CEDAR CITY — Professional learning for teachers, a combined statewide plan for public and higher education, and an education system based more on student ability than seat time could be topics of new legislation and policy for Utah during the coming year.
Those and other issues were examined during a joint education conference of educators, lawmakers and businesses this week at Southern Utah University, culminating Thursday with several goals aimed at giving Utah students a more competitive edge in a global economy.
Other more controversial areas were also considered as "next steps" in policy and practice, including revisiting Utah's education accountability systems, defining education governance and restructuring elements of how schools are funded in Utah.
Brad Smith, state superintendent of public instruction, urged education and state leaders to change the routine of Utah's education system and address a "deep crisis" of underperformance.
"We know we have a system that has to change. That I don't think we can gainsay," Smith said. "We have to be willing to engage in a fearless conversation about what change we'll make, and it will entail removing things that we've always done and asking whether they're effective. There's always pain in that process; I understand that. However, the moral imperative of our work demands it."
Part of the change is in keeping up with an evolving global economy, where competition for skill is no longer confined by national borders, according to Marc Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy.
Tucker said one of the things Utah and the U.S. can learn from countries where students score better on international exams is how they regard the teaching profession.
"Whereas before we had a cheap teaching force of very capable people because they had almost no choice about where they work, now those very people have lots of choices, and they're not choosing teaching," he said. "The way to solve that problem is not to fire bad teachers. In fact, that's ludicrous. The way to solve that problem is to make teaching more attractive to people who have genuine choices."
Three initiatives discussed by educators and legislators at the conference involved boosting the quality of instruction in Utah schools, including better professional learning opportunities, more effective teacher recruitment and retention practices, and revamping teacher compensation to reward outcomes.
David Crandall, chairman of the Utah State Board of Education, said improving the quality of instruction in Utah also requires a cultural change in addition to an influx of funding.
"We all know that the most important factor in public education is the teacher in the classroom. We see that time and again," Crandall said. "If we can change the dialogue from good teacher versus bad teacher to one of continuous learning, continuous improvement of all of our teachers, then I think we'll be on the right track."
As another possible solution to improving student outcomes, state leaders are considering competency-based education, or advancement programs based more on student ability than the amount of time spent in the classroom.
Such an approach could help students discover their natural skills and align them with what they'll encounter in the workforce, according to Thomas Bingham, chairman of the board of trustees for the Utah College of Applied Technology.
Bingham said a competency-based educational model is supported by various companies across the state.
"They don't ask an employee, 'What was your ACT score? What was your GPA?' They want to know, 'Can you do what I need you to do?'" Bingham said. "We need to develop a system of education that matches our economy. Our economy is not the same as it was when I was in school. It will continue to change, and we need to change with it."
Education leaders are well underway in developing strategic plans they hope will clarify their vision for student outcomes and unify efforts between pre-K, K-12 and higher education institutions. The statewide 10-year education plan will eventually include portions from public education, higher education and the Utah College of Applied Technology, with recommendations from the governor's office.
The Rev. France Davis, vice chairman of the Utah State Board of Regents, said not having a current plan has been one of the "stumbling blocks" in improving high school and college graduation rates. But he hopes having a "common and consistent" set of goals will allow for greater collaboration among all educational stakeholders.
Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, said ongoing dialogue between the Legislature and educators will continue to be a large determining factor in finding innovative solutions for student success.
"At the end of the day, we may not always agree about each and every individual specific, but I think we all have exactly the same motivation and the same purpose," Millner said. "That is that our kids have the opportunity to achieve, they have the opportunity to be successful in whatever they choose to do in life, and that we help prepare them for that success."