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Lawmakers consider academic turnaround programs for low-performing schools

Utah schools that get failing grades on the state's school grading system may be required to get outside help and participate in academic turnaround initiatives.
Utah schools that get failing grades on the state's school grading system may be required to get outside help and participate in academic turnaround initiatives.
Deseret News archives

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah schools that get failing grades on the state's school grading system may be required to get outside help and participate in academic turnaround initiatives.

The Senate Education Committee on Wednesday unanimously recommended SB235, which attempts to bring a greater measure of accountability despite the controversy surrounding Utah's school grading system. It's the only bill in the past three years sponsored by Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy.

"This is an important issue to me," Niederhauser said. He said the bill is intended to address "how we deal with schools that are failing, and how do we get quality leadership in every one of those schools so that we have (better) outcomes."

The bill would create a school leadership development program that would train educators in poorly performing schools how to better collaborate and use student data to tailor instruction.

Schools that perform in the lowest 3 percent would be required to create a school turnaround committee composed of a local school board member, the school principal, parents and teachers. The committee would have to propose a plan to the Utah State Board of Education of how the school will improve student performance.

If those schools improve by a full letter grade within a year, they would be awarded $100 per tested student and $1,000 per educator. That amount would multiply up to $500 per student and $5,000 per educator if the school improves by four letter grades.

Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, is proposing an amendment to the bill that would apply the program to schools who receive an F grade for three consecutive years instead of applying it in the first year a school gets a failing grade.

"I think that the bill is too aggressive in acting on a failing school in the very first year they are a failing school," Osmond said. "I just think it's too quick.

He also recommended basing the evaluation on additional measures besides the school grading system, which is based solely on the statewide SAGE test. Other measures, he said, could include the governor's PACE Report Card, which takes a more broad measurement of school performance.

Niederhauser said he was "very open" to considering additional metrics for performance, but he disagreed on the need to give schools more time before having to participate in turnaround initiatives.

"My concern is these kids have been struggling in these schools for many years, and I don't want to wait any longer," he said. "Waiting that long is concerning to me."

Brad Smith, state superintendent of public instruction, said concepts included in the bill were similar to those used in improving student performance while he was superintendent of the Ogden School District.

In the past four years, several schools in the district have gone from being among the worst-performing schools in the state to doubling their proficiency scores using data-driven instruction and other turnaround approaches.

"I can do nothing but support this bill," Smith said. "It is my firm conviction that every system is perfectly designed to obtain exactly the results it is getting. When we're not obtaining the results we want, therefore, we must change the system. That is a painful and often controversial recognition, but it is also true."

Some educators, however, were opposed to imposing requirements based on such a simplistic measurement. Carolyn White, a member of the Beaver County School District, expressed fear that the initiative would take the focus away from students.

"This is more about punitive action than really reaching out and trying to help those that need help," White said. "We have a lot of A people in those schools."

Niederhauser said the bill was "a good first draft" and that it would undergo further revision before it is voted on by the full Senate.

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com, Twitter: MorganEJacobsen