SALT LAKE CITY — Frequently cited as a key factor in effective teaching, professional development took up the bulk of Wednesday's Interim Education Meeting as lawmakers discussed ways to address the achievement gap between white and minority students.
Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, said one of the priorities of lawmakers is to examine what is being done and what can be done to help all students achieve academic success.
"Caucasian students across the state, they’re performing on par with the national averages," Reid said. "The minority students are not. In fact, they’re siginficatly behind the national averages."
As background for the discussion, legislative staff presented lawmakers with several graphs breaking down the academic performance of minority and economically disadvantaged students in the state.
In both English language arts and mathematics, Asian and Caucasian students scored proficiently at a higher percentage than their African-American, American Indian and Hispanic peers, and all races saw decreased performance when accounting for economically disadvantaged students and English language learners.
"We know there’s an unacceptable achievement gap, and as a council we talk every meeting about strategies for reducing that gap," said Beth Foley, dean of the Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services at Utah State University.
Foley presented to lawmakers on behalf of the Utah Council of Education Deans. She said the various education training programs in the state have worked to create dedicated minors for the teaching of non-English speaking students. But further training beyond baccalaureate education is needed to fully address the needs of Utah's increasingly diverse student body, Foley said.
"Teachers out in the field need ongoing professional development to maintain their teaching effectiveness," she said.
When asked by Rep. Steven Eliason, R-Sandy, how many days of professional developement are optimum for educators, Foley responded that there is no optimum figure the council recommends, but she alluded to her own position as dean that requires 40 hours of annual training.
Professional development typically refers to paid time given to teachers, either outside the regular academic calendar or incorporated into the work week, when they can be trained on new methods and technologies, as well as strategize with colleagues in what is known as professional learning communities.
In the past several years, funding for that type of training has been cut as both the state and local school districts respond to scarce financial resources. It frequently tops legislative wish lists from the education community, including at July's meeting of the Education Interim Committee, when a panel of teachers listed effective teachers — along with rigorous standards, small class sizes and policy consistency — as the strongest contributors to student success.
"If we don't train teachers to know how to use the technology, when to use the technology or why to use technology, then the $10 million you put into technology will not yield the fruit that you want it to," Foley told lawmakers Wednesday.
Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Lehi, suggested the solutions to Utah's achievement gap can be found in the state's history, as early Mormon settlers where tasked with educating a large number of immigrants from Europe.
"Utah might provide a singular opportunity to learn from its history," Madsen said. "I’m wondering if because of Utah’s unique history, we might be able to look back and find answers to some of these questions that seem to be presenting themselves."
McKell Withers, superintendent of the Salt Lake City School District, spoke about the unique challenges of his district, where the majority of students belong to a racial minority and the percentage of white students at some schools is as low as 10 percent.
"It's awesome," Withers said. "The whole world is here in Salt Lake City."
Withers was asked whether it is difficult for his district to retain teachers, particularly with the pressures of programs like the new school grading system, which issues a letter grade to schools based on students' test scores.
He responded that teachers in urban, diverse schools are aware of the challenges in their classrooms, but the district tries to use data such as school grades to empower, not discourage, their efforts.
"We've learned over the years to use data, use it often, and to not use it as a weapon," Withers said.
Sarah Wright, a teacher at Salem Hills High School, also presented during the committee meeting. She was asked by Reid if she would feel prepared from her college training to be hired by highly diverse districts such as Salt Lake or Ogden.
Wright replied that she would not feel completely prepared, having little experience working with diversity at the teaching level, but would feel better about joining one of those districts if she knew there would be built-in time and support for her to learn from and work with more experienced educators.
"Preparation needs to happen in college, but I feel like it would be most effective if it was happening heavily during the first year of teaching," she said.