Utahns have 6 weeks to give Gov. Herbert feedback on Common Core

800px-School_bus_invasionGovernor Gary Herbert recently introduced a robust process by which state education policy, including the controversial Common Core State Standards, will be carefully reviewed. Of great importance, the process includes the means by which

…parents, teachers, community members and other concerned citizens and organizations across the state have the opportunity to provide feedback on these standards. To give us your feedback, we’ve created a webpage, www.utah.gov/governor/standards, where anyone with a concern can review the current standards and give us their opinion. This can be either positive or negative feedback, but it needs to be specific. If there is a standard or grade level benchmark that you disagree with, I want to hear about it. This input will be shared with Dr. Kendell’s work group and will be invaluable, as the group completes its evaluation. This site is now open for comments and it will be open through the end of August. (emphasis added)

As has become his pattern, Gov. Herbert outlined principles that will guide the review process. Specifically, the state must:

  1. Maintain high academic standards in all subjects, not just math and English, and for all students.
  2. Monitor and limit the federal government’s role in education.
  3. Preserve state and local school district control of our education system, including curriculum, materials, testing and instructional practices.

Last week’s introduction of Utah’s review process comes at a time when an increasing number of states are carefully evaluating the Common Core in the context of their public-education policy. Read more

Could blended learning fend off tuition increases?

graduationA recent Deseret News story reported that the Utah Board of Regents approved a statewide college tuition hike of four percent for the 2014-2015 school year, with increases up to 5.5 or 6 percent at the University of Utah, Utah State University, and Snow College. This was reported to be the “smallest tuition increase in more than a decade” and was celebrated by higher education officials, in large part because it represented larger increases in taxpayer funding for Utah’s colleges and universities than have typically occurred in recent years.

If you really want to, I guess you can spin as a good thing the fact that Utah college students will “only” be paying $378, $290, and $208 more per year to attend University of Utah, USU, and SUU, respectively. But in the end, they’re still paying more money for the same college education they could have gotten for less the year before, and I’m not sure that is something to tout.

Iis it really worth celebrating that we chose to increase the financial pain of paying for a college education for students, while simultaneously choosing to increase the financial pain on taxpayers more than normal? Especially when tuition and fees in Utah’s public four-year colleges and universities has gone up by 46 percent in less than 10 years (between 2004-05 and 2013-14) – after adjusting for inflation.

That sounds like pretty institutionalized, inside-the-box thinking – which perhaps we ought to expect from institutions of higher education. But it seems that a genuine accomplishment truly worthy of celebration would be figuring out to decrease tuition and lower the funding required from taxpayers for higher education, by using the ingenuity and innovative thinking that should typify higher learning.

Enter digital learning.

A recent study published by the National Bureau of Education Research randomly assigned (the “gold standard” method in social science research) 725 subjects to either a traditional introductory economics class, with two in-class lectures of 75 minutes each, or a “hybrid format,” with only one in-class lecture of 75 minutes. Importantly, the two college professors that taught the courses each taught a traditional and a hybrid section, with identical curriculum materials available to students across formats. Read more

Why Herbert should veto preschool bill – Mero Moment, 3/25/14


Most little children are better off at home and tax dollars are better spent on the special needs of truly impoverished children.

Most people know that Barack Obama has been pushing for universal health care since his initial campaign in 2008. But did you know that universal preschool has been on his implementation list for just as long?

The “Preschool for All” concept took center stage in his two most recent State of the Union addresses. President Obama has proposed that $75 billion in mandatory funding be allocated “for a Federal-State partnership that would provide high-quality preschool to all 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families, while also creating incentives for States to expand publicly funded preschool services to middle-class families and promoting access to high-quality full-day kindergarten and high-quality early learning programs for children under the age of 4.”[1]

Enter HB 96, Utah School Readiness Initiative – a heavily debated bill passed by the state Legislature but still unsigned by Governor Gary Herbert.

In order for a state to obtain “Preschool for All” money, there are eight qualifications it must have in place legally. Utah has had three of those qualifications in statute. HB 96 puts the other five remaining requirements in place. To be clear, supporters of the bill say that obtaining even more federal funding isn’t the goal of the bill. But the lure of more federal dollars is hard to dismiss.

Read more

Here’s how Utah can really level the educational playing field

This post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations.

Photo by Anissa Thompson

Photo by Anissa Thompson

Ten years ago, Sutherland Institute published a powerful analysis of public education in Utah called Saving Education and Ourselves: The Moral Case for Self-Reliance in Education. Our argument is easy to understand: Able families should receive encouragement to become self-reliant in education, and families unable to be self-reliant in education are welcomed into the public school system.

Admittedly, this education policy model is quite different than what we now have in Utah. Our current system is a top-down, bureaucratic model that assumes that children belong to the state, not parents; public education is the center of democracy, not the family; and only “experts” trained to educate children know what they’re doing.

State law, both in our constitution and by statute, is double-minded about what model to use. The constitution doesn’t trump state statutes in this case because the state Legislature has ultimate control over education funding.

Typically, you have two types of education bills at the Legislature each year – one type serving the education establishment and public school system and another type serving parents and children. A good example of what I mean is the attempt by the education establishment to repeal tax exemptions for dependents. The establishment complains that large families don’t pay their fair share into public education and one way to even the playing field is to get rid of dependent exemptions in the tax code.

Of course, that’s a pretty myopic view of both Utah families and funding for public education. For instance, the same education establishment utters nary a peep about poor families that pay absolutely nothing into the system.

Ten years ago, Sutherland Institute created a better, more equitable way to fund public education in Utah. But to get there, we have to face some realities.

Read more

Why would schools kick digital learners off campus?

vulturecomputerA high school sophomore told the Senate Education Standing Committee recently that she was able to testify to them (in the middle of a school day) in support of requiring parental notification about the Statewide Online Education Program (SOEP) because she was “not permitted to be on school grounds” at her public school at that particular time. Why? Because that time slot in her school schedule was filled with an online class, and rather than accommodate that child the school decided to kick her off campus and then make her come back when her next on-campus period began.

Shortly after that, a mother of children who had taken some classes through the SOEP – while continuing to take most classes at their local district school – also testified. Her children up in Logan and Cache school districts were “not allowed to be on campus at any time for any reason” during their online class time because it supposedly created “a safety issue” – the presence on campus of a child in an online class evidently threatened the safety of others.

All of this makes one wonder why school districts are ostracizing and discriminating against children who enroll in a few online classes? What do school districts accomplish by kicking children off campus and labeling them as safety threats for trying to improve their education through digital learning?

No person thinking rationally would conclude that enrollment in an online class is a sign that a child is a threat to the safety of other children at school. Though they might rationally conclude that child’s action is a threat to their state funding, since a portion of it follows the child to the digital learning provider. But one hopes that no school district official in Utah would be as selfish and demeaning as to view a child primarily in terms of their monetary value, or act on a child’s sincere desire to improve their life through digital learning by punishing that child for negatively impacting their bottom line.

So why are some Utah school districts discriminating against children seeking digital learning opportunities? We can’t know for certain without further evidence, but the logical conclusions based on the facts we do have are not encouraging, neither for the children seeking a better education through digital learning nor for the adults being employed by taxpayers to watch out for their well-being.

Why Medicaid expansion will hurt Utah’s most vulnerable

MystethoscopeA new analysis by Jonathan Ingram of the Foundation for Government Accountability and Derek Monson of Sutherland Institute explains why Utah should opt out of Medicaid expansion:

Utah’s Medicaid expansion plans put the state’s truly needy citizens at great risk. It is important to remember who would actually qualify for Utah’s Medicaid expansion. The Medicaid expansion does not cover the elderly, individuals with disabilities or even poor children–groups considered among the most vulnerable. Instead, Utah’s plan simply expands Medicaid eligibility to a new class of able-bodied, working-age adults. …

This will ultimately create a two-tiered system of care, where able-bodied adults are prioritized over the truly needy.

The paper, An Analysis of Utah’s Proposed Medicaid Expansion, goes on to explain that Medicaid expansion will crowd out private insurance and create a lot of budgeting uncertainty.

At a time when policymakers are concerned with rebuilding Utah’s cash reserves and paying down existing state debt, creating a new entitlement for able-bodied adults is a significant risk when there is no reliable way to project how much the expansion will actually cost.

Click here to read the full paper.

Testimony on SB 171 (Student-Centered Learning Pilot Program)

Photo Credit: Scott Catron

Photo Credit: Scott Catron

Testimony presented Feb. 12 by Stan Rasmussen, director of public affairs, Sutherland Institute, before the Senate Education Standing Committee of the Utah Legislature regarding SB 171 – Student-Centered Learning Pilot Program:

Thank you, Mr. Chair, and good afternoon, Senators. Stan Rasmussen, representing Sutherland Institute.

We commend Senator Stephenson for his efforts in developing this proposal and bringing it forward.

As has been described, the bill establishes a pilot program wherein school districts would develop a blended-learning program for elementary and secondary students.

The blended approach, that includes digital-learning methods and experiences, allows for the personalizing and customizing of a child’s education. Instead of simply perpetuating the standardization of what and in what order the student learns, a more blended approach has the potential to tap into and encourage the child’s inherent desire to learn. Instead of the child being in a large group of students trying to learn the same things, in very similar ways, at the same time – notwithstanding the dedicated efforts of a caring teacher tasked with managing the large group – the enhanced personalization available in a blended approach increases the opportunity for the student to learn in his or her individual manner and sequence.

The proposed pilot program would create a context for developing and refining approaches that respect and reflect the fact that individual children learn differently – in different ways, at different times and at different rates – and thereby a context for improved student learning.

For these reasons, we consider it prudent to explore how to bring this potential into public education schools by means of the proposed Student-Centered Learning Pilot Program and urge your support of this bill.

Thank you.

Turns out Common Core is not STEM-friendly

Photo by Anissa Thompson

Photo by Anissa Thompson

“As we have pointed out, standardization is inherently designed for standard, not exceptional, achievement. Because statewide standards in Utah and other states, including Common Core, are of the type that lead to standardization, it is impossible to assert as a logical argument that any of these sets of standards is the ‘best,’ especially when no evidence shows any correlation between ‘good’ standards and student achievement.”

So we wrote in a July 2012 report, analyzing Utah’s involvement in the nationalized Common Core standards, in which we recommended the state exit Common Core and develop its own curriculum drawing from the best methodology and resources in the world.

It turns out, we were right to be concerned. In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, Sandra Stotsky highlights growing concern that Common Core “math standards are too weak to give us more engineers or scientists.” Stotsky served as a member of the Common Core Validation Committee and the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

While everyone from President Obama to Suzanne McCarron, president of Exxon Mobil, have been advocating for more emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education, it turns out Common Core was purposely designed not for STEM. Rather, it aims to “provide students with enough mathematics to make them ready for a nonselective college.”

Stotsky writes,

As Stanford mathematics professor James Milgram noted in “Lowering the Bar,” a report the two of us co-wrote for the Pioneer Institute in September, the Common Core deliberately leaves out “major topics in trigonometry and precalculus.” Contrast that with the status quo before the Common Core, when states like Massachusetts and California provided precalculus standards for high-school students. The implications of this are dramatic. “It is extremely rare for students who begin their undergraduate years with coursework in precalculus or an even lower level of mathematical knowledge to achieve a bachelor’s degree in a STEM area,” Mr. Milgram added.

 Why would Utah and 44 other states purposely adopt a system of education that lowers the quality of education and makes students less prepared to enter the vital STEM fields? Only they can answer that question, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the needs and interests of student learners were not top priority.

Meet this 13-year-old and his #hackschooling revolution

Logan LaPlante

Logan LaPlante

Thirteen-year-old Logan LaPlante has two big goals for when he grows up. He wants to be healthy and happy, and he figures his education should play a serious part in that effort. He has crafted his education to include activities proven to produce happiness and health; heavy doses of creativity; technology and online resources; and experiential classes and camps. He calls it #hackschooling. Politicians and policy wonks call it digital learning, school choice or (gasp!) vouchers. This is how Logan explains his view on his life and education philosophy:

This is where I’m really happy: powder days. And it’s a good metaphor for my life, my education, my hackschooling. If everyone skied this mountain like most people think of education, everyone would be skiing the same line, probably the safest, and most of the powder would go untouched. I look at this and see a thousand possibilities: dropping the corners, shredding the spine, looking for a tranny [transition] from cliff to cliff.

Skiing to me is freedom and so is my education. It’s about being creative; doing things differently. It’s about community and helping each other. It’s about being happy and healthy among my very best friends.

You can watch his entire TEDx presentation here.

Will digital learning save U. students hundreds on textbooks?

Sidewalk,University_of_UtahAccording to a recent Salt Lake Tribune article, a student leadership group at the University of Utah is looking into using “open-source textbooks,” which can be downloaded and used by students for free, as a possible way to save students money, perhaps as much as $500 per year. As most college students will tell you, an extra $500 per year can go a long way.

As noted in the article, one potential obstacle to any such endeavor is the time required by university professors to put together such textbooks. Though one advocate quoted in the article notes that sufficient material is already available for lower-level courses, those materials would have to be updated over time, and upper-level courses still require similar textbooks.

One solution to this issue might be to require university professors to help create and maintain open-source textbooks for the classes they teach as a condition of their employment. Some may complain about such a requirement, but since university professors’ living – and especially their grant-funded research – is highly subsidized by state and federal tax dollars, it does not seem unreasonable to require that they devote some time to making higher education a little more affordable (and therefore accessible) to the society that their livelihood depends upon.

In any case, it is encouraging to continue to see groups and individuals involved in public education (K-12 and higher ed) recognizing the innovative and cost-saving potential of digital learning. One can only hope that they will similarly recognize and embrace the ability of digital learning to change the culture of public education – so that instead of a culture centered on the financial interests and pedagogical restraints on employees of the system, we could have one centered on the academic interests and learning capacities of students in the system.