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Article of Interest - Education Reform

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Education Reform
by Ronie Lyn, Salt Lake Tribune, September 21, 2003
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Shae Kunz cringes with guilt and frustration every time she thinks about her 11-year-old son's struggles with literacy and the misdiagnoses that left him drugged and reading below grade level while his peers passed him by.

Only after countless experts and tests do Kunz and her son Tommy Dudley finally understand that it's probably dyslexia that causes him to stumble on simple words such as "the" and "was" while he can sail through more complex words like "refrigerator." But now that he knows what's wrong, he can get the help he needs to work through it.

He will need it, too, if he is to meet tougher academic standards demanded by business leaders and mandated this year by the Legislature.

He's not alone. The towhead with spiked hair and an ever-present sketch pad is one of more than 80,000 Utah children who struggle to read on grade level. National statistics suggest many have dyslexia, but thousands more are learning English. Still others somehow missed fundamental building blocks crucial to strengthening literacy.

Whatever the reason for falling behind, they and Utah's 400,000 other public school students could soon be held to a significantly higher bar under a state Board of Education proposal to shift to a radical new way of educating students.

The $393 million "Performance Plus" plan has two main components:
* It expands the required core classes students must take.
* It requires students to demonstrate a high level of knowledge about various subjects before they advance.
"The focus is not so much on what has been taught but what has been learned," said Kim Burningham, chairman of the state board.
The plan also addresses reforms mandated by No Child Left Behind, a sweeping federal law that demands greater accountability of schools and districts.

Over the past several weeks, hundreds of parents have crammed public hearings to try to make sense of what all this means for their children: Will students be tested to death? Will they have to for go electives like music and release time for religious instruction? Why is it so expensive, and where will the money come from? Wouldn't smaller class sizes be a more effective strategy for improving student achievement?
The plan is still being fine-tuned, and its implementation depends largely on the Legislature's willingness to fund it during coming legislative sessions.

In the meantime, here are four things every parent needs to know about the changes potentially coming Utah's way beginning next fall for the class of 2008 and beyond.

Back to basics: Seventh- and eighth-grade students will have to earn 12 units of credit, equal to six courses per year, including pre-algebra, eighth-grade English and eighth-grade science.

Performance Plus proposes increasing core requirements from 15 units to 18 units for high school students, including three years of English, two years of math (including geometry or applied math II), two years of science, 2 1/2 years of social studies, one year of health, one year of physical fitness, a semester of education technology, a year of applied technology, a year-and-a-half of fine arts, a semester of financial literacy and three more units in an area of focus chosen from those subjects.

The proposed requirements raise the hackles of many parents who worry the additional courses will crowd music, drama and release time for religious instruction out of students' class schedules.

"There are a lot of parents that are concerned about what this does to elective options," said Gayleen Gandy, a West Valley City mother of six. "We're already losing our fine arts programs at the junior high level because of how strict the money is, and this just adds to it."

State officials say electives shouldn't be limited because most school districts' schedules have room for additional courses.

That said, students who are struggling with their classes might have to use those extra periods for remedial classes, tutoring or other services designed to help them catch up.

New standards: Here's where the rubber meets the road for students.

Under Performance Plus, Ds are eliminated, and year-end standardized tests carry much more weight. The operative term here is "competency," which means mastering a subject.

The proposal defines student competency in several ways, but the most commonly used standard probably will be a C or better and a passing score on the year-end test in a particular course.

Students also will be able to "test out" of a course if they can show evidence that they have had preparation in the subject. A student might satisfy a fine arts requirement, for example, by having taken piano lessons for several years and demonstrating his or her skill.

While many parents applaud the idea of assuring students know and understand course material before moving on, some oppose imposing competency standards on students who are behind and have not had the benefit of tutoring or other services to help catch them up.

Additional tools: In addition, Performance Plus also proposes adding frequent classroom assessments so teachers can take a pulse on each student's learning throughout the year.

The plan calls for extensive teacher training to help them analyze results, and, if needed, adjust their instruction to suit students' needs.

While the proposed assessments and teacher training wouldn't be sophisticated enough to diagnose dyslexia and other complex learning disabilities, they could at least alert teachers to a student who is struggling with specific skills or concepts.

Armed with that information, the teacher could troubleshoot the reasons behind a student's difficulty and identify ways to help address them.

Performance Plus also calls for tutoring, before- and after-school programs or other services to help students catch up as soon as they begin to fall behind. Summer school and other remedial help also would be offered.

Many educators understand and appreciate the value of the assessments, training and tutoring services but say class-size reduction also would be effective.

"If we were to reduce class size, teachers would have more time to visit with individual students, and you would see a great difference in achievement," said Parley Jacobs, principal at Granger High School in West Valley City, where it's not uncommon to have 35 or more students in core classes.

The costs: Officials at the state Office of Education project the new testing system will cost $95 million. They say it could cost another $190 million to provide the services to help low-performing students reach the higher standards, plus $75 million to train teachers on the ins and outs of competency-based education.
All told, state school officials estimate it will cost $393 million -- $203 million in new funding and $190 million in existing education funds -- to implement changes called for in the new state and federal laws driving Performance Plus.

Lawmakers say they will first have to study the validity of the state office's cost projections and proposed services before considering measures to provide new funding. Among the possible measures are shifting money from other state budgets to public education and raising taxes.

Some lawmakers say school leaders will have to reprioritize their existing budgets to meet the new standards. School leaders balk, saying they already are stretching their money as far as it will go.

In the end: No one wants to meet the higher standards more than Tommy. He spends extra hours during and after school to learn the skills that will help him read at grade level -- and read the standardized tests that will determine in part whether he has achieved competency.

He spends many more hours completing homework and assignments other kids take half as much time to finish.

He just wants the chance to show what he can do. His math and analytical skills surpass those of students much older than him, and his goal as a newly elected member of his school's student council is to raise awareness about dyslexia and other learning disabilities, especially when the proposed stakes are so high.
"I think there are a lot of kids who don't know they're dyslexic," he said. "I want the school system to help kids like me."

Glossary of terms

Senate Bill 154: A sweeping 2003 state law that requires Utah to shift to a system of public education that emphasizes core subjects and in which students advance only when they can demonstrate their knowledge of a particular subject.

Performance Plus: The state Board of Education's proposal for meeting the demands of SB154.

Core subjects -- Performance Plus requires more emphasis on English, math, science, social studies, health and fitness, education technology, applied technology, fine arts and financial literacy.

Competency-based education: A central part of Performance Plus, students advance only as they are able to master subjects, not, as currently, by spending a semester in a classroom and earning a D or better.

Competency: Gov. Mike Leavitt and business leaders define competency as students' ability to demonstrate what they know and can do. Performance Plus defines competency in four different ways for middle and high school students: 1) earning a C or better and passing the associated year-end standardized test in a given class; 2) earning an A and taking the associated year-end standardized test in a given class; 3) proving mastery of course material and scoring at the top level on the year-end standardized test; and 4) for classes in which year-end standardized tests have not been developed, earning a C or better in the class or meeting standards yet to be developed by the state board.

Exit competencies: Complex skills all students demonstrate as a condition of high school graduation.

Diagnostic assessments: Classroom snapshots of students' understanding of skills and concepts being taught. Mandated by SB154, these assessments -- which could include online tests, journal entries or two-minute quizzes -- are quick and pointed to give teachers and parents immediate feedback on students' progress.

Intervention: Tutoring, before- and after-school instruction and other services during the school year for students in danger of falling behind, as identified through diagnostic assessments. These services are meant to keep children on track and prevent them from needing remediation in the future.

Remediation: Tutoring, summer school and other services for students who did not achieve grade-level competency during the school year.  


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