Steve Carlsen addresses the legislature at their 2012 session.
It has often been said that the public schools are a reflection of American society.
For Steve Carlsen, the Superintendent of Carbon School District, that relationship of the two holds pretty true, and he sees that as a challenge that school personnel have to live up to.
"It seems the respect for education in this country is not as high as it once was," he said in an interview on Friday morning. "With that being said, however, it beckons our school system to do a better job when communicating with students and parents."
A school superintendent's job is a tough one. First of all, there is the management of vast financial resources and also being sure that the people working in the district put out a good product. That product is a relevant education for students.
"Students and their parents are our customers," he said.
Carlsen, who has been involved in education as a teacher, administrator and superintendent at two different school districts, sees the involvement of the community as a key to a good educational program. That kind of involvement has traditionally been done entirely through the board of education, which is an elected board. However, in the recent past the Utah State Legislature has put into effect a law which requires boards to have School Community Councils. Individual school boundary councils are elected from those within school boundaries "whose primary focus is to develop, approve, and assist in implementing school improvement plans, and advise school/school district administrators" (as stated in the statute).
These councils are also tasked with providing "a framework and support for improved academic achievement of students that is locally driven from within individual schools, through critical review of testing results and other indicators of student success, by establishing meaningful, measurable goals and implementing research-based programs and processes to reach the goals." (Rule R277-491 of the Utah State Code).
But beyond those councils there are also those that help in schools on a daily basis.
"We have some incredible involvement from volunteers in the communities in our schools," said Carlsen. "It is amazing."
Laws and regulations have also had their impact on how schools have changed in the last generation or two. Probably the largest changed in that respect came from the No Child Left Behind legislation that was passed a decade ago. At first there were a lot of educators that didn't like the idea. Over the years many, however, have warmed up to it.
"I think it really was a good thing," said Carlsen. "I believe it has led us to be more award of where every student is. It has made us become a more data involved profession."
And in this day and age of information, data is all important.
But still some of the aspects of the original program were troubling. Like requiring all districts to have every student reading at a third grade level, regardless of any other circumstances. That was supposed to have been in place within the next two years, but as the Department of Education reviewed the plan, they made changes and came up with what is called the Flexibility Act.
"They found that expecting every third grader to read at their level was too strong," said Carlsen.
Consequently, a number of factors are now taken into account when analyzing school performance.
"What was needed was a program that took into account not only performance but also the growth a student shows," said Carlsen. "That is what the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System does."
The point is to take a baseline on a student and then look not only how he or she performs after taking a course of study, but how much he or she learns in that time.
"I think teachers feel much better about that now," he said.
Carlsen also sees mentoring in the schools and learning from one another as an important part of teaching. At one time, teachers had very little time to talk to one another about problems and ways to cure them. But that has changed.
"It's the idea of a professional learning community," said Carlsen. "We now have enough aides working in the schools that teachers can take a couple of hours a week to get together with others about issues and problems, as well as solutions to problems. This is a process of sharing and using best practices."
That time is separate from the traditional planning time teachers have had for years.
"This works well with the process of self evaluation and peer evaluation," he says. "And it also ties in with the Utah Core."
The Utah Core (known as Common Core in other places in the country) has led to some big gains in materials, processes and procedures in education. Carlsen says that before that the state was often on its own when trying to attempt to make changes. Now there are 41 other states doing basically the same thing.
Carlsen said that it won't be long before the state will be moving away from CRT (Criterion Referenced Tests) to what is called Adaptive Testing. CRT tests allows an evaluation of the students knowledge in terms of passing or failing to know something, but Adaptive Testing will allow educators to know exactly where a student stands in terms of where they are with actual learning. While all state testing is already on computers, these tests, also done on computers will provide information by asking a question and then if the student doesn't know the answer, it will move the question to a different level to see if the student knows that answer. It will drill down until it reveals what the student actually does know.
"These kinds of tests will help us to understand a students growth and what we need to do to get them where they should be," said Carlsen. "Right now we have a test in April as a snapshot of where a student is, then we have to consider learning loss from over the summer break and then we test them the next April to see where they are."
With the Adaptive Testing educators will be able to evaluate students three times a year and get the exact level of knowledge about any specific subject.
The near future will bring many more changes, but probably the biggest one on the horizon for now is because of a bill introduced into the Utah State Legislature last session. The bill, introduced and sponsored by State Senator Aaron Osmond is called the Human Resource Education and Management Act (Senate Bill 64).
"With that bill we are in the middle of a big swing in education," said Carlsen. "That bill will take effect during the 2014-15 school year."
The law requires all education employees be evaluated annually and that a probationary or provisional educator be evaluated twice a year. Carlsen said that the SB64 will impact everyone who works at a school district because the evaluation will look at everyone employed. For teachers it specifies that educator evaluations be based on students learning growth (or achievement) and instructional quality. With that locally developed evaluations must also be tied to a district's compensation system. This basically means that any raises an educator would get would be tied to the evaluation.
"A lot of the evaluation will come down to student scores, but there will be other aspects as well," said Carlsen. "Input on the evaluation will come not only from principals, but also from stakeholders (students and parents). Next year we will be in the practice phase on these new regulations."
The legislature's intent with this bill is to produce a system of merit pay for good teachers, tie salary to satisfactory performance and it expedites and clarifies the process of dismissal of employees who don't meet the requirements. It will also provide for greater accountability of administrators.