Feature | Studied to Death: Can Huntsman finally bring about meaningful education reform? 

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Patti Harrington wasn’t talking. The state superintendent of education was in duck-and-cover mode as she swatted at yet another trial balloon floating through Utah’s educational community. n

Another day, another initiative. Another governor. If she keeps quiet, maybe there won’t be another superintendent. n

Harrington told City Weekly late last year that she didn’t want to talk about the latest education fix-it plan. This, even though she was one of 100 individuals who spent the past summer in 5,000 hours of grueling, facilitated discussions on the future of education in Utah. They called them SMART sessions. That’s probably because you had to be supersmart just to figure out the acronym—Stakeholder-focused, Measure and data-driven, Action-oriented, Responsive to customers and Time-bounded—a long and cumbersome adjective for this time spent navel-gazing. n

But since the talks were all about education, presumably the people involved were comfortable with awkward acronyms. Sadly, they may be accustomed to dead-end initiatives, too. There should be a graveyard of them somewhere in the country. n

The question is, in fact, about digging graves. Will this latest effort be another exercise in futility or is there something significantly different that can power it through the personal agendas, political competitiveness and territorial attitudes that characterize the great American education system? n

Harrington is right to tread softly. A 2007 legislative bill sought to make her position—as well as the elected state board—a political appointment. State lawmakers still simmer over public education’s outspoken role in a state referendum that defeated legislative-approved school vouchers in 2007. And they continue to create new education mandates, adding confusion to the bureaucratic stockpile of regulations already in force. n

Any wholesale change of the system will require a buy-in from myriad groups, already polarized politically and intellectually. Or it will require leadership that goes beyond rhetoric and perhaps beyond the democratic model for change. n

This latest iteration of school reform is dubbed the 21st Century Workforce Initiative, perhaps in hopes that it doesn’t elude those Americans who think they’re living in the 20th century. Just before this rollout came the governor’s blue ribbon panel on assessment, which produced a stunning recommendation of “more testing,” albeit more “productive” testing once the system is rid of criterion-referenced tests, Utah Basic Skills Competency Tests and the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. At this point, the recommendations appear to be on ice because they all come with a price tag—and the charge was to, ahem, streamline testing. n

Back in 2005, the state board of education created a task force to look at educator quality. This was on the heels of another panel in 2003 that focused on supply and demand. Cost is still a problem. Yet, even in this dire economy, the state board still plans to work on quality initiatives. n

Shortly after the 2002 Winter Games and still during Gov. Mike Leavitt’s administration, the Employer’s Education Coalition issued a report amid all the giddiness over tuition tax credits, recommending the tax-credit plan along with a more businesslike approach to education. That ostensibly would have given the state board of education greater authority in a system that was moving ever closer toward local control. n

There have been less ambitious efforts, too, such as Leavitt’s centennial schools, the new century schools and on and on. We won’t even mention the many and disparate national programs. (Remember No Child Left Behind?) Now comes Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and his own sweeping initiative, purportedly a uniquely Utah view of education based around, yes, another report—“Tough Choices, Tough Times,” from the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. The emphasis on this panel’s name is on “new,” as the old one had been mothballed since 1990. n

The old report warned that low-skilled workers in foreign countries would push the United States out of the global market. Leave it behind, the commission said, and go for the high skills. “The first commission never dreamed that we would end up competing with countries that could offer large numbers of highly educated workers willing to work for low wages,” according to the Tough Choices report. n

And because the United States still wasn’t competitive, the report called for wholesale change—revolution, in fact. Things like graduating kids when they’re 16, making school districts contract with independent schools, and recruiting teachers from the top students (think money here). n

“Students who score well enough will be guaranteed the right to go to their community college to begin a program leading to a two-year technical degree or a two-year program designed to enable the student to transfer later into a four-year state college,” the report says. “The students who get a good enough score can stay in high school to prepare for a second Board Exam, like the ones given by the International Baccalaureate program or the Advanced Placement exams, or another state or private equivalent. When those students are finished with their program, assuming they do well enough on their second set of Board Exams, they can go off to a selective college or university and might or might not be given college credit for the courses they took in high school.” n

In October 2007, Bill Brock, a former U.S. Labor Secretary and commission member, and some of his dark-suited friends flew into Utah to help bring the state on board with the recommendations. Their visit to the Legislature’s interim education committee was met with active disinterest, as legislators popped up and down, held personal conferences at their desks and spoke on cell phones. So, it’s any wonder that Utah is now considered one of three states—along with Massachusetts and New Hampshire—to commit to a major overhaul of their education systems. n

That was Huntsman’s move. Huntsman, who places education as a high priority, went gaga over the commission report. But let’s not forget the Legislature. Then-Senate Majority Leader Curtis Bramble and others had been captivated by something called the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and, of course, aspired to be a major part of the education solution in Utah.n

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