SALT LAKE CITY — In what was described as the first statewide faculty meeting, Gov. Gary Herbert spoke to public and higher education officials Wednesday about the need for greater educational attainment in Utah.
Beyond reiterating the state's goals for increased educational outputs, Herbert offered little by way of specific initiatives and investments for Utah schools. His remarks were immediately met with criticism from Utah Democratic Party leaders, who accused the governor of taking "softball" questions within the safety of a controlled environment.
"Where is the plan?" state Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said in a statement released less than an hour after the Governor's Education Summit concluded. "What measures are we putting into place to get there? Where are we going to be in 2014, 2016 or 2018? What funding and resources are needed to achieve those goals?"
But Herbert's remarks were directed toward Utah's corps of educators and not necessarily to political insiders. At several points during the summit, Herbert expressed his personal appreciation for the men and women who devote their lives to educating Utah's children and young adults.
"You literally have the power to change lives, to instill within your student a lifelong love of learning," he said. "As governor of the greatest state in America, thank you for being a teacher and making a difference in the lives of your students."
The focus of the summit was a statewide goal, commonly referred to as "66 by 2020," which calls for two-thirds of all Utah adults to hold either a technical certification or college degree by 2020.
The goal has been adopted by public and higher education officials, as well as the Utah Legislature, and includes a series of supporting goals calling for increased proficiency in math and reading and a 90 percent high school graduation rate.
Roughly 43 percent of Utah’s adult population currently holds a postsecondary degree or certificate, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Achieving the 66 percent goal would require a significant increase in degree attainment over the next seven years and would lift Utah to an unprecedented level of education.
Herbert was joined at the summit by Martell Menlove, state superintendent of public instruction; Dave Buhler, commissioner of higher education; and Rob Brems, president of the Utah College of Applied Technology.
In his remarks, Buhler spoke of how Utah has steadily declined from one of the most highly educated states in the nation to somewhere in the middle of the pack.
In 1960, Utah was ranked third in the country for the percentage of adults with a bachelor's degree or higher, Buhler said. By 1980, that ranking had fallen to eighth, and the latest data available ranks Utah 21st.
"It has taken us many years to get where we are, but obviously we need to turn this around," he said.
Buhler said higher education officials are working to incentivize students to take a full 15-credit course load, shortening the time it takes to complete a degree, by offering equal tuition for 12-credit and 15-credit schedules.
He also said his office and Utah's college and university presidents are working to partner with public school officials to encourage students to take advantage of college-preparation opportunities during high school, such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, concurrent enrollment and other rigorous courses.
According to the College Board, which administers AP tests, 20,638 Utah high school students took 33,217 AP exams during the 2012-13 school year, an increase of more than 8 percent in both indicators compared with last year.
Utah students also passed their AP exams at a rate of 67.4 percent, well ahead of the national success rate of 56.9 percent.
Scores for the ACT exam are also up in Utah, with the state earning the highest average score in the nation for states that test 100 percent of high school students.
"I invite our K-12 teachers to help all of their students realize that college should be part of their future," Buhler said. "And I encourage our college faculty to do even more to help every student reach their goal of graduation."
Menlove spoke about the gains made in both ACT and AP testing, as well as increases in the statewide graduation rate. He said Utah's education system is often regarded as a model of innovation and efficiency — matching or outperforming many national averages despite the lowest per-pupil spending in the country — and that educators should be proud of the return on investment for Utah taxpayers.
But Menlove added that schools must continue moving forward to ensure that all children have the literacy and numeracy skills they need to be prepared to enter the workforce or pursue higher education.
In addition to a 90 percent graduation rate, the 66 by 2020 goal also calls for 90 percent of students to test at grade-level proficiency in math and English language arts.
"These are lofty but achievable goals," Menlove said.
Herbert said the state is on pace to reach 66 percent by 2020 with recent increases in the number of degrees and certifications awarded and improvement in the state's graduation rate. But he added that maintaining that momentum over the next seven years will become more difficult, and it will take collaboration for the state to succeed.
"It’s gong to take considerable effort, but our kids are worth that effort," Herbert said.
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