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No legislative bridge for achievement gap for Utah's at-risk students

Published: Saturday, March 9 2013 5:30 p.m. MST

"It was just a little bit more than I think my colleagues could swallow in one session," he said. "There’s so many great ideas with this bill. I will not be dropping it. I will certainly pursue this again next year and see if we can make it work."

Helping children

Benjamin Larsen's 4-year-old son, Tayden, is currently in his second year of Granite School District's high-quality preschool program, which has proven successful at helping students reach grade level achievement and avoid remedial, special education courses.

Granite's program is one of several in the state on which Osmond's bill was based, and one that regularly requires a wait list due to high demand.

"We lucked out and he got in there," Larsen said of his son's class. "I'm glad I had that choice."

Larsen has had several opportunities to volunteer in his son's classroom — a provision of Osmond's bill would have made parental engagement a requisite for participation — and he described the class as "wonderful" and "amazing." He says he tries to mirror some of the educational activities at home and is pleased with the skills his son is learning.

Larsen also said that were it not for the preschool class, he would be worried about Taydon's ability to keep up when he enters kindergarten next year.

"He just loves school," the father said. "He learns so much and brings it home and is happy to share."

Dayton's idea is to have independent pacing.

She said the first thing that needs to be done is to specifically define what "at risk" means, since the term is used to refer to racial and ethnic minorities and the economically disadvantaged, no matter if a student is struggling academically.

Then, Dayton said, a metric for determining when a student ceases to be "at risk" needs to be created so the efficacy of targeted programs can be tracked over time and funding for programs intended to be temporary can be suspended. 

She said policy-makers should forget about closing the achievement gap. Instead, Dayton said, students should be categorized based on achievement — as opposed to race or income — and the focus of educators should be to individualize instruction and raise the achievement level of each group, independent of what they're worse- or better-performing classmates are doing.

Student performance

But the idea of independent pacing also has its challenges, a point raised by Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, during floor debate.

Thatcher said non-English speaking students can hardly be expected to succeed if they are unable to understand the language being spoken by their assigned teacher.

Hales agrees. She said that without some targeted early interventions, by the time a non-English speaking student reaches comfortable literacy at their own pace, they could potentially be years behind their native English speaking peers.

"They end up coming into school with a huge difference in how they understand their world just because of their language," Hales said.

Janis Dubno, senior policy analyst for Voices for Utah Children, said targeted intervention for at-risk students is critical both before kindergarten and in the initial grades of public schooling.

She said studies show that third-grade reading proficiency is the greatest indicator of high school graduation, and even in kindergarten, students who fall behind grade level rarely catch back up.

"Children who start behind, stay behind," Dubno said.

Ideally, Hales said, students who struggle academically should be pushed by an educator in the classroom and use educational resources independently at their own pace at home with their parents. But reality rarely resembles the ideal.

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