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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

The Utah State Capitol, Friday, Jan. 27, 2012.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers rejected a bill designed to close the educational achievement gap for at-risk students through an expansion of high-quality public preschool.

Some Senate Republicans objected to the public-private partnerships that would have provided the funding; they objected to the idea of public preschool taking children out of the home; and ultimately, they objected to the bill.

But the achievement gap for at-risk students remains.

According to the Utah State Office of Education, at-risk students — generally defined as students from low-income and non-English speaking households — fall well behind their Caucasian, middle-class, English-speaking peers in academic proficiency and high school graduation rates.

Based on 2012 Criterion-referenced testing, the rate of proficiency for low-income students is 74 percent in language arts, 59 percent for math and 58 percent for science. The numbers are lower for English language learners, who are 37 percent proficient in language arts, 28 percent in math and 17 percent in science.

But for students who are both low-income and English language learners, the numbers are lower still: 30 percent are proficient in language arts, 27 percent are proficient in math, and only 16 percent score in the proficiency range in science.

"This is the big challenge," said Brenda Hales, deputy state superintendent. "It’s an important conversation because Utah’s population is becoming more diverse."

But not everybody believes it is a challenge worthy of the solution proposed by Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan.

Osmond's bill would have tried to take a bite out of the achievement gap by expanding high-quality public preschool in the state. Osmond worked for more than a year on the bill, bringing various stakeholders to the table and working to draft legislation that would be palatable to both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature.

But Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, who together with Rep. Keith Grover, R-Provo, led the opposition to the bill, said closing the achievement gap is "not a noble goal."

Dayton said students should learn at their own pace, and a stated goal to close gaps could hypothetically lead to perverse incentives because the goal would be realized by either helping at-risk students or impeding high-achievers.

"Closing the achievement gap is not a worthy goal unless we want all children to always be the same at the same time," she said.

The bill would have required parents of preschool students to volunteer in their children's classrooms. It would have funded the expansion through private investment and would have also provided incentives for at-home preschool education by making instructional software available for low-income families.

"This bill has been something I’ve been working on for over a year," Osmond said. "We put an enormous amount of time into trying to create a bill that would be acceptable to both conservative colleagues and also our Democratic colleagues, and I thought we had accomplished that."

The bill was ultimately defeated in the Senate by a 11-18 vote along mostly party lines. Osmond said he was disappointed but that he learned a lot during the Senate debate. He said the bill may have simply introduced too many new concepts at once.

Moving forward, the proposal may need to be refined, simplified or split into multiple initiatives, Osmond said.

"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.

She said early intervention programs for at-risk students, particularly those with linguistic challenges, have proven to be very successful, but many of those same families do not have financial ability to take advantage of preschool or at-home early learning resources.

"If the family can’t afford to have books around the house, they probably can’t afford to have a computer in the house either," Hales said.

All-day kindergarten is another option, she said, one that more and more Utah schools are considering as a way of targeting achievement gaps and improving language skills. The latest budget proposals from the Legislature call for $7.5 million in funding for optional extended-day kindergarten.

When asked about early intervention for at-risk children, Gov. Gary Herbert spoke specifically in favor of extended-day kindergarten.

"It may not be for everybody, but it is for some," Herbert said. "We know that those early years, those formative years have a big impact on the outcome."

Finding solutions

Hales says states that have been most successful at targeting their achievement gaps have done so through a combination of preschool for at-risk students, all-day kindergarten and small class sizes. But each of those initiatives cost money, she said, and to implement all three is "horribly expensive."

Dubno said in her research of areas such as Maryland and Florida, where achievement gap efforts were successful, she saw the same three initiatives: targeted preschool, extended-day kindergarten, and small class sizes.

"Those are the three things that we know work," she said.

Utah currently ranks lowest in the nation for per-pupil spending, and financing educational initiatives is a perennial challenge in the state.

Osmond's preschool bill, for example, would have funded the expansion of high-quality preschool through private investments that the state would repay with interest if improved student performance and costs savings to the state were achieved.

Another bill currently being debated by lawmakers originated as a class-size reduction bill with caps on kindergarten through third grade. But after a lack of funding stalled the bill in committee, it was dramatically revamped by removing the class-size caps and instead requiring school districts to submit reports on the way its class-size reduction funding is being used.

Hales doesn't fault lawmakers for the funding realities in education. She said a low tax burden and Utah's large families simply result in challenges to public schools.

"It's not that the Legislature isn't trying their best," Hales said. "If you just want to pick one grade, then lower class size in kindergarten and have it be all day long."

When asked what one thing should or could be done to start the process of shrinking the achievement gap, Dubno said an either/or option is insufficient. She said to effectively target an at-risk population requires the combination of prevention and remediation initiatives.

"I wouldn't do just one thing, but I would definitely invest in preschool," Dubno said.

A financial argument

It's not just about performance. Investing in 3- and 4-year-old children is not only an effective option but also a fiscally conservative one, Dubno said.

Most education experts agree that preventative efforts like high-quality preschool is less costly than special education and remediation, not to mention the eventual expenses in welfare services and criminal justice that are avoided by an educated population.

"It is truly fiscally conservative to invest in young kids," Dubno said. "We feel that this is one of the smartest and most effective uses of state dollars."

Pam Perlich, a senior research economist with the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic and Business Research, said the literature on early childhood education is fairly conclusive that targeted interventions for an at-risk student can make a lasting difference in their life.

Perlich also said the cost of an underachieving student population has societal impacts beyond the academic struggles of individual children.

"If you have an underclass that is not successful in connecting to the labor market, that isn't self-sufficient, that ends up not being civically engaged in a meaningful way, that leads to all kinds of bad outcomes," she said. "There is a cost to be paid for an underclass in any community or any society."

Herbert's comments also struck on the topic of state funding. He mentioned the recent statements by President Barack Obama calling for universal preschool and said there is merit to the idea as long as it remains optional for families.

"The biggest problem is: Can we afford it?" he said. "As someone who used to own a day care center and preschool, I understand there is a lot of interest by families out there to have some preschool. But that ought to be something that’s developed by the private sector."

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche

E-mail: benwood@deseretnews.com

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