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Excuses for not grading schools are threadbare

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One thing ought to be abundantly clear by now: Utah's education establishment has no interest in real accountability. A meeting of the state standards and accountability task force last week produced a long list of tired, worn-out excuses for why schools should not be made to stand on their merits. We've heard it all before, and it's getting old.

If the state begins grading its schools based on student performance, teachers would cheat to get good grades, they said, referring to some isolated examples from other states. Students from poor-performing schools would suffer from low self-esteem (as if not learning the subject matter doesn't do that already), and, the most ridiculous statement of all, school rankings haven't helped anything in the states that have implemented them.

This opposition isn't surprising. Education establishments, like all monopolies, have long held firm against the notion that they should be judged by performance. But these unfortunate statements came less than a week after Florida released its latest school rankings. Whoever said rankings haven't helped in other states deserves an F in current events.

Florida gives traditional letter grades to its schools, from A to F, based on how students do on a battery of state tests. Poorly performing schools receive more help, but any school that receives a second F during the subsequent three years would qualify parents for vouchers to pay tuition at either a successful public or private school, giving them a choice for their struggling children.

The Palm Beach County School District offers a good example of how this has, indeed, helped. According to the Sun Sentinel of Ft. Lauderdale, the number of elementary schools in that district that received an F this year dropped from six to absolutely zero. This came about after principals and teachers scrapped old methods and sought innovative new ones. They were forced, in other words, to find something that worked.

And here is the interesting part: The grading system has shown than even low-income schools can succeed. At Hagen Road Elementary, at which 43 percent of the students are eligible for reduced-price or free lunches, the grade went from a D to an A. Meanwhile, a magnet school with an endowment worth more than $1 million went from an A to a C.

At another low-income school that also rose from a D to an A, the principal said he had learned a lesson: Administrators should stop complaining about having to teach kids from poor homes who can't speak English. "We used those excuses for the longest time," the Sun Sentinel quoted him as saying. "Any school in Palm Beach County has no excuse not to be an A school."

Funny what a little accountability will do. The nay-sayers worry far too much about the stigma of failing. Nobody talks about the euphoria of succeeding. They act as if the outcomes are all just a question of chance, like a state lottery or a weekend in Las Vegas. They are wrong.

Many schools nationwide succeed consistently under the most trying circumstances. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington, D.C. think tank, has identified 21 of these schools in all parts of the country. Two of them, charter schools in both Houston and New York City, will be featured today on CBS's "60 Minutes."

Are these schools just getting the luck of draw every year when it comes to students? Are they blessed with unusually gifted educators whose methods can't be duplicated? No. Each of them has a principal with the freedom to run the school as he or she wants, and with the understanding that he or she will be held accountable at the end.

Most teachers I know are gifted and dedicated. They also are frustrated by a system that keeps them from doing their best and that doesn't reward success.

Utah lawmakers already have mandated a series of tests for public school students. Those scores will be reported by school, but parents will have no way of knowing what the scores mean. For that, they need a grading system, complete with incentives for success and punishments for failure.

Instead, school superintendents want to create a "value-added" system that would skew test results to account for income levels and other factors, such as the number of kids moving into and out of a school during a year and the number who don't speak English.

Let's ask ourselves what the goal is here. If we are trying to prepare children to succeed in the real world, we do them a disservice by giving them excuses. Self-esteem comes from real success. Employers don't care about a worker's background. Performance is the only thing that matters. Unless, of course, the employer is a public school.

Deseret News editorial page editor Jay Evensen may be reached by e-mail at even@desnews.com