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Nowhere Fast

Perhaps the failure of Utah education is that it’s so politicized.



Loads of lawmakers won’t listen to public-school teachers’ complaints about salary and class size because they’re too busy chasing the Holy Grail of school vouchers. Public-school teachers, by and large, oppose the mass testing of No Child Left Behind and virtually any other standardized measurement of student achievement because it takes away their freedom and, they charge, stacks the deck against students who might otherwise learn. At least in this they are united with many Republican lawmakers at the state Capitol, not because these Republicans agree with the teachers necessarily, but because they despise NCLB’s mandates as a federal intrusion on state and local school boards. One gets the feeling that some parents embrace home schooling because it lets them teach history to their children the way they see history. That is to say, led by Founding Fathers who, in turn, were guided by Heavenly Father. Those on the left also hold No Child Left Behind suspect. It’s a tool by which the Republicans will destroy once and for all our long-cherished national institution of public education. Studies prove, the left says, that standardized testing of the NCLB variety does not increase student achievement. Curiously, under the leftist rubric, charter schools fair just as poorly. Studies prove, they say, that increased local autonomy of schools does not improve student achievement either. Meanwhile, in Utah, we seem hellbent on making certain that the children of immigrants remain just as poor and upwardly immobile as their struggling parents. We don’t seem to care one whit about the achievement gap between minorities and Anglo students, either.

Please forgive, if you can, the long introductory paragraph. If you haven’t guessed my point by now, it’s this: There’s a game going on in Utah education, and it’s hurting us all. In fact, it will hurt us all for years to come.

It’s no secret that, along with health care, primary and secondary education in this country is one of the most intractable public policy issues of our time. Education policy studies proving this or that are produced on a mass scale every year. Even more numerous are the reports by various international development organizations of U.S. students falling behind international peers in math and science. China and India, we’ve been warned, stand poised to kick our butts back to the developing world status they’re slowly rising above.

Education in Utah is no better than the rest of the nation. In fact, as one City Weekly reader informed me, it’s much worse than we think it is. Keith Baker, who holds a doctorate in sociology and retired from the U.S. Department of Education, recently sent me evidence that the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test results that our state likes to brag about as “above the national average” aren’t all they seem. That’s because, as Baker points out, our preponderance of Anglo students distorts the state average. Crunching the numbers, he found that a disproportionate number of high-scoring Anglo students, even if they score below the national average for their ethnic group, give Utah a net above-average score. Hardly worth bragging about when placed alongside other states with much larger minority populations. Therefore, as Baker notes, “The average net result for the state reflects the ethnic mix of the population, not what the schools are doing, and covers up the state’s poor school performance.”

We have ourselves fooled into false comfort when these scores are announced. Compounding the problem, we feel brazen about ignoring the achievement gap between white and minority students. There are so few minorities in Utah, after all. That our lawmakers reversed their stand on in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants is now well known. How about the fact that they sniffed at other measures that would have made it easier for minorities to catch up? Funding for English as a second language? Nah. Reimburse colleges for student-fee waivers allowing low-income students'surprise, surprise, a lot of them are minorities'concurrent enrollment courses? Uh, uh.

Whatever the shortcomings of NCLB, it at least sets standards for achievement that must be met by all schools nationwide. Call me crazy, but I call that a good starting point. More important, NCLB holds our taxpayer-funded schools responsible for the equal education of all students. To the shock of some conservatives who secretly believe minorities aren’t blessed with the potential of their Anglo counterparts, and to the frustration of some liberal teachers who offer explanations and excuses for poor test scores above results, that means demonstrated proficiency for all ethnic groups, economic groups and English language learners. Impossible? Almost everyone in the education debate, right and left, will tell you so. But the state of education in this country is such that only a miracle will do.

Why not put politics aside and reach for it? That takes money, an element most Republicans refuse to provide. They won’t even raise taxes to fund our “war on terror.” Perhaps it also takes a public school system that rewards good teachers over mediocre ones. Why do so few people enter the teaching field despite demand that’s sure to grow as more Utah families sprout, as they say in Kanab County, a “full quiver of children”? It’s not just that the pay is dismal'it is'but also because teachers’ unions oppose merit pay at almost every turn. Could that be part of the reason 12,500 Utahns let their teaching licenses gather dust? Or did they leave teaching for professions that not only pay better, but pay based on performance?

Why can’t Johnny read? The current administration has the right idea in NCLB but won’t fund its goals. Teachers and schools will argue those goals can’t be met without more money, and so will always have an out. Talk about a vicious cycle.