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Jeb Bush: Transforming education to a student-centered system

Utah educational reform is off to good start, but there are still needed changes

By Jeb Bush

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Sept. 18 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

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America is facing a crisis even greater than our current economic recession. Millions of students enter and leave our schools every year without gaining the knowledge and skills they need to achieve their God-given potential.

Our greatest challenge is to equip today's students for success in the 21st century global economy. Our nation's destiny depends on it.

Thankfully, leaders across the states are enacting bold reforms to transform the quality of education. Utah is one example. Utah policymakers have enacted reforms to help ensure that students gain the knowledge and skills for success in college and careers.

Data-driven accountability, high expectations for all students, choices for families, a focus on literacy, an effective workforce of teachers and customized learning are critical components of a quality education system. Fortunately, Utah legislators have begun to embrace policies to provide stronger K-12 transparency, increase academic standards, and expand educational options for students.

Last session, Utah policymakers adopted a system of grading schools on a scale of A through F. The system, pioneered in Florida, provides a clear message to parents about how their public schools are performing. Unlike a system of fuzzy labels, parents and taxpayers instantly grasp the A-F scale.

In Florida, A-F school grades are based on student learning gains. Half of the grade is based on the number of students that are on grade level, the other half is based on learning gains. The gains of the lowest-performing students are double-weighted to incentivize schools to ensure these students are not left behind. As student learning gains improve, school grades improve.

In the first year of the Florida program, more schools earned D and F grades than A and B grades. Yet, Florida's leaders did not waver. Today, there are ten times as many A and B schools as D and F schools, despite the fact that the state raised the bar for earning a high grade four different times. Student achievement in Florida has soared since this policy was implemented.

With proper implementation, which requires an unwillingness to make excuses for poor student achievement, Utah has the potential to earn the same kind of success. If leaders, parents and educators will stick to their guns of high expectations and data-driven accountability, Utah's students, teachers and administrators will earn the pride of improving the grade of their school. The most disadvantaged students will be the biggest winners.

Digital learning has the power to transform education by extending the reach of quality teachers, expanding access to rigorous courses and empowering every student to receive a personalized education that equips them for success beyond high school. The digital learning bill passed by the Utah Legislature and signed by Gov. Gary Herbert earlier this year begins the process of transformation, but funding formulas must be modernized and antiquated rules revised.

Utah has taken important first steps to providing additional options for parents through charter schools and the Carson Smith scholarship program for children with disabilities. These programs must be improved and expanded to give parents the maximum amount of control over the education of their child. Education funds should follow the student to the quality provider the parent has selected to educate their child. Parents best know their child's needs and are best equipped to hold schools and the state accountable for the education of each child. Accountability should come from both the top down and the bottom up.

To grow and sustain a workforce for the 21st century knowledge-based economy, Utah must better prepare it students through rigorous academic standards — particularly in the areas of math and science.

According to the Nation's Report Card, the NAEP test, Utah's 4th grade students are reading below the national average. More tragically, Utah's Hispanic 4th graders score at the bottom of the nation on reading and math tests. This is not a recipe for a strong economic future.

Utahans should be encouraged that their leaders have begun the process of improving education. But much work is left to be done to transform education to a student-centered system that harnesses the power of digital learning to provide students a customized education that equips them with the knowledge and skills to compete in the global marketplace. This is not just a task for lawmakers, but also business leaders. Today's students are tomorrow's workforce.

Our nation's challenges loom large, but we have a proud tradition of stepping up when needed. Conservatives and liberals disagree about much, but a growing consensus now recognizes the need to improve our students' futures. Policymakers nationwide must continue to pursue reform and improvement in order to provide our students with the opportunity they deserve to succeed in life. By embracing and implementing needed reform, Utah can help lead the way.

Jeb Bush served as Governor of Florida from 1999-2007. Since leaving office, he has maintained his passion for educational reform as chairman of the board of the Foundation for Florida's Future and Foundation for Excellence in Education.

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