Sarah Wright graduated from Brigham Young University in 2011 and teaches history at Salem Hills High. A single multicultural class was her best preparation for teaching diverse students.
It wasn’t enough, she said. “Eight weeks, two hours a week, and that was it.”
Such training alarmed Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden and co-chairman of the Legislature’s Education Interim Committee, who suggested lawmakers need to pay teachers more if they’re willing to work in the most challenging schools.
The committee on Wednesday reviewed data showing Utah children from low-income homes and who are not native English speakers have much lower test scores — putting their schools and teachers under scrutiny, especially with new school grades.
Ogden, Granite, Salt Lake, Logan and San Juan districts are among the districts with high percentages of such students.
Reid called Utah’s changing demographics the biggest challenge for education.
“Somehow, we have to reward and compensate that effort,” Reid said, “if we are ever going to provide quality education for these urban schools.”
Wright’s district, Nebo, has 11 percent to 15 percent ethnic minorities and fewer than 3.5 percent of students who are learning English.
“Would you be prepared to go into [Ogden’s diverse] district?” Reid asked Wright. “Would you want to?”
Achievement gap • The committee heard more than two hours of testimony from college education deans and others about what’s being done — and what needs to happen — to better equip teachers for Utah’s changing demographics. They suggested better training for student teachers, more mentoring for new instructors and recruiting more minority teachers.
“Caucasian students across the state are performing on par with the national averages,” Reid said. “Minority students are not. They are significantly behind the national averages.”
But statewide, the lowest Criterion-Referenced Test (CRT) scores in language arts and math were among those who are learning English — no matter the ethnicity, according to data provided by Connie Steffen, an analyst for the committee.
For instance, among Hispanic students who are learning English, 35.7 percent had CRT scores that showed proficiency in language arts and 27.6 percent were proficient in math.
But among Hispanic students who know English and who are not from low-income homes, 83.8 percent were proficient in language arts and 61.2 percent were proficient in math.
Asian and Caucasian students had the highest scores, but an achievement gap was evident among them as well. Learning English knocked more than 40 percent off the number who are proficient in language arts, and being from a low-income home dropped 10 percent to 20 percent off the number who were proficient in math.
Tougher student teaching • Martell Menlove, superintendent of Utah’s schools, said one critical issue is ensuring teachers get experience with low-income and ethnically diverse students before they’re thrown into classrooms.
He also would like to see schools do better at having experienced teachers mentor novices and by rewarding teachers for specializing in diversity. For instance, when he was superintendent in Box Elder County District, teachers with English language learner endorsements were paid as if they had master’s degrees, he said.
Recruiting diverse teachers is also key, he said. During a recent visit to a Granite District school, he observed that most of the teachers were white while the students came from diverse backgrounds.
McKell Withers, Salt Lake City’s superintendent, said it’s difficult for student teachers to be fully prepared when they’re not allowed, by law, to teach in Title I schools, which are those with the most low-income students.
“Your student teachers are more likely to have an experience that is easier and less connected with the needs of at-risk learners than they should,” he said.
Full-year internships, in which student teachers can work in Title I school classrooms under the supervision of experienced teachers, are a good idea, he said. “That’s an area where we could improve.”
‘Grow your own’ • Withers poked the Legislature for failing to invest in mentoring that would go beyond giving novice teachers the name of an experienced teacher with the same portfolio.
“Those first five years are critical,” he said, a time for new teachers to learn coping skills and build good habits.
He urged the lawmakers to fund a three-year pilot study his district is conducting on mentoring.
The Salt Lake District, he says, brings in college and business consultants for short-term teacher training, and has teachers work together in professional learning communities.
While the district recruits out of state, it also has a Teaching Academy to encourage students to become teachers themselves. It enrolls high-schoolers in introductory college education courses and connects the best to scholarships.
“If you don’t grow your own in highly impacted schools,” Withers said, “you’re not going to find teachers of color and ethnic diversity that you need as role models in your schools.”
More than 62 percent of students in the Salt Lake District come from low-income homes and nearly 37 percent are still learning English, Withers said. Statewide, 11 percent live in low-income homes and 14.2 percent are English learners, he said.
Chad Carpenter, human resources director for the Ogden School District, said the district turns to teachers from Michigan and other diverse areas to augment hires from Utah colleges. The Michigan students get yearlong internships in urban settings.
Breaking down Utah test scores
Percent of Utah students with scores considered proficient on 2012 Criterion-Referenced Tests in math.
Not low income and not learning English: 80.7 percent
Low income: 59.6 percent
Learning English: 43.2 percent
Not low income and not learning English: 77.7 percent
Low income: 66.4 percent
Learning English: 36.1 percent
Not low income and not learning English: 65.8 percent
Low income: 53.4 percent
Learning English: 25 percent
Not low income and not learning English: 61.2
Low income: 46.4 percent
Learning English: 27.6 percent
Not low income and not learning English: 56.9 percent
Low income: 39 percent
Learning English: 18.9 percent
Not low income and not learning English: 54.1 percent
Low income: 40.8 percent
Learning English: 21.1 percent