Moving beyond the Utah “exception” to exceptional education

Reader responses to my most recent blog posting,  “Too many (underpaid) teachers?” followed a predictable path. If you didn’t see the post, I quoted from a Wall Street Journal op-ed:

Since 1970, the public school workforce has roughly doubled—to 6.4 million from 3.3 million—and two-thirds of those new hires are teachers or teachers’ aides. Over the same period, enrollment rose by a tepid 8.5%. Employment has thus grown 11 times faster than enrollment. If we returned to the student-to-staff ratio of 1970, American taxpayers would save about $210 billion annually in personnel costs.

Some readers responded, quite accurately, that Utah class sizes and teacher/student ratios remain significantly higher than most other states.  As one of my frequent commentators asked me earlier this week, “what does this have to do with Utah”?

It’s a fair question. I’ve repeatedly acknowledged that Utah doesn’t always reflect national educational trends, and certainly Utah educators are quick to remind us of the state’s larger class sizes, lower teacher salaries, and rock bottom per capita student spending.

But here’s a question I’d like to pose in return. Should Utah be striving to become more like other states, just as many of these states are hitting a fiscal wall and  rethinking educational policies that have increased spending without measurably improving student achievement? Do we want to march toward the crowd just as many of its leaders are turning around? Or should we see if once again Utah “exceptionalism” can prove an asset instead of a barrier to improving education?

Most of us are familiar with the state’s fiscal realities. In terms of per student spending, Utah ranks as a thorough cheapskate. In terms of per taxpayer burden, the state comes a lot closer to the middle. Utah is not an especially high income state, in part because so many families rely on a single income. But while Utahns don’t produce as much tax revenue as some states, they produce a whole lot more kids. In other words, fiscal realities reflect life choices that I’m guessing most of this newspaper’s readers embrace.

The tax revenue picture is now looking up, not least because high tech companies are flooding into the state. This economic boom could mean great news for Utah education. These new employers and employees will generate significant tax revenue. They’re also going to care  about good schools. Having recently moved from Salt Lake City to Palo Alto, California – where attack helicopter parents regularly lay siege to the schools – I can attest to this feature of the high tech sector. (Some of you teachers who’ve been complaining about parent indifference may want to be careful what you wish for!)

But Utah isn’t going to continue attracting new jobs by imitating California’s bloated public sector, decaying public services, and deteriorating tax base.

Rather than viewing these fiscal and political realities as barriers to improving Utah education, I’d like to suggest that  we see Utah as potentially entering a time of rare opportunity. Unlike many states, Utah does not confront shrinking enrollments or crippling debt. Leaders of both political parties claim that improving education is a top priority. Given Utah voters’ family focus, I’m inclined to believe them. The taxpayers and the legislature will probably generate some new education dollars, especially if they can be persuaded that their money will be well spent.

So how should that money be  spent?

One answer, maybe the most popular answer, is: hire more teachers and bring down class sizes.

Utah has taken some steps in that direction already, at least according to Utah State Office of Education data. But the research on class size shows surprisingly little correlation with student achievement, at least above the very early grades. While selective investment in reducing class size may be a good use of resources, I’d like to propose some other candidates for increased spending.  Or at least I will in follow-on posts. (Just to put up one shield against the inevitable slings and arrows, let me note that my first candidate will be higher teacher salaries.)

To be continued.




  1. Yak_Herder

    Excellent thoughts, Mary.

    “Should Utah be striving to become more like other states, just as many of these states are hitting a fiscal wall and rethinking educational policies that have increased spending without measurably improving student achievement?”

    By simply throwing money at the problem? Of course not, but it will take money.
    By evaluating teachers and paying them based on students test scores? No!
    By offering vouchers or other incentives that weaken the commitment to public education? No!
    By adopting better standards? Yes!
    By lowering class sizes, K-12? Yes!
    By inviting parents to PARTNER with teachers? Yes, yes, yes!

    “Given Utah voters’ family focus, I’m inclined to believe them. The taxpayers and the legislature will probably generate some new education dollars, especially if they can be persuaded that their money will be well spent.
    So how should that money be spent?
    One answer, maybe the most popular answer, is: hire more teachers and bring down class sizes.”

    I emphatically agreed, and by supporting that I fully realize what that means: any money made available will go to hiring more teachers, not to paying me a professional wage.

    I’ll make everyone a deal. I’ll respect that need if you respect what I do.

    Okay, let me add to that: You can’t treat schools like a service that you are buying, remain aloof and ignorant, tie their hands, and then complain about the outcomes. If you want a place at the table (and you should), then earn it by being involved. If you don’t have “40 hours a week” to devote to your child’s education (referencing an exaggerated comment from an older post), don’t expect people to bow to your every whim and desire. Public education works best when parents and teachers work together and respect one another.

    Now, having said that, reducing class sizes won’t work unless something else is done. Teachers in Utah have adapted to the large class sizes. We survive, but at a significant cost. If we really mean to do something about this, we not only have to reduce the class size, but we have to re-program existing teachers. We have to somehow erase the decades of “big class culture” and all the baggage it brings and find a way to get back to the way it should be done. The coping mechanisms that are currently employed will have to be abandoned and a bunch of old dogs will have to relearn their old tricks.

    This is not an easy problem to address. Before anyone gets the bright idea to just toss the experienced teachers out on their ear and start over, think again (and then go find your conscience). This is going to take some effort, patience, wisdom, and time.

    Final note-
    “attack helicopter parents”: priceless.

  2. Carolyn Sharette

    Vouchers do not weaken the commitment to public education. For many of us who are proponents of the voucher concept, we have committed much of our lives to public education and just feel that the current structure cannot solve the problems as well as a structure that includes vouchers. You may disagree, but I won’t question your commitment to public education and you shouldn’t question the commitment of those who believe vouchers would be best for our kids.

    As is well documented by many, many studies – lower class sizes do not equal increased student learning in most grades and should not be pursued as a primary solution to low student academic achievement.

    I believe Utah is an amazing example of what can be accomplished with minimal means and dedicated educators and strong families. I agree some teacher’s pay needs to increase and look forward to more of Mary’s suggestions of how additional funds should be spent!

    • Jeffery Hosten

      I agree with Carolyn–just because someone is in favor of vouchers doesn’t mean that they are against public education, or for that matter, education in general.

      Indeed, the most interesting studies on vouchers and charter programs suggest that such programs help public schools most due to a competitive effect. Schools want to get the funds, so private schools, chartered schools and public schools all step up their game.

      Also, if I may be so blunt, while I’m sure that Utah has its share of problems in education, it is far-and-away better than many troubled school systems in the country, including some of the big, urban school districts. While vouchers would likely be good for Utah, I think they are more important for places like Washington D.C., where many parents don’t have the option of sending their kids to a decent public school.

      • Yak_Herder

        I understand what you are saying, Jeffery, but it’s not that simple.

        The central mandate of public education is to provide EVERY child with an opportunity to receive and education. Charter schools do not share in that mandate. This has been discussed several times before, and it has been acknowledged that the playing field is not level. So, if “competition” is your solution, we’d better first address that basic inequality.

        Let’s be clear about something:
        The education taxes we pay are not “tuition”. If it were, we’d pay per pupil. People without children wouldn’t be expected to pay. What we are paying for is the benefit of living in an educated society. Nearly 200 years ago, we figured out that was a better way to go (Thank you, Horace Mann).

        While I champion the right of someone to place their child in a private school (and pay for it), I do not feel any responsibility to relieve them of the cost associated with living in an educated society. They still have a responsibility to support public education.

        Furthermore, while I again champion their right to do so, I’m not all that tickled when folks go off and form a charter school. Rather than addressing the problems in a system we all share a responsibility for, every time a conscientious and involved parent leaves “the system” it distills and magnifies the problems for those who remain in it.

        So, while you don’t see someone who favors vouchers and charter schools as being against public education, I do.

        In an increasingly selfish and self-centered world, we look to things like “competition” to fix things, as though Adam Smith’s unseen hand is going to take over and relieve us of the responsibility. Well, it ain’t. The only thing that is going to fix it, the only thing that is going to keep it running true is a strong measure of good old-fashioned work.

        Competition has not encouraged public schools to “step up their game”. All it does is encourage game playing.

        I shudder at the prospect of going back to a world were education is something only the affluent can afford. In my view, charter schools and vouchers are a giant step in that direction.

        Ultimately, informed parents working WITH the teachers is the thing that is going to make a student successful. It’s the students we need to worry about being successful, not schools.

  3. Steve

    Carolyn and Jeffrey,

    With all due respect I must ask some questions of both of you. Jeffrey, please cite the study which verifies your claims. There is none. I am a product of private schools and I sent my son to a faith-based school. I was a single parent and never expected taxpayers to subsidize my choice of a paraochial school. We have a responsibility to an educated society.

    All vouchers have done is pay for private education and defer money from public schools who do not have the luxury of limiting class sizes or choosing their student population. It is not a level playing field. The idea that schools would do better through competition is ludicrous. Teachers do not withold their best teaching and students their best learning until there is a competitor. Really??

    Carolyn, in the interest of transparency, would you be willing to disclose the amount of money you receive as a result of your charter school ventures? As a taxpayer who subsidizes your schools, I believe that it is the right thing to do and I certainly have a right to make this request.

    Some of your schools have done well. I know that American Prep in Draper serves a pretty homogenous population. You are branching out to include ELL and other at risk populations. I wish you well on your endeavors.

    However, it is disingenuous to paint charter schools and vouchers as the answer. When our traditional public schools are on the same playing field in terms of class size, student population, and accountability, then we can truly compare apples to apples.

    The last thing I want to say is that some charters do better than our traditional public schools but most do not do as well. This is a fact. In the KSL study of student growth achievement results of 500 Utah elementary schools, only 8 were charters.

    We simply cannot afford to fund two systems. The charter system has never been audited as the original legislation required. It is siphoning precious dollars away from our schools to a project that has not experienced overwhelming success.

  4. Carolyn Sharette

    Our contracts with charter schools are public information, approved in public meetings. You are welcome to that information. Our Education Management Company has contracts with 6 schools currently, 5 in Utah and one in Zambia. We are also working with a group in Las Vegas to open a school there and a group in the DRC (Congo)- and the contracts for these will also be public information (we are in the process on these schools so we don’t currently have a contract – we work with schools often for long periods of time with no compensation).

    I apologize that I don’t know the current dollar amount of all of our contracts all together. If you would like to contact me offline through the school’s website I would be happy to make that information available to you through our business office.

    I take issue with your accusation of my being disingenuous. You may disagree with me on points, but I don’t believe you can accurately or civilly call me disingenuous for my views.

    The “level playing field” argument has a major flaw. In statute, public schools have been given the same flexibility as charter schools. Because public schools do not choose to utilize that flexibility, and choose to keep the playing field “un-level” through failed and ineffective policies and practices, this does not justify their position as somehow being “underdogs”.

    When you invoke the level playing field argument, you assume that charters somehow have an advantage over traditional public schools. If you compare the advantages/disadvantages of the two systems in a strict analysis, you would not reach the conclusion that charters are in an advantage position. We receive less funding, which according to some is as much as 10% less. We lack many advantages that districts have with regard to buildings, transportation, and administrative levels of support. We do have families that choose our schools instead of families who are coerced into attending, but that is one of the variable that districts could also have if they would change their outdated policies of boundary schools and have true open enrollment where unique and innovative schools had to compete against each other for students.

    • Steve

      You of all the posters know better than to imply that the playing field is level. As a teacher who received many charter schools students back in his classroom post October ADM, I know from first-hand experience that your class sizes are smaller and you do NOT have to take every student who walks through your doors.

      I am grateful that children have the opportunities you offer AND you must also acknowledge that our traditional public schools offer many wonderful learning experiences as well.

      I have found that you rarely acknowledge the good work going on in our traditional public schools. In fact, you often “throw them under the bus” to tout the charter system.

      I have tried to be positive in regards to your efforts and also realistic. Clearly, to have any objective and fair conversation with you on this issue is unlikely. How unfortunate for all our students.

  5. Carolyn Sharette

    Steve I don’t know what nerve I hit, but I apologize for whatever offense was given – it was unintentional and was not my intention nor is it now. I thought we WERE having a valuable conversation, although we don’t obviously agree on everything. Not agreeing does not mean I am not fair or objective.

    My point was that there really is no “underdog” in the charter/public discussion. Both sides would do well to stop trying to be the victim, the underdog, or claim they are on the lower level of the playing field. I believe there are areas in which both systems have advantages and both also experience disadvantages. When you list them all out, it is clear that neither is greatly disadvantaged over the other. And we spend lots of time and energy trying to determine who is less advantaged, and then we use our own perceived disadvantages as excuses for our failures to teach students to mastery. Both charters and public schools are guilty of participating in this useless debate. My view is that we should lay that discussion point to rest and just focus on working together to do what is best for students.

    I apologize if I have not given credit to public schools enough on these posts. It is true that I tend to focus on the charter side since that is what I live every day. Let me say that I believe generalizations are not helpful to the discussion of school effectiveness, yet that is what we seem to always get to – “public schools are great” or “public schools are terrible”, “charter schools are great” or “charter schools are terrible”. None of these statements are true, and it is not helpful to generalize. That is why I don’t speak much about traditional public schools – because I have very little first-hand knowledge of specific accomplishments or failures and I am trying to not fall into the generalization trap that unfortunately dominates these boards.

    So please forgive my tardiness in saying this – I believe traditional public schools do many, many great things. All 7 of my children graduated from public high schools. I can cite specific, terrific aspects of Hillcrest High School where 5 attended. I could name some teachers who were excellent. I think ingratitude is a weakness and although I tried to always take the opportunity to express my thanks to my childrens’ teachers and administrators, I’m sure I fell short and you are right I probably have not expressed it here when there were opportunities to do so.

    To address a couple of your points – I am not sure how charters “don’t have to accept every student who walks through your door.” It is true students have to come through the lottery, and perhaps that is what you are speaking of. But I think some readers will believe by your statement that we don’t really have to accept students we don’t “want” and that is untrue, which you must know if you have followed charter school law and rule, even minimally.

    Also, at least at our school our class sizes truly are not smaller. Our 4-6th grades classes have a minimum of 30 students, and often have 32 students, sometimes even one or two more. We do find ways to do smaller “breakout” groups with the use of paraprofessionals when we are teaching reading, math and spelling.

    I apologize if I have thrown anyone “under the bus”. In our efforts to try to point out areas that need to be addressed for children’s sake, and to propose better ways that we could meet the needs of students, it is inevitable that there will be those who take offense at the criticism. It is never my intention to focus on what isn’t working, but instead to shine a light on what is working better and try to garner some interest that more students could benefit. If there were a way to do so without offending anyone, I would certainly choose that and perhaps if I were more skilled I could do so.

Leave a comment encourages a civil dialogue among its readers. We welcome your thoughtful comments.