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Utah’s accountability problem

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When state lawmakers begin discussing ways to improve public schools, they ought to consider the latest "Quality Counts" survey released this week by Education Week magazine. In particular, they ought to pay attention to Utah's low marks for teacher quality and accountability.

The survey gave Utah a D for teacher quality, mainly because the state does not require its teachers to pass any sort of test to prove they have basic skills or specific knowledge about the subjects they teach. Nor does it require any sort of evaluation of how a teacher performs once he or she has the job. It doesn't give bonuses to teachers who pass national certification tests.

The state received a C for accountability, mainly because it doesn't grade schools based on how well their students perform. That is supposed to change in 2003 when Utah begins issuing school report cards for the first time. But it is behind many states that already have such a system in place.

It's easy to read too much into the results of a survey; to overreact to someone else's standards of what ought to be considered ideal. Statistics can be skewed to fit a particular viewpoint and can ignore other factors.

For instance, the same report gives Utah a predictable F when it comes to adequate resources because the state pays less per student for education than any other state. Because of its large families, Utah has a large percentage of children. Yet the taxpayers here spend more per dollar of income for education than do taxpayers in virtually any other state — a fact that seldom gets much notice.

But in matters of teacher quality and accountability, the survey was right on. Utah has done much in recent years to begin requiring tests that measure student knowledge, and it has done the right thing by requiring the results of those tests to be made public. But lawmakers have been too reluctant to take the next step and require consequences for those results, nor have they taken the logical step of requiring teachers to be tested, as well.

We believe most of Utah's teachers are dedicated professionals who perform remarkably. Some, however, do not do as well. How can the residents of Utah be certain their tax dollars are being used wisely unless the state devises a system to tell the difference?

Quality can be measured. Consequences do matter, even — or especially — in education.