U faculty help address public education needs in Utah

Utah’s public school districts are strapped for cash and tied down with exceeding educational demands, leading five local school districts to look for ways to maximize student development.

The U’s College of Education and administrators from Davis, Granite, Jordan, Murray and Salt Lake City school districts met in a series of four half day workshops last weekend to address what associate dean of professional education Diana Pounder called professional development needs for faculty members.

Thus was the foundation for the Data and School Improvement Academy-a cooperative effort between those five districts and the College of Education to address those needs.

“Schools and districts are being held more accountable for student development outcomes. For a long time, departments and districts have put an emphasis on that in preparation programs, but that knowledge can be easily forgotten,” she said.

To offset this forgotten knowledge, the workshops were organized with two goals in mind: to narrow development gaps among subgroups of students and to raise overall achievement in districts as a whole.

Though the weekend seminars were a first for Utah school districts, Pounder said the academy is the local incarnation of a national trend.

“Across the whole country, there’s been so much more emphasis placed on student improvement,” she said.

But in Utah, public schools are in an especially tenuous position when it comes to monitoring student improvement in its districts.

“Utah has the highest average class size and one of the lowest per-pupil expenditures in the nation. We don’t have the infrastructure in schools for remedial services and district-level research and evaluation personnel,” Pounder said.

As a result, Utah public schools are forced to do more with less-educating more students with less financial backing to do so.

That, Pounder said, is at the core of the academy’s vision.

“Part of the issue is how can you learn from other schools that are doing particularly well and bring those techniques back to other districts,” she said.

Educational policy and leadership assistant professor Andrea Rorrer said that’s exactly what the consortium is trying to accomplish.

“I think it’s imperative that people understand what student improvement data are and how it can be used to improve achievement gaps,” she said.

Those gaps are most prominent across races and classes because of the types of services offered to those groups of students in public schools, Rorrer said.

“School wealth is an issue. There are districts and teachers here doing really good things for children, but the point is that we can all improve,” she said.

A key to that improvement may be how the student improvement data gleaned from districts are disseminated.

“Streamlining is what often has been done and it’s been ineffective. We need to start integrating data use,” she said.

Though the half-day seminars were designed as “kickoffs” for the districts, school officials will have the option to continue their cooperative efforts with the College of Education and the consortium in a number of ways, including contracting faculty members from the college to work closely with district administrators or a partnership program with out of state districts containing similar programs, Pounder said.

Rorrer expressed confidence that the nascent program will benefit public school students and faculty in the long run.

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