The legislative session has concluded and our public schools appear to have been saved from budget cuts. I’m ecstatic our schools avoided further budget reductions — there is inadequate funding in Utah’s public education. But I’m disappointed in the way Utah’s public education system has avoided making difficult decisions during the Great Recession. This same period has forced businesses and families to get creative, to achieve higher levels of productivity and innovation during these economically hard times. Former Washington, D.C., Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee recently noted that the budget deficits plaguing states and districts across the country could create a golden opportunity for effective education reforms. Utah’s public schools, however, have changed little. Utah’s students deserve better.
We must leverage this period of economic hardship the way businesses have — as an opportunity for effective reform. Our state can lead in improving the quality of education for every student during these hard times through thoughtful and creative reform and prioritization, such as:
Develop a strategic plan. We must create a unified strategic plan to guide decision-making and funding for education reforms. Such a plan will ensure that our efforts, passion and commitment to students actually translate into meaningful support for student learning and achievement. A strategic plan for public education will support objectives that best achieve desired outcomes and de-emphasize those that do not. It must identify specific, quantifiable milestones — for example, reading on grade level by the third grade — that demonstrate progress towards the desired objective along the way.
Better and more accurately measure student performance. Unfortunately, one of the first things that has been cut from public education is the measurement of student achievement. The state has eliminated the Iowa and Stanford measurements as well as Utah’s assessments of basic skills. The CRT exams, which are required by the federal government, remain but they are not the best measures of learning. Consistent and accurate statewide learning measurements are necessary if we are to understand how changes and investments are working.
Separate the “must do’s” from the “nice to do’s.” This process must be inclusive at every level and requires asking hard questions. To what degree does our subsidizing of busing, cafeteria lunch and breakfast, or driver’s education (all of which are heavily subsidized for all users, rather than simply for those with low incomes) come at the expense of reading specialists in elementary schools or smaller class sizes in order to teach algebra in an earlier grade? To what degree does release-time seminary, rather than early-morning seminary, come at the expense of students taking a more rigorous academic schedule in high school? None of these are popular questions to ask, but there should be no “sacred cows” when truly initiating a desire to reform and improve student learning.
Better leverage technology as a tool for teachers. Used appropriately, technology can increase time for teaching by reducing efforts assessing students. Through technology-enabled instant feedback on student performance, schools can more effectively meet students’ learning needs.
There are other ideas, likely better ideas. My hope in writing these columns is not to suggest knowledge of the best ideas; rather it is to instigate a discussion surrounding how we as a state can improve the quality of something as critical as educating our children. Public education in Utah requires a strategic plan that aligns resources with our highest priorities. Our children deserve it, and our future societal and economic prosperity as a state requires improved public education.
This post is part of an ongoing series of data-driven commentary on current events. It was originally published in the Deseret News.