The opening of a new school year comes after a restless summer for education administrators who found themselves working overtime on critical issues including new teacher pay packages, making sure there are effective and useable tests in place to assess student progress and whether the finances of charter schools are being properly monitored.
If there is a theme in the lessons of the summer, it’s in the category of accountability. That’s especially the case in the area of annual assessment testing, which offers perhaps the most critical accounting of how the overall education system is working. As the last school year ended, the testing program was plagued by technical problems that may render results of recent assessments too inaccurate to be useful. The state spent much of the summer negotiating a deal for a new $22 million to contract to return to the SAGE testing program that earlier ran into controversy over the subject areas it assessed. The problem of too many kids opting out of annual assessment tests — regardless of by whom they are administered — remains an unresolved problem.
Separately, school districts are increasingly being held to account for dealing with the ongoing problem of teacher dropout, scrambling to find ways to retain educators and pay them an adequate wage. The Salt Lake City School District tentatively reached an agreement with teachers following weeks of a tension-filled negotiations.
In the world of charter schools, controversy surrounding the financial accountability of one institution led to the formation of a task force to make sure all of the state’s 134 charter schools are subject to appropriate fiscal oversight.
Altogether, it's a weighty tome on how education leaders spent their summer vacation.
Accountability is also an important matter for parents preparing to send their kids back to the classroom. Research has consistently shown that students do much better in school when their parents are actively engaged. And, involved parents offer an important contribution in holding schools accountable. On that note, the state deserves credit for staffing a hotline for parents to call to report waste, abuse or evidence of other school-related problems. The hotline last year received 227 complaints, up 40% from the previous year — a measure of more awareness of the hotline’s availability as well as, perhaps, more interest among parents in well-functioning schools.
While an education system that strives for excellence demands accountability, it also favors consistency. It’s important to have a clear strategy to retain qualified educators — not year-to-year but for the duration of a fruitful career. It’s important to have a reliable annual testing system to provide accurate data over multiple years to allow for a measurement of those things that are working, and those that aren’t. And the state needs to make sure charter schools are fiscally sound and properly managed.
The beginning of this new school year is a fresh start and a fresh reminder that the job of effective oversight of public education doesn’t allow for a vacation.