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Utah Foundation identifies best practices for school performance in new report

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 23 2013 4:20 p.m. MDT

A recent report by the Utah Foundation found that Utah's peer states have found educational success through the use of data-driven learning, professional learning communities and full-day kindergarten.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Professional development, early childhood intervention and data-driven learning are among the initiatives that contribute to student success, according to a new report by the Utah Foundation.

The report, which was presented to lawmakers Tuesday, examined the policies of consistently high-scoring states to identify what efforts most frequently correlate with increased education outcomes.

Based on both policy analysis and interviews with state and local education officials, the Utah Foundation found that best practices overlapped in four general areas:

Research-based and individualized professional development for educators, including peer mentoring and professional learning communities.

Data-driven learning, including the use of formative standards-based assessments throughout the school year to evaluate student progress.

Early childhood intervention, high-quality preschool and all-day kindergarten, with an emphasis on at-risk student populations.

High school interventions, including personalized counseling, flexible scheduling and alternative routes to graduation.

Peer states in the report include Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. Those state are demographically similar to Utah, but tend to score higher than Utah on the annual National Assessment of Educational Progress test.

The Utah Foundation, an independent public policy research firm, also analyzed two benchmark states, Massachusetts and New Jersey, which are demographically dissimilar from Utah but consistently lead the nation in academic performance.

"They have very high per-pupil spending. We’re talking about spending levels that are up to three times higher than what Utah spends," Utah Foundation President Stephen Kroes told members of the Education Task Force on Tuesday. "It’s not that what they do in their classrooms could be completely replicated in Utah, but we could learn from some of the examples of the types of policies they’ve enacted."

Utah's performance in the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests has declined in relation to the rest of the country over the last two decades. In 1996, Utah was ranked 13th in fourth- and eighth-grade math and 17th and 15th in fourth- and eighth-grade reading.

In 2011, those rankings had fallen to 21st and 25th for fourth- and eighth-grade math and 30th and 23rd for fourth- and eighth-grade reading.

Most, if not all, of the initiatives identified by Utah Foundation are currently in place to some extent or are being considered for future implementation in Utah. School districts have already seen success using student data-tracking to tailor education to individual needs and the state is moving forward with computer adaptive testing that provides more accurate student performance data.

A statewide high-quality preschool program — modeled after the success of the Granite School District — failed to gain the support of lawmakers during the most recent legislative session, but a similar initiative is moving forward in Salt Lake County. Lawmakers also approved $7.5 million in ongoing funding for optional extended-day kindergarten, which had previously been funded annually with one-time money.

Education officials have consistently lobbied lawmakers for greater investment into professional development, citing it as a key factor in promoting effective teaching. The most recent teacher of the year was also selected, in part, due to her efforts as a peer mentor.

Martell Menlove, state superintendent of public instruction, said he was not surprised by the report's finding, adding that it aligns with the requests made of lawmakers by the education community.

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