Utah has a philosophy: Every child should come out of the public school system educated and prepared for a responsible, caring, productive adult life.
The system, under that philosophy, should provide an educational experience that discerns and meets individual needs.The Shift in Focus, a strategic plan adopted by the State Board of Education two years ago, re-emphasizes the concept.
So far, the philosophy is ahead of the practice. Most Utah children continue to proceed through school in a lock-step, grade-to-grade pattern that in some cases penalizes both the gifted and the slow as well as those who learn best in non-traditional ways.
The State Board of Education is determined to mend the educational cracks through which many children fall.
Toward that end, board members voted during an August meeting to reaffirm an earlier requirement that each student's progress be assessed in grades three, six and nine. Remediation is mandated in areas in which a child fails short of proficiency standards.
"Now we can pick up kids before it's too late. We won't allow them to compound their failures," said Maxfield.
Teachers, however, who ultimately must implement policies that flow from the top, are a bit wary of the requirement.
"First of all, we would need a definition of 'remediation,'" said Lily Eskelsen, president of the Utah Education Association. "Does it mean children would automatically be held back abd not allowed to advance without our being able to look at individual cases? That would be detrimental. We need to seriously consider (how the policy would be implemented)," she said.
To superintendents, the policy means "They'd better get some more money somewhere," said Ernest Weeks of Emery District. He believes many problems could be headed off at the pass if there were resources available in the primary grades to hire reading and math specialists who could give kindergarten-through-third-grade students a good grounding in those subjects.
One of his schools, Cottonwood, had a pull-out program for primary students who were falling behind in reading, and it was proving very successful. The district applied for a federal grant to pursue the concept but didn't get it, Weeks said.
Among many current mediation programs:
- Outcome-based Education. Many of Utah's rural schools use versions of this program, which requires a child to meet proficiencies before moving on.
- Mastery teaching. Based on the same concept of requiring proficiency, the program is patterned on concepts developed by California educator Madeline Hunter.
- Non-grading. Lowell Elementary School in Salt Lake District groups children according to ability without regard for "grades."
- Remedial programs such as Reading Recovery in Salt Lake District. The district will spend $210,000 this year to provide one-on-one instruction for first-graders in eight Chapter I schools - Bennion, Edison, Franklin, Lincoln, Parkview, Jackson, Washington and Whittier. Students with low reading scores spend 30-minute sessions with specially trained teachers to learn reading strategies.
The policy reconfirmed by the board this month is not a new one. Technically, proficiency testing and remediation were part of the state's Core Curriculum guidelines developed in 1983. However, districts have not been held to the requirement because they did not have the necessary tools to see how well children were performing in relation to the statewide curriculum.
Tests have been developed to measure progress in most basic areas of the Core Curriculum, said David E. Nelson, director of evaluation and assessment.
Interim State Superintendent Scott W. Bean said, "The board is encouraging us to work more aggressively with the districts, which are responsible for implementing the policy.
"The intent is to ensure mastery, regardless of where children are from a 'grade' standpoint," he said.