Utah's Legislature should unabashedly assume the role of a super board for education and demand accountability from the state's schools, M. Donald Thomas said Monday.
Thomas, former superintendent of the Salt Lake District, now is an educational consultant with Wasatch Educational Associates.In an informal meeting with some members of the Legislature's Education Committee, district school superintendents, the State Office of Education and representatives of the governor's office, Thomas said accountability is essential for any institution.
In his recent budget speech, Gov. Norm Bangerter called for educational accountability, and legislators are likely to address the issue in the January/February session.
Thomas outlined three elements that must be present for effective accountability:
- a means to ensure that legislative mandates are actually carried out (most likely an office of accountability either in the State Office of Education or as a separate entity);
- standards against which schools can be measured;
- public reporting of how well schools are performing, based on those standards.
National and state data are available from which to create a workable standard, Thomas said. Once performance standards were set, with input from the local level, schools could measure their progress against their own past performances.
An effective accountability system should include rewards for schools that meet or exceed expected levels and negative consequences for those that continue to fall short after steps have been taken to assist them, Thomas said. Twelve states have "educational bankruptcy" provisions that allow the state to step in and take over schools that do not meet performance standards, but Thomas did not advocate that approach.
Getting rid of the school boards, administrators and teachers who fail to bring their students up to the required standard is more effective, he said.
Successful schools also should be less regulated, unsuccessful schools more regulated, Thomas said. An unsuccessful school or district could be combined with one that is meeting the performance standards.
Schools cannot be compared across the board because of intrinsic differences that affect how well students do, Thomas said, including family income and education achievements. Education leaders are reluctant to try to make such comparisons. Schools can, however, be fairly compared in "bands" of schools with comparable demographic factors.
"We want to compare oranges to oranges," Thomas said.
Rep. Jed Wasden, R-Midvale, expressed a concern that creating a legislative mandate for accountability could usurp some of the responsibility invested in local boards.
Thomas responded that the Legislature should simply set standards. What process would be used to achieve those standards would be the responsibility of local boards.
"Schools are the creatures of the Legislature. If they are substandard, it is the fault of the Legislature. If you want to shape them up, you can. The Legislature should set a standard for results and put the process in the hands of local people. Legislatures are inclined to tinker too much with the process."