In our opinion: Innovative thinking needed to reform education

Published: Friday, Dec. 14 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

bout two-thirds of the small growth projected in state revenue is directed toward public and higher education in the governor's plan.

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Gov. Gary Herbert unveiled his budget proposal in advance of the 2013 legislative session this week. Not surprisingly, his main emphasis is on education. About two-thirds of the small growth projected in state revenue is directed toward public and higher education in his plan.

That is the correct emphasis in a state with a large and ever-growing population of students. But we're disappointed that the governor and other leaders of the state still have not fully caught the vision of the innovative thinking needed to reform education and prepare Utahns to compete in a global economy.

The governor again empahsized the goal of having 66 percent of all adult Utahns with a post-secondary degree or professional certification by 2020. That was a goal set by his Education Excellence Commission in 2010. Its genesis is a Georgetown University study that highlighted a huge gap between where Utah is and where it ought to be to keep pace with the demands of a 21st century workplace.

Unfortunately, little progress has been made since 2010, and 2020 is now beginning to loom on the horizon. In 2010, only 39 percent of Utahns held such a degree. Herbert told us that figure now is 43 percent.

As we noted in 2010, the only way for the state to achieve its goal using current enrolment and completion patterns would be for the state's colleges to enroll another 109,000 students in 2020. That would place an unprecedented burden on those facilities, and it would mean registering more than twice as many students as the state expects to receive through natural growth.

A better approach would be to increase the graduation rate among those already enrolled. Currently, those rates are not impressive. Utah Valley University, for instance, in 2010 graduated only about 15 percent of its enrollees over six years, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

But raising those numbers will take some radical thinking. Herbert talks about better aligning public, technical and higher education to reach this goal. Meanwhile, however, a rapidly changing marketplace is using online learning to give many young people what they need at a lower cost. "Massive open online courses" are gaining ground, as are private companies that aggregate courses and lectures for a small fee.

In a state where revenues always will struggle to keep pace with the growing student population, state leaders ought to be focusing more on becoming leaders in innovative delivery systems for quality instruction.

Likewise with public education, where the governor and state lawmakers seem locked into the idea of simply giving more money to a system that is incapable of keeping up with the needs of a population undergoing huge demographic shifts. The governor is proposing adding $5 million, for instance, to help the focus on science, technology, engineering and math in grades four through eight. That money would quickly dissipate when spread among the state's many school districts, and the governor has little control over how it is actually spent.

The answers must come through innovation. There is no shortage of good ideas floating around to inspire innovative thought.

The good news is that Utah's economy and sound government management has placed the state in a position where it no longer has to focus on making drastic cuts. But the growth is nowhere near adequate to take care of the increase in students and the need to produce more graduates. It's time to dismantle some traditions and think differently.

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