The Failure Of Reforms

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Did you hear the joke about the drunk who lost his keys? Poor fool drops his keys in the dark of the night on a long block with a single street light. Spends all night searching on hands and knees under that single light. Someone with minimal sense comes along and asks him where he lost the keys. “Oh,” the fool in the dark replies, “I lost them at the end of the block. But I’m looking here because this is the only light on the whole street.”

Sounds a bit like the latest in education reform — searching at the wrong end of the block for the missing keys.

Consider today’s disturbing story revealing that a full 35 percent of the students at Payson High School are failing at least one class in any given week.

The story centers on the encouraging success of an intervention program financed with a federal grant that allows the inspiring Kristi Ford to work with kids in danger of flunking classes. Turns out, lots of kids who want to succeed just get overwhelmed. She identifies kids in trouble, then works with them one-on-one to help them pinpoint the problem. In her report to the school board, she documented substantial success with the program.

But she also made a fascinating observation. Lots of kids who passed the AIMS test of basic skills, nonetheless remain in danger of failing their classes.

This raises basic questions about using standardized test scores to grade schools and evaluate teachers. Do test scores predict success in life — or even in college?

Actually, a student’s grade point average offers a much more reliable indication as to how they’ll do in college, according to a mounting body of evidence. For instance, researchers from the University of South Florida examined the graduation rate of students there. Turns out, student scores on the ACT and SAT college entrance exams had little to do with whether they did well. Their high school grade point average, however, dovetailed perfectly.

Now, for people who spend time in the classroom — that’s not so very surprising. Students excel because of their motivation and discipline and maturity. All those qualities strongly affect grades. Turns out, some students take tests better than others. But that doesn’t mean they’ll ace the test of life.

Unfortunately, would-be reformers at the state and federal level continue to meddle with education. On the one hand, they force teachers and administrators to spend their time on paperwork and test prepping, instead of the sorts of interventions teachers like Kristi Ford have proven effective. Then with the other hand, they cut the grants and funding level that would support such effective programs.

Certainly, tall street lights cast a lot of light and tests generate a lot of data. But that won’t do you much good if you lost the keys at the far end of the block.

The $200,000 plan

So, let’s get this straight. Payson has a well-developed general plan and bookcases stuffed with assorted studies. Here’s a plan to turn the American Gulch into a tourist-friendly stream. Here’s a plan to turn Main Street into a bustling, retail, historic district. Here’s a plan to overhaul the Event Center. Here’s a plan to introduce elements of the “new urbanism” into the zoning ordinance. Here’s a plan for the 200 acres of empty land up by the airport. Here’s a plan to produce more affordable housing. Here’s a plan to build a 6,000-student university.

Payson has spent lots of money and people have spent thousands of hours developing all those plans.

Now comes the census. State law requires the town to update its general plan after each census. Well, that makes sense: The future’s a moving target.

Now, as luck would have it — the town’s planning department doesn’t have much to do. Used to be, the planners and inspectors and planning commissioners had to process construction plans for 300 new homes in town every year — not to mention all the new businesses coming and going. Well, not any more. Last couple of years, Payson has added more like 30 houses a year. Of course, the town didn’t get rid of 90 percent of the planners. That would have left us stripped of expertise when the housing worm finally turns.

But hey — good news. We could put the planning department to work overhauling the general plan — maybe even integrating all those old dusty plans into an updated pipe dream.

No such luck. Instead, the town hired an out-of-state consulting firm to write up a shiny new general plan. The cost? Oh, about $200,000. For perspective — think of that as the salaries and benefits of the five police officers. Now, we’re not saying those out-of-state planners don’t have lots of good ideas and affable personalities.

We’re just wondering whether they’re certain the ever-so-quiet community development department has got enough bookshelf space to stash another $200,000 plan.

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