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Children and a teacher in a classroom.

During the 2015 general legislative session, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and Rep. Bradley Last pioneered an innovative public-private, pay-for-performance partnership to help the lowest-performing 3 percent of all schools in Utah. While several other states have achieved varying degrees of success by allocating significant money to their schools in greatest need, Niederhauser and Last’s model increased the likelihood of real, measurable improvement for students here in Utah by incorporating three unique components:

  • Applying a methodology proven through a growing body of rigorous, national, empirical research — that student outcomes improve as schools are empowered to focus intently on implementing evidence-based, high-impact practices.
  • Focusing the majority of resources on actual implementation; ensuring iterative practice and feedback mechanisms result in sustainable implementation of the most effective research-proven teaching and leadership practices at each school.
  • Facilitating this improvement through a public-private, pay-for-performance partnership. A full half of the private partner’s fees are contingent on affecting measurable improvements in student learning at each school. And since partners are “outside of the system” they are able to more easily serve as objective, nonevaluative advisors to the school leaders and teachers.
Thanks to the vision and forethought that guided its development, the initiative (SB 235) has been a tremendous success. In what's expected to be a three-year turnaround process, 17 of the 25 schools are already no longer identified as low performing schools after just one year of implementation. Twenty-two of the 25 schools demonstrated meaningful growth on the 2016 SAGE test. Though the state has tried many approaches to helping these schools over the years, no other state program that I’m aware of has ever yielded this kind of meaningful, measurable movement, this fast.

These results have been driven by an explicit focus on evidence-based practices. The turnaround designation has empowered the schools and expert partners alike to narrow the school’s improvement plans to those things that matter most: the leadership, instructional and collaborative practices that have been demonstrably proven to help students learn more. And once the plans have been developed, the schools and partners have rolled up their sleeves and worked together to ensure faithful implementation, so the new practices are evident in these school buildings every hour of every day. Ensuring deep, lasting implementation might be the most important element of the work that has been done thus far.

The fiscal allocation for SB 235 has become a model example of “pay-for-performance” initiatives that are cropping up all over the state and country. The payment schedule and requirements create a measurement and accountability for improvement in student learning that is unprecedented in Utah’s history. Several other states have studied Utah’s SB 235 and begun implementing similar initiatives. Even the federal Department of Education has included some of Utah’s advanced elements into the final drafting of Every Student Succeeds regulations.

This innovative public-private, pay-for-performance partnership has immediately improved outcomes for students at Utah’s lowest-performing schools. But alone, it is not enough. Instead, it is just one small, necessary component in improving performance in public education among those in greatest need. Two additional next steps for improving student learning include providing financial incentives for the most effective instructors to teach at low-performing schools and developing strong principals who view their roles first and foremost as schools' chief learning officers.

If Utah’s public education system is willing to maintain its focus on accountable innovation along with meaningful investment in evidence-based practices, Utah’s children will continue to benefit.

Kirk L. Jowers is the vice president of corporate relations and European markets for dōTERRA International, LLC, and formerly served as the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics.