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My view: It's time for Utah schools to improve, return autonomy to teachers

By M. Donald Thomas

Published: Tuesday, July 17 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

The Utah State Capitol Building

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The 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk was intended to create significant improvements in public education. The study was followed by an array of simplistic reforms, including a teaching-for-the-test mentality and an emphasis on outcome-based education, as reflected in the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top programs. Unfortunately, none of these have succeeded in significantly improving efficiency and accountability in American schools.

The issues troubling education nationally are especially prevalent in our state. In most of Utah's schools, academic results are at or below the national average. Utah teacher salaries are equal to those in Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi. Worse yet, Utah has the highest student-teacher ratio in the nation — 24.4 to 1.

Education must be improved in Utah. To do so will require strong, innovative leadership from the governor's office. Legislation must be submitted and enacted with specific, research-based provisions that are proven to improve education. Such legislation must provide a weighted funding index for children who live under poverty conditions — the same is already provided for special education children.

Seventy-five years of education research is sufficient proof that the achievement gap between children who live in low and high socio-economic conditions cannot be narrowed unless supplemental resources are provided to disadvantaged children. It's not only an education necessity; it is a moral imperative.

Also, the legislation will establish early childhood education in the form of optional full-day kindergartens in all school districts. Such kindergartens are proven to result in a net savings to schools by reducing overall need for special education and/or ESL services. Additionally, these kindergarten programs result in remarkably higher student performance for disadvantaged and non-English-speaking students who participate.

The governor should also sponsor legislation establishing academic accountability for all levels of education through academic performance audits and a set of achievable goals for all Utah schools, including charter schools. These audits and the performance goals based on these audits will depend on various performance indicators, not just a single high-stakes test. This will provide a fair, individualized evaluation of school effectiveness. Years of research have shown that considerable improvement is made when such academic audits are conducted and goals are set pursuant to their results.

Furthermore, the office of the governor must work with Utah teachers to return autonomy and respect to the teaching profession. Teachers should receive adequate funding, time and resources for professional development. Additionally, districts should have sufficient financial support to provide peer reviews and mentoring for teachers to provide feedback and additional training. Although the Legislature decides what is to be taught in our schools, teachers should not be micro-managed but be given full responsibility over how they use their time, what curricula they elect to teach and which teaching methods they deem best.

These provisions will ensure the teaching profession is effective, talented, professional and dignified. Utah's governor must also promote industry partnerships that amount to more than just a banner in the lunchroom. This will better prepare students to work in key industries with the tools and skill sets that businesses need. There is abundant evidence that Utah schools do not stand up to the challenges of the future.

It's time for innovative and proven strategies. It's time for financial and academic accountability. It's time for a teaching profession that is as respected as it is talented. It's time to fund our public schools adequately. It's time for leadership in education.

M. Donald Thomas is a former superintendent of the Salt Lake School District and is currently the president of Public Education Support Group, a national education consulting firm.

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