Utah's at the top in digital learning – let’s keep it there

studenttabletAs noted by the Utah Taxpayers Association and The Senate Site, Utah recently received an “A” on the 2012 Digital Learning Report Card from Digital Learning Now! As the only state in the country to do so, Utah is setting an example to the nation in how to do education right in the digital age. In this area of education policy, Utah policymakers should be commended for their forward-looking vision of what public education in Utah should be for children: personalized, flexible, cost-effective, and child centered.

The report card also highlights two ways in which Utah can remain an example to the nation, by enhancing its already strong digital learning policies.

First, Utah ought to require that Utah students take at least one online course in order to earn a high school diploma. Currently, over Utah’s colleges and universities offer 1,500 courses online, with 49 degree programs that can be completely entirely online. In other words, digital learning is an educational path that has already arrived in Utah, and is only going to expand in the future. Children in Utah public schools ought to at least get a taste of what digital learning is like and what it requires while in high school, so they can make an informed decision about whether it is a better path for them than traditional schooling.

Especially for children in difficult situations, such as those who must work full-time to support families straight out of high school, digital learning can empower them to improve their lives in ways that simply would not be possible otherwise. For those who care about children first when it comes to public education, introducing digital learning requirements in high school is simply the right thing to do.

Second, Utah ought to establish a pilot program for introducing “blended learning” into traditional public schools, like SB 79 would have done. Digital learning holds great potential to improve public education across the board. This does not require a full-on shift to full-time online schooling. “Blended learning” – where components of digital learning are paired up with a traditional, face-to-face schooling component – can be used to complement the strengths of face-to-face instruction in traditional, brick-and-mortar public schools. Of course, adopting “blended learning” into traditional public schools ought to be done thoughtfully and carefully, which is what makes the pilot program approach appropriate. Establishing such a program is a reasonable next step in expanding digital learning in Utah for the sake of children’s education, despite misguided fears from the education establishment about such a program.

There are other areas highlighted in the report card that Utah can improve upon as well, but these two represent the big “next steps” on the path of expanding digital learning for the sake of children in Utah. Education policymakers and leaders in Utah ought to push for these policies and continue to make Utah an example of doing digital learning in public education right.

What is ‘local control’ in public education really about?

How would an authentically child-centered view of public education define “local control,” in regard to actually running a public school? Does it mean state-level control, district-level control, or school-level control? According to a new study, shifting power from the state and districts to schools is where a child-centered philosophy of education should be headed.

The study, published by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education (a part of the Teachers College at Columbia University), found that students in “charter schools with higher autonomy from the district in terms of financial budget, academic program, and hiring decisions” read at a grade level higher than similar traditional public school students after three years. Interestingly, this was not the case when traditional public schools were compared to charter schools generally, confirming the common-sense conclusion that good charter schools can only exist with good charter school policy, which gives them real freedom from district authority. Read more

What nobody will admit about our public schools

If you ask the typical representative of the State Board of Education or government bureaucrat at the State of Office of Education why educational achievement is not what everyone expects, you will receive one of two answers: (1) public schools don’t have enough money or (2) parents abdicate their responsibilities to schools and the schools are overburdened.

Of course, when it’s explained to them (not that they don’t know this already) that the vast majority of the Utah state budget goes to education, they defer to answer No. 2. Interestingly, in my experience anyway, when it’s suggested that the Legislature enact new policies to empower parents to control the education of their children, these state education officials immediately object because, of course, they (not parents) are the education experts.

In a system meant to serve the common good, one would imagine that parents, educators, legislators and government employees (i.e., the entire public school system) would try to work together more, not less, when important issues arise concerning the well-being of children. Read more

Digital learning summit: How ‘blended learning’ works

Blended learning is an education strategy that combines aspects of digital learning and a more traditional school setting. It offers superb flexibility and high quality to students who use it.

And it’s happening right now in Utah’s public school system.

Utah’s Digital Learning Summit in Salt Lake City earlier this month focused on “blended learning,” which was defined as this:

  A formal education program in which a student —

• uses online schooling at least part of the time,

• with some student control over time, place, path and pace,

• AND at least some of the student’s schooling happens in a supervised brick-and-mortar setting.

This combination is ideal for students and parents who want to take advantage of the flexibility and opportunities offered by digital learning but who don’t want to go totally online; those who would like to have a teacher’s support, in person, on a regular basis.

A fascinating part of the summit was a panel of Utah high-school students who are using blended learning right now. Read more

UHSAA’s tyrannical, unelected quasi-bureaucrats

When a professional athlete moves from one team to another nobody cries foul, even if the fans are disappointed about the player leaving. It’s the same thing in amateur sports. If a college athlete chooses to transfer to another school to play football, he’s allowed to go. Few people fault anyone trying to better their situation. It’s reasonable and it’s expected.

But when it comes to high school sports in Utah, a student athlete is expected to do just the opposite. In high school sports every kid is expected to stay put, endure any awful circumstance, place the edicts of the school system above personal concerns and patiently submit to school authorities who insist they know more about a child’s happiness than the child’s parents.

The governance of high school sports might be the most egregious example of unchecked power and government condescension in a free society. How humiliating must it be for a parent to face the threat of legal sanctions simply because she wants her child to have a better experience at another school. Read more

Put children first: Don’t hide classroom-level data from public

Suppose you are king of Utah for a day. Your education adviser asks you whether you think it is a good idea to make information on the performance of each classroom of public school students publicly available.

He explains to you that doing so will allow people to learn more about what makes Utah’s best teachers effective – meaning that more children will benefit from better teaching as these “best practices” are identified and spread.

He further tells you that since taxpayers pay for everything in public schools and need basic information to evaluate whether state and local education policies are effective and beneficial for children, it makes sense to open up the “education data vault” in this way.

Would you think this is a good idea?

If you said “yes,” then the Utah State Board of Education disagrees with you. Read more

Evaluating (and paying) teachers more effectively

The Deseret News recently published an article discussing how educators and education researchers are investigating new ways to evaluate the effectiveness of school teachers. Those ways include: (1) rigorous classroom observation, based on specific teaching behaviors associated with student learning gains, (2) computer-adaptive testing that provides a regular, ongoing snapshot of how much a student is learning, and is a more accurate measure of how much a teacher is increasing student learning than one-time tests, and (3) student surveys about their experience in the classroom, using questions that were tested and found to accurately capture a teacher’s effectiveness.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the article is its report on research from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project, which seeks to discover how effective teaching can be “identified and developed.” The research of this project has thus far found that a well-constructed combination of rigorous classroom observation, student test-score gains, and student surveys are the best at identifying effective teaching.

This group’s research is directly applicable to policymakers, educators, and public schools in Utah. Read more

Interim Day: Grim impact of fed spending cuts on schoolchildren

At the Education Interim Committee on Capitol Hill this week, the committee heard a presentation about the potential impact of the pending federal sequestration policy on Utah’s public school and higher education systems.

The sequestration policy would be enacted early next year if Congress and the president do not reach an agreement to avoid it, and the policy would mean across-the-board federal spending cuts, including cuts to federal education spending, with the intent of lowering record federal deficits.

One legislator in the interim committee meeting noted that even if sequestration is avoided, it will not necessarily mean that federal education spending is held harmless, as any such agreement to avoid sequestration is likely to come only by changing across-the-board spending cuts to more targeted spending cuts, which are also likely to hit public schools in Utah.

It was a rather grim presentation for children in Utah’s public schools, to say the least. Read more

What's the big rush to pick a new state superintendent?

Last week, four legislators issued a statement of concern about the apparent rush to replace Utah State Superintendent Larry Shumway, pointing out that the application window closes before November’s elections – in which half the school board will be replaced.

“Why should the old board select leaders for the new board?” wrote House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, Senate Public Education Appropriation Chair Howard Stephenson, Representative Dan McCay and Senate Rules Chair Margaret Dayton.

“New members should have a voice, ownership and confidence in the new superintendent. Making a decision that excludes the newly elected voices flies in the face of representative government.”

Sutherland also shares these concerns.

The legislators wrote in their press release:

The current application process for Superintendent Shumway’s replacement appears to be rushed.  Superintendent Shumway announced his resignation September 7, 2012. On September 11, 2012, The Utah State Board of Education published notice of the open seat with an application deadline of September 23, 2012.  A final decision is expected by mid-October. This two week window of application along with the truncated evaluation process will tend to deter qualified candidates from stepping forward and work against the collaborative effort need to fully weigh the merits of each finalist.

In addition, the Utah State Board of Education selection committee plans to make a final decision by mid-October, just a few short weeks before voters hit the polls in November. However, half of the School Board seats are up for a vote of the people. Utah will have new leaders. …

Indeed, it appears the Board of Education may have already selected the new superintendent and is now just going through the minimum necessary motions to make their choice legal.

The Board of Education responded:

Because Members of the Utah State Board of Education believe this to be a key position – if not the key position – in the state public education system, we are anxious to have someone on board sooner rather than later in order to have the new superintendent receive some mentoring from Superintendent Shumway and to have the new person up to speed in the job when the Legislature begins to meet in late January.

The Deseret News has also urged the State School Board to “slow down the process of replacing the state superintendent in order to find a proven champion for choice and accountability.”