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Gathering leery of education plan

State board explains Performance Plus to parents and teachers

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As more Utahns learn about competency-measured education, the need arises to jump on board, ask questions or skewer the idea for its apparent shortcomings.

The state Board of Education took its Performance Plus proposal to East High School Tuesday to hear from just about anyone who wasn't invited to Gov. Mike Leavitt's summits this month on the same subject. That group at East included about 50 teachers and parents, many of whom weren't willing to give wholesale approval to the proposal.

One man, who wished not to be identified, asked state Superintendent Steven O. Laing where in the plan it talks about motivating children to "want" to do better.

"I don't know very many kids who don't want to learn," Laing said. The problem, he said, is that over time in a system that has not worked for them, some children do lose their desire to learn.

Laing fielded several questions about what will happen to children who are already challenged and will be forced to perform up to higher standards for graduation, or what will happen to children in special education classes who suddenly have to start taking tougher tests.

Laing stressed repeatedly that a huge chunk of the estimated $400 million needed to implement Performance Plus would go toward intervention opportunities for students who fall behind.

Special education teacher Mary Sharp asked how students who have enjoyed an atmosphere in education that emphasizes a "feel-good" approach and bolstering self-esteem can be expected to switch to a much tougher standard.

A suggestion also was made to implement the proposal at lower grade levels first so schools aren't springing new requirements on high school students before they've had a chance to meet Performance Plus' education standards at a younger age.

A letter given to Laing on Tuesday from the school board president and superintendent of the Salt Lake City School District said the high school dropout rate may increase. "Expecting all students to be average or above in all subjects," the letter states, "with all teachers, in all circumstances, is an unattainable standard that is contrary to the goal of more thoughtfully measuring competency."

Further, if the higher graduation requirements of Performance Plus were to be implemented today, it's estimated that less than half of the students in Salt Lake District would pass muster.

Laing said some students would rise to the occasion while others could utilize supplemental instruction like tutoring or after-school programs. "There has to be something offered to help them," he said.

Of course, if the state board wants to reach the goal of requiring the 2008 graduating class to conform to Performance Plus, the 2004 Legislature will need to find $203 million in new funds. Laing said he's "hopeful" that may happen, given that legislators have put the onus on schools to perform better with the passing of SB154.

The board is expected to have a final proposal ready for legislators by mid-October, but it will be contingent on the Legislature being able to fund the program.

More public comment is being taken throughout September at state board-sponsored meetings in school districts across the state. Board members are also asking people to e-mail their comments to grad@usoe.k12.ut.us or write to Graduation Proposal, Utah State Office of Education, P.O. Box 144200, Salt Lake City, UT 84114-4200.

E-MAIL: sspeckman@desnews.com