Utah has an education gap between white and minority students, and it's time to quit pretending otherwise. As a new report, "Closing Educational Achievement Gaps for Latina/o Students in Utah," puts it, "Regardless of the indicator (e.g., performance, dropout, participation or attainment in K-12 or higher education) gaps in access exist for students of color."
It's time, as the new University of Utah report implores, to take meaningful action to address what U. researchers say is a historical problem that has received more attention as Utah's school population has become more diverse in recent years.
The shorthand version of the U. researchers' work is that Utah has to recognize the achievement gap, identify it as a priority and take steps to improve the academic achievement and education attainment of students of color.
The authors of the study, Andrea Rorrer, director of the Utah Education Policy Center, and Enrique Aleman, research associate at the Utah Education Policy Center, take issue with Utah's school accountability system. "Reporting functions, regardless of how informative, are not equivalent to accountability requirements," they write.
Utah has resisted some accountability requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law on the grounds that they are intrusions on states' rights. That's a rational argument to a point. Absent the federal sanctions that can be imposed under the act, what is Utah's alternative? What is done to assist struggling schools or penalize schools that are given proper resources and notice and yet do not address gaps in academic achievement?
The report points out the inadequacy of Utah's school funding in terms of per pupil expenditures, Utah's large school and class sizes as well as data that show that Utah funds districts with the highest percentage of minorities at lower rates. The researchers contend that while the methodology of the latter point could be disputed, "the fact remains that districts with higher percentages of students of color, in fact, need more funding than (other) districts in order to move from 'equality' to 'equity."'
Another pressing issue is the need for reform across the education spectrum. The researchers note the failure of a legislative proposal backed by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. for a voluntary full-day kindergarten program, which arguably could give students who need extra assistance a leg up as they enter the first grade. Seemingly, a better start in school could only improve outcomes.
The report also speaks to a need for Utah educators to better understand diverse school populations as well as the need for teaching strategies and school materials that represent diverse learners. Perhaps more important, the report points to the dearth of teachers and school administrators of color. Teachers and administrators of color serve as role models for students of color. They also help guide students whose families have no tradition of attending college into appropriate course work to aid in reaching those goals.
The report, released Monday, does not purport to have all the answers. It calls on legislative and institutional leaders, community leaders, advocates, parents and students to influence and implement changes in the state's education system that "ensure access and opportunity in unprecedented ways both in K-12 and higher education."
Indeed, it's time to address this historic problem.