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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.

"I think that it's consistent with what we have said to this task force about what schools in Utah need," he said.

Kroes similarly said the report does not present shocking information, but lends support to the decisions being made in the state.

"It does tend to reinforce what’s being talked about," Kroes said of the report. "I think what this research does is help people understand that these are indeed strategies that are working in other places. They're not just ideas that people have come up with in Utah."

Kroes said the consistencies between the report's findings and what is currently being discussed by Utah lawmakers could embolden policymakers. He said in Utah there is often a reticence to appropriate funding into new and unproven programs, but in many cases the success of other states was supported with bold investments by lawmakers.

"When these initiatives were adopted, they all cost money and money was put into adopting them," he said. "We seem to be fond, in Utah, of trying to do things without much money."

Menlove said it would be difficult for Utah schools to further develop initiatives like early childhood intervention, peer mentoring, professional development and counseling without funding.

"Most of those things require some additional resources to move forward with," he said of the initiatives identified by the Utah Foundation report.

Utah currently has the lowest per-pupil spending in the nation. A recent proposal by Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, would raise roughly $400 million in ongoing funding for schools, but at the expense of a state income tax exemption that benefits large families.

Her proposal received some tentative support when presented to an interim committee last week, but several lawmakers suggested a non-binding public vote would be necessary before Utah's tax-averse Legislature would feel comfortable voting for the bill.

At Tuesday's meeting of the Education Task Force, Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, said the Utah Foundation report adds support to what lawmakers have heard from educators throughout the year. He suggested that the task force begin to look at recommended legislation that aligns with improving student performance.

"There is an overlap and it’s quite a tight overlap of several factors that make a difference in the classroom for student achievement," Reid said. "I think we’re finally getting to the place where they are identifiable and there is beginning to develop consensus around those that have been identified."

Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, agreed, suggesting that moving forward lawmakers focus their discussion on high school graduation rates and fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading scores.

"I don’t think this (report) is shocking and surprising to anyone," he said. "These are discussions that we’ve had ongoing. It seems to be ratified by a lot of the testimony we’ve taken."

Menlove said Urquhart's comments are consistent with the recent budget request of the State School Board, which identified secondary math and elementary reading as its first and second funding priorities heading into the upcoming legislative session.

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com, Twitter: bjaminwood

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