In my last column, I expressed the need for a strategic plan to guide decision-making in public education. Without it, we remain like Alice in Wonderland, wisely informed by the Cheshire Cat that “it doesn’t matter which way you go” when you lack a defined destination. Having proposed the need for a strategic plan the task of outlining necessary features of the plan remains — an undertaking that begins with identifying the specific outcomes we desire for our students.
To meet the needs of our children — who deserve a future with opportunity — and the needs of our state — which requires an educated work force to drive productivity — I propose that by 2020, all Utah graduates demonstrate mastery of a defined set of 21st century knowledge and skills and obtain a post-high school credential (either in the form of an associate’s degree or certificate in a high-demand, high-paying skill).
In coming weeks, I will describe a multi-pronged strategic plan to drive this ambitious yet achievable endeavor. I begin here with two steps of this integrated process.
Driving mastery of 21st century skills and higher education attainment for Utah’s students requires an integrated K-20 Department of Education that supports initiatives that target shared educational goals from kindergarten through graduate school. A common organization will open the door for better aligning elementary and secondary school standards with the skills required in higher education as well as in one’s career. Research demonstrates that the same primary skills required to excel in higher education are also those most critical to long-term professional success. Based on employer feedback as well as low college readiness rates (just above one-third of students in Utah leave high school with the skills and qualifications to enter college without remediation), we are currently failing at this task.
During our most recent gubernatorial election, Peter Corroon and Gary Herbert campaigned on the priority of education. Utah’s governor, however, currently has very limited explicit authority for public education. Utah’s complex web of oversight boards and departments all reporting to disparate stakeholders provides such confused authority and accountability that responsibility is rarely understood and easily abdicated. This confusing structure sadly drives the lack of cohesiveness and shared strategy desperately needed in Utah. This must change. Utah should implement an integrated K-20 Department of Education, led by a chief state K-20 officer hired by and accountable to the governor. An integrated K-20 Department of Education would create a system where a guiding strategy could drive all pieces of the organization, eliminate bureaucracy, reduce unnecessary costs and create system-wide coherence. It would also provide the public a more direct channel to influence Utah public education.
With statewide goals circumscribed and K-20 education better aligned, a natural next step would be to quantify interim goals or milestones. These milestones would help us track student progress at key intervals throughout the student lifecycle. Without defined milestones, we will only collect statewide results on the final outcomes of the system, which is tantamount to driving by looking in the rear-view mirror.
These milestones might include 1st grade readiness standards, reading to learn (which follows learning to read) by the 3rd grade, completion of Algebra 1 and Biology 1 by the 8th grade (these are known as “gatekeeper” subjects in various districts and states), and higher education readiness indicators in the 11th grade. These quantified milestones also align with Utah voters’ highest priorities toward improving public education, based on a recent Dan Jones & Associates poll.
Defining these metrics and then collecting interim results will allow the integrated K-20 system to respond and allocate resources appropriately to ensure that students are well prepared for their next academic or professional pathway. What’s more, getting serious about these milestones will help us fix problems before it is too late for students.
Restructuring the oversight of K-20 education and setting and tracking measurable milestones are two steps in supporting a strategic plan that is driven by a shared goal: by 2020 all graduates have mastered the defined set of 21st century knowledge and skills and have obtained a post-high school credential. Doing so will open opportunities for Utah’s students and provide the foundation to drive Utah’s future.
This post is part of an ongoing series of data-driven commentary on current events. It was originally published in the Deseret News.