and UCAS also incorporates state accountability measures, so both state and Federal accountability can be covered in one system. Mr. Smith showed charts illustrating the point structure for 1.) elementary and middle schools and 2.) high schools. They are slides 5 and 8 of this PowerPoint presentation, which Mr. Smith graciously shared, and also shown below. You will see the use of measures of “growth” and “achievement,” subdivided into two further categories each.
Students who are in the “below proficient” category based on the previous year’s assessments are counted as a group of their own. The idea is to increase focus on those low-achieving students, but it seems apparent to me that this feature of the system has a big potential of being very unfair. If a school has a population of 600, and 20 of those are in the below-proficient group, those 20 students will carry half as much weight on the UCAS measure as the other 580 students (in other words, their growth scores will account for 25% of the school’s total points.) Schools will have to work to balance the need to focus on low achievers in order to pass on this measuring system, while still maintaining sufficient continuing attention to the needs of their high achievers.
Further slides show how “growth” and “achievement” scores are calculated. Perhaps it’s just my language-inclined bent, but all the charts, graphs and figures underscore my sense that the popular accountability measures being adopted not just by Utah, but all around the country, are moving us quickly toward an education system that views schools almost as manufacturing plants, where quality control and analysis and resdesign and frequent reporting can create a scientifically-produced, quality-controlled product every time: the successful student. I am of the mind that teaching and education are much more of an art than a science, and these measures will overall harm the quality of education received by students in the public schools.
The 95% participation requirement for each school was confirmed. Mr. Smith said that Utah submitted this figure to the Federal Dept. of Education (USDOE), and the USDOE approved it. I know through personal knowledge that this was part of Utah’s process to get out of parts of the Federal No Child Left Behind requirements. This is concerning to those who support and appreciate their local school, but object for a number of reasons to the new assessments Utah will be using starting this Fall. If the school has less than a 95% rate of participation, it will receive a score of 0. This requirement seems to conflict with the right of a parent to make decisions about her child’s education. No parent wants to see her child’s school penalized for her exercise of conscience! It’s probable that, even with conscientious objectors, no school in Alpine will drop below 95%, but a system that creates the possibility that should it drop below that threshold it would be damaged, is poorly and unfairly designed.
Superintendent Henshaw stated that the District is using these measures “as a tool to increase learning” and not just for data collection. Certainly this is true, but all this accountability to the state system removes accountability from the level where it really matters, where it would really make a difference in students’ lives: accountability to the parents. Although proponents of the new-fangled “accountability” assert that these measure make schools more accountable to parents, that’s just not so. Such a system allows parents to see how the state rates their school, but it doesn’t allow them to get together with their child’s principal and propose a whole new literature section for 5th graders, or arrange for an old-fashioned math class to be taught in each grade, or work with a teacher to arrange for alternate testing for their non-special-needs student who just tests better under a non-conventional set-up, or work with the School Community Council to set different academic standards from every other school in the area.
One more point of interest was Mr. Smith’s discussion of how collaboration among grade-level teachers means that the teachers in the same grade and same school should have scores very close to one another’s. This stood out to me because I once spoke with a teacher who was reprimanded for having students who regularly scored higher on a certain test than the students in the other classes in that grade. When this teacher complained to the District about the reprimand, the teacher was told that the principal had misunderstood. But it seems the principal had not misunderstood – the District expects collaboration to make everyone just about the same, and no one teacher is supposed to stand out. The idea of collaboration – sharing ideas and experiences – is excellent. But I have concerns about how collaboration is shaping up in the education system. No teacher should ever be reprimanded for excelling!
Mr. Smith then talked about SB 271, the bill that requires school grading. The legislature promised that they’d combine this grading system with UCAS, but that hasn’t happened yet, and there’s some frustration about the process. JoDee Sundberg of the School Board confirmed that, and explained that the grading system created by this bill is based on things happening in “other areas,” which a member of the administration stated flat-out is Florida. “Now we’re doing what didn’t work there,” he said. I couldn’t agree more! It’s irritating to see Utah’s teachers and schools, and by extension the parents of Utah students, treated this way.
The Superintendent said that while “we may not like the teacher accountability…we’re trying to put it in practice to benefit students.” This is to be applauded, making lemonade out of lemons. But I would be very pleased to see our District administrators speak more forcefully and publicly against all these changes, even while they implement them as they must under the law. When District leaders don’t speak out, the impression at the legislature is that they’re fine with it.
Next, Elizabeth Wilson, Associate Public Relations Director, gave a presentation on the USOE Model Evaluation System for teachers, which was illustrated by a moderately-complicated chart of interlinked items.
This system also makes me very uncomfortable. I don’t think the scores produced by this system/these systems (the Utah Educational Leadership Standards were also discussed) make teachers any more accountable to the people that matter: parents and students. It makes them more accountable to politicians and bureaucrats. This won’t improve the experience for students. And I can’t imagine it will improve the experience for teachers, who will undergo formative and summative evaluations just like the students. Periodic reviews are helpful to every professional seeking to do a good job, but when the terms of the review are set by bureaucrats in a far-away office, they become far less helpful, and a bit more threatening.
Look through the PowerPoint presentation to see a few things that may peak your interest, including the standard on slide 7 for “#5, Ethical Leadership” that reads, “Personal assumptions, values and beliefs.” How will the state be assessing this aspect of leadership effectiveness? And what assumptions, values and beliefs are considered allowable, approved or encouraged by the state? This standard seems inappropriate to me.
Supt. Henshaw commented about the implementation of the teacher evaluation system that the District is taking it slowly. “We didn’t want to run out there and jump into something that hasn’t been fully developed,” he said. This is one of the best features of our District – they take implementation of new programs as slowly as possible, which is a help to the teachers and students involved.
At the end of the study session they showed a preview of the employee celebration video that has been shown at schools around the District as school gets back in session. It was an inspiring picture of the influence that employees at all levels of the education system can and do have on the students in the District. The meeting adjourned just after 5:30.