SALT LAKE CITY — Effective teachers, rigorous standards, small class sizes and policy consistency.
Those were the key points repeated Wednesday by a panel of teachers invited to testify before the Education Interim Committee on what contributes to student success.
"Student achievement comes from effective teachers," said Kim Bayles, a first-grade teacher at Gerald Wright Elementary School in West Valley City. "You invest in your teachers, no matter what it is, and you're going to have student achievement."
Ten teachers, representing Granite, Weber, Alpine and Salt Lake City school districts and the American Preparatory Academy, participated in the panel, which was the first time the current leadership of the committee had invited a group of teachers to testify. The teachers were asked what lawmakers could do, or refrain from doing, to advance learning in Utah.
Several teachers mentioned class sizes and the frustration educators feel as a result of changing expectations placed upon them by the number of education bills signed into law each year.
"Changing our curriculum and program over and over doesn’t give us the chance to succeed," Bayles said.
Mary Ward, an English and ESL teacher at Granger High School in West Valley City, said it's difficult to effectively teach a classroom of 40 students. She debunked the idea that a good teacher can teach a class of any size, saying that line of thinking is false.
"That's crap, that is absolute crap," she said. "The host of things you have to know about each individual child to get them to learn, you have to have a safe environment. You have to have an environment where they feel connected to their teacher."
During the most recent legislative session, lawmakers initially considered a bill that would have placed caps on classroom sizes in kindergarten through third grade. The bill came under fire for not providing new funding for schools to meet the classroom caps — and the potential to lose funding for exceeding them — and ultimately only required schools to report on how current class size reduction funds are used.
During Wednesday's committee meeting, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Martell Menlove presented a breakdown of the funds required for class size reduction and other targeted investments.
He said there is an average of 50,000 students in each grade in Utah, which translates into an average of 23 students per class. To lower that number to an average of 20 students per class in a single grade level would require an additional 326 teachers, he said, which would require approximately $22 million.
He also shared figures on the estimated costs to increase professional development for teachers and hire school counselors and academic trackers to target the high school graduation rate.
Commenting on the figures, Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, asked whether new money would be most efficiently used hiring new teachers as opposed to administrative staff, since smaller class sizes would allow an educator to have a better connection with their students.
"If we took some money and we had it available and we ameliorated the class size situation, wouldn’t that be the preferable way than to add another layer of non-teaching staff to our education system?" he said.
Menlove agreed that investing in teachers would be a general priority but, depending on the funds available, some investment in support staff could be beneficial.
"I hope we invest that money where we get the most bang for our dollars," he said.
Tim Jones, math and science chair of the American Preparatory Academy, suggested that lawmakers and state officials set standards but allow schools and school districts flexibility to meet those standards. He said it is important to hold schools accountable for their outputs but allow for the individual needs of a student community to be met.
He also spoke in favor of the need for rigorous standards and a culture of high expectations for each student.
"You can teach a room full of kids math without pencils, but you can't teach those kids without high expectations," he said.
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