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In our opinion: Radical thinking needed to improve Utah's graduation rates

Published: Friday, Nov. 30 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Utah lags behind 31 states in terms of high school graduation rates, according to data released Monday by the U.S. Department of Education.

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For Utah, high school graduation figures released by the U.S. Department of Education this week held nothing but bad news.

The worst of that news? If you are a Latino student here, your chances of graduating in the 2010-11 school year were only slightly better than if you were a public school student in Washington, D.C. According to the figures, 43 percent of Latino students in Utah failed to graduate last year. Adjusted numbers show that this rate has improved each year since 2008, but that is hardly cause for celebration. It just means an unacceptably dismal rate was even worse before, and the 7 percent improvement over that time doesn't come close to fixing the problem.

Overall, 24 percent of Utah high school students didn't graduate, but the figures show a huge disparity between white and minority students. American Indians or Alaskan native students graduated at levels equal to Latinos, while 39 percent of black students and 28 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander students didn't graduate.

This is the first time each state has used a new, more rigorous method to calculate graduation rates. In the past, each state used its own method, often under-counting dropouts and making it impossible to make accurate comparisons. Now, the picture is clearer. However, it is not clear whether anyone in power intends to propose solutions outside the realm of simply doing more of the same.

We agree with state Democratic Party chairman Jim Dabakis, who said Utah's graduation rates are a "five-star emergency." However, we disagree with his solution, which appears to be to just pour more money into the system.

Critics always seem quick to note that Utah ranks last in the nation in per-pupil expenditures, at just over $6,000 per student. But a comparison of expenditures to graduation rates quickly reveals no correlation at all. Utah's Latino graduation rate was the fourth worst in the nation. But the very bottom of that list, the District of Columbia, spent the most per pupil in the nation in 2010, $18,667.

The state with the best overall graduation rate, Iowa, spent $9,800 per student, which was below the national average. A quick Web search reveals hand-wringing news stories from Iowa on its lagging public school expenditures, but no attempt to tie that to performance.

This is not to say state lawmakers shouldn't make public school spending a priority when they meet in January. It is, however, to say that money is not the root of the state's poor graduation record.

Utah's politicians and educators need to keep in mind that Utah students are not merely competing with students in other states; they will be competing for jobs in a global economy against people who graduate from far-better-performing schools in other nations. Utah's overall graduation rate puts it 32nd in a nation that itself ranks disturbingly low among industrialized nations.

A recent Harvard study noted that just 6 percent of U.S. students scored at what is considered an advanced level on an exam given in 56 countries in 2006, which was lower than 30 other counties. The study said the inability to adequately teach math may threaten economic growth in the United States.

It's time for radical thinking on the part of those who govern and administer public education in Utah. That may mean harnessing disruptive technologies to drastically change the learning environment, especially for minority students. It may mean changing how students are advanced through the system, basing advancements on performance and mastery rather than on time spent in a classroom. It may mean turning teachers into tutors who help students understand lectures they watch on the Internet. It may mean involving the private sector to a greater degree. It may mean a host of things entrepreneurs can devise with the right incentives.

It does not, however, mean simply doing more of the same.

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