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Utah: This is What Happens When the State Superintendent is not an Educator

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Author: dianeravitch

Kim Irvine, English teacher in Ogden, Utah, knows the new state superintendent quite well. Brad Smith, a lawyer with no education experience, was superintendent in Ogden, where he implemented a series of failed “reform” policies. So, it being Utah, he was elevated to state superintendent.

Kim Smith here describes the havoc and disruption he imposed on Ogden. Watch out, Utah parents and teachers! Know what to expect and push back hard. As hard as you can.

This is the canary in the coalmine…

Few people in this state realize that many Utah teachers are holding their collective breath waiting for the state superintendant to unveil his educational plan. There are concerns because his previously unsuccessful reforms as a district superintendent are often pointed to as an exemplar. Not many people across the state know what these reforms could look like, but the teachers, parents, and students from Ogden, do.

Based on that perspective, there are a few points that should be considered, especially for the parents whose students will be educated under this new plan. Recently, an article addressed ten signs of a failing district. [i] Please refer back to the article because the descriptions of these ten sign are both illuminating and powerful. Here are the ten signs:

  1. The large majority of teachers have fewer than 5 years experience.
  2. Teachers are overwhelmed with requests for data.
  3. Teachers receive no support from administrators on discipline issues.
  4. Professional development is limited to indoctrination and data.
  5. The message is tightly controlled, eliminating constructive criticism.
  6. School Board members serve as rubber stamps.
  7. The community is not involved in its schools.
  8. The district is top heavy with administrators.
  9. An overemphasis has been placed on technology.
  10. Not enough emphasis is being place on civics and citizenship.

Watch how closely this mirrors the events that happened in Ogden as Mr. Smith implemented his reforms.

Librarians

One of the first actions as newly appointed superintendent that really caught the ire of the community was to fire all of the librarians in the district including many reading specialists, citing potential increases in the cost of benefits under the Affordable Care Act. [ii] Smith also went on to explain that Ogden School District is the only remaining district on the Wasatch Front to employ licensed teachers as media specialists in their libraries. [iii]This turned out to be false, but deaf to the public outcry by parents, teachers, and students, the librarians did, indeed, lose their jobs. Many had been in the district for decades. After all was said and done, a handful of librarians remained. [iv]

Scripted Teaching

The next concern arose because of mandated training and implementation of scripted curriculum. Although many requests were made to the district about the expense of this program, the district would never release exact numbers. It has been reported the cost of this scripted program is upwards of $800,000 a year for the English instruction alone. This is horrifying to anyone, but especially someone who understands that these supplies are “consumables”. They are basically a bunch of worksheets bound together that the students write in and are thrown away each year and replaced. This is a very expensive and not a very effective way to teach as many research studies show. “One program cannot meet the needs of all children. Teachers need to be trained and empowered to make decisions about how best to teach their students.”[v]

Teacher Attrition

Many teachers began to leave Ogden District for several reasons including heavy-handed discipline, scripted programs, and a huge increase in data gathering and analysis paperwork. Other teachers were simply non-renewed. The local paper reported, “District teacher turnover 57% from 2006 to 2013.” Actual numbers appear that the trend is not only not slowing, but also increasing. According to the district’s records just about the same number of teachers left again the next year which would bring the cumulative to 72% turn over in teachers. Smith said. “Reforms were implemented, and they are choosing to go elsewhere to work.”[vi]

Teacher, Jennifer Claesgens, whose resume includes a Ph.D. in science and mathematics education, experience teaching high school, and four years as an assistant professor at Northern Arizona University’s Center for Science Teaching and Learning, responded to having her teaching contract not renewed by speaking out. According to the Standard Examiner, “She wonders if the real reason she was let go was that she questioned some school policies. ‘I didn’t understand why we didn’t have finals at a high school, if we want students to be prepared for college. I didn’t understand why kids were allowed to play sports if they weren’t even in school that day, or were flunking classes…I questioned those things because I really feel that you need to have expectations of students.”’[vii]

Confiscation of Teachers’ salaries

Another large reason that teachers are fleeing the Ogden District are the ways, under the reforms, teacher discipline is handled. Currently, when a teacher is placed on what the district calls, “Tier Two Remediation,” they lose the state money. This represents several thousand dollars that is “confiscated” by the district. This practice has become rather commonplace in the Ogden School District, yet I haven’t heard of this happening to other teachers across the state. A concern here is that this seems to be a conflict of interest. The district is fiscally motivated to place teachers on discipline. Personally, I know several teachers who have had this happen to them. It is a stressful, demeaning, and hurtful punishment that pushes the boundaries of appropriateness, especially when Utah teachers struggle with low wages and shrinking benefits as it is.

Mr. Smith’s Superintendent Bonuses and OSD Board’s “Rubber Stamp of Approval for Renewed Contract

In the midst of all of this, the Ogden School District Board unanimously renewed Brad Smith’s contract for another two years. What surprised the community was to hear of Mr. Smith’s incentive pay and bonus plan, which seemed highly inappropriate due to the financial woes claimed by the district. The Standard Examiner covered the story, “…but his potential performance pay goes up. Before, Smith was assessed three times a year and got a $10,000 bonus each time he met the criteria. Now, Smith will be assessed four times yearly, and get $9,000 each time he meets criteria…” Board President Shane Story.[viii]

Even though many were present at this board meeting in protest of the many controversial policies, The Ogden School Board voted unanimously to renew Superintendent Brad Smith’s contract for two more years.[ix] This was particularly disturbing considering there was no formal offering of the job to other job applicants despite the public outcry. Here is a video of some of these concerns voiced at that meeting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GscEIJ5lgdk

 

Data Shenanigans

But most importantly, it is vital to examine the data proffered by Mr. Smith as proof that his non-traditional methods actually work. Initially, the data showed that there were increases in student scoring at a few schools at the elementary levels, but those successes were short lived. There was minimal, consistent improvement at the secondary level. In 2014, as the state testing data came in, it became apparent that the reforms left a lot to be desired. The Deseret News reported shocking figures of proficiency rates in both the junior highs and high schools in Ogden District. Some of the most dismal were the math scores:

Ogden High= 4% proficient in math

Ben Lomond High= 5.9% proficient in math

Mound Fort Jr= 6.9% proficient in math

Highland Jr= 12.0% proficient in math

Mount Ogden Jr= 26.3% proficient in math

In 2014, two years after Mr. Smith started his sweeping reforms, the Deseret News reported the following:

“…Ogden, where English language arts scores fell by almost 77 percent — about 30 percent beyond the average drop experienced by Utah’s elementary schools. In the last four years, Dee and other Ogden schools have been hailed as having turned the tide in academic performance, fighting their way out of the bottom ranks through administrative overhauls and data-driven teaching initiatives. Between 2010 and 2013, Dee had gone from being among the worst-performing schools in the state to more than doubling its proficiency scores in language arts.”[x]

The paper even created a graph to illustrate how quickly the scores fell after being used as proof that Mr. Smith’s reform efforts were a smashing success. [xi]

Something else that is troubling about these numbers is that the math simply doesn’t add up to reflect authentic student growth and success. For instance, the graduation rates reported from Ogden District that same year were 71%. [xii]

Doesn’t that graduation figure become suspect when one considers that almost 90 percent of secondary students in Ogden District were not proficient in math? This means that almost 90% of the junior high and high school students in the district were not at grade level.

More and more testing…and now kindergarteners?

Lastly, many experienced educators are alarmed to hear the superintendent recommend standardized testing for our kindergarteners even though this flies in the face of a large body of educational research. [xiii] The Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI) has found that, “standardized testing in the early years causes stress, does not provide useful information, leads to harmful tracking and labeling of children, causes teaching to the test, and fails to set conditions for cooperative learning and problem-solving.” [xiv]

 

The Business Model in Education

So now that we await the new educational plan that the state superintendent plans to roll out in August, it is important to keep in mind that the business model does not work in education. Diane Ravitch, a national expert on education, historian of education and Research Professor of Education at New York University, and a former Assistant Secretary of Education under George W. Bush, describes Mr. Smith as follows: “Clearly, Ogden has decided to utilize a business plan. The superintendent has no education background. Class size doesn’t matter. Librarians don’t matter. The voices of concerned parents are ignored. As long as those test scores go up, the school board will declare success. After all, trained seals can perform no matter how many are in the pool.”[xv]

Concerns about Smith’s Reforms from the Community and Media

Alliance for a Better Utah describes Mr. Smith, “Between his credentials and behavior, educators in the state have plenty with which to be alarmed. Utah’s legislators historically have butted heads with educators, so a superintendent playing for the other team could have toxic consequences. The situation ought to be watched closely as Utah’s children will ultimately pay the price.”[xvi]

Recently, Paul Rolley, of the Salt Lake Tribune, pointed out some startling concerns in an article dated May 15th 2015 where he pointed out that Smith is a creation of the right wing:

“But Stephenson (Utah Senator) now has the education leader he always wanted. Smith, who immediately confronted the teachers union when he became superintendent of the Ogden School District and infamously slashed programs and people, seems to share Stephenson’s distrust of public school teachers and malevolence toward administrators bound philosophically to traditional education policies.”

Rolly went on further to express some concern over actions of state school board members as Smith’s reforms are adopted and the naysayers are eliminated:

“The few board members who met on their own and championed Smith have driven out other top professionals of the State Office of Education through their micro-managing and constant meddling, according to past and present education employees who have observed the recent carnage.”[xvii]

Conclusion

We, the Utah State Democratic Education Caucus is made up of parents, community leaders, students, teachers, administrators, and community members who are extremely concerned about the superintendent’s new 5 year educational plan especially since no one seems to be looking closely to the devastation he left behind in Ogden. Please, please heed our pleas. Be careful of glossy promises and slick brochures. Demand research backed programs that are authentic and peer reviewed, not just propaganda from vendors. We are your constituency and we are worried. At the beginning of this document we explained that this is the canary in the coalmine. The metaphoric canary is the remains of the Ogden School District. If you would like to speak to teachers, parents, or counselors who have seen this tragedy, we can arrange it. Please contact me and we will put you together.

Sincerely,

Kim Irvine

Chair: Utah Democratic Education Caucus

[i] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/randy-turner/ten-signs-your-child-is-i_b_7698514.html

[ii] http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/56222830-78/district-ogden-employees-positions.html.csp

[iii] Coverage from the local paper regarding firing the librarians and reading specialists: http://www.standard.net/Local/2013/04/27/Ogden-School-District-notifies-librarians-of-job-terminations.html

~A few of the many letters to the editor from outraged parents fighting to keep the librarians

  1. http://www.standard.net/Opinion/2013/04/30/Ogden-district-s-agendas-lack-info-on-firing-librarians.html
  2. http://www.standard.net/Opinion/2013/04/30/librarians-teach-students-to-evaluate-web-sources.html
  3. http://www.standard.net/Opinion/2013/04/29/Passionate-librarians-integral-part-of-education.html

[iv] http://dianeravitch.net/2013/10/05/ogden-utah-decides-to-let-non-educators-try-their-hand/

[v] Elaine Garan’s In Defense of Our Children: When Politics, Profit and Education Collide is a little book packed with insight and research.

http://www.tcrecord.org/library/abstract.asp?contentid=11835

[vi] Great information from local paper including stats and graphs on teacher attrition http://www.standard.net/Local/2013/11/02/Ogden-School-District-teacher-departures-at-7-year-high

[vii] Poignant story and video from the perspective of a talented, non-renewed teacher as Ogden fires 17 teachers http://www.standard.net/Education/2014/05/12/10-Non-renewed-teachers

[viii] Great video interviews and coverage of Mr. Smith’s bonuses and other compelling issues: http://www.standard.net/Lifestyle/2013/09/20/Ogden-School-Board-renews-superintendent-s-contract-for-two-years.html

[ix] Regardless of the public outcry, OSD Board unanimously renews Smith contract for two years. http://e.standard.net/stories/2013/09/19/ogden-school-board-renews-superintendents-contract-two-years

[x] After reporting sweeping successes, the Deseret News points out several flaws http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865614569/What-Ogden-reveals-about-the-SAGE-test-teaching-and-how-students-learn.html

[xi] Deseret News graphic illustrating problems with previously successes in Ogden School District http://img.deseretnews.com/images/article/graphicSidebar/1433848/1433848.jpg

[xii] Graduation data: http://www.schools.utah.gov/data/Superintendents-Annual-Report/2014/GraduationReport.aspx

[xiii] Please go to 1:46:38 to hear Mr. Smith’s ideas on standardized testing for Utah kindergarteners. http://utahlegislature.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=2&clip_id=19036&meta_id=559117

[xiv] http://www.education.com/magazine/article/testing-kindergarten-realities-dangers/

[xv] National Education blog describes Smith: http://dianeravitch.net/2013/10/05/ogden-utah-decides-to-let-non-educators-try-their-hand/

[xvi] Alliance for a Better Utah describes Smith: http://betterutah.org/2015/03/27/superintendent-smith-not-quite-ready-for-primetime/

[xvii] Rolly article in Trib: http://www.sltrib.com/opinion/2513070-155/rolly-schools-superintendent-is-a-careful

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