On August 4, 2017, the Utah State Board of Education took the bold step of allowing local school districts and charter schools to decide for themselves to what extent seventh- and eighth-graders will be required to take fine arts, health, physical education, college and career readiness and world language classes.
These requirements typically fill up about 25 percent of a student’s required course load. Local schools now get to choose whether to require these classes of students, though they are still required to provide access to these classes.
Is that good, or bad?
We don’t know for sure, but given the success other states have had with giving schools more control, and the confidence the state board has in local schools and educators, I believe it will be overwhelmingly good.
How much can we require of students before they simply become robots, get the necessary grade, and move on? The state board is concerned that by not allowing students to choose most of what they learn, or to take multiple classes in topics they love, students choose to learn the bare minimum just for a grade.
Furthermore, by turning these classes into electives, these classes now have to “prove their worth” to students and parents by earning a spot on their schedules. Some previously required classes will become less popular, but maybe they should – especially if that allows students to take classes that engage their interests and start them on a path toward lifelong learning.
Critics of this change have pointed out that Utah already has a high teen suicide rate, and that by not requiring health we could see that increase. I respectfully disagree, for at least two reasons. First, the status quo doesn’t appear to be working too well, and I believe that student mental health will be improved by allowing students to take more classes about what they want to learn.
Second, schools have the option of developing an elective class that focuses entirely on mental health, suicide and addiction. This course could be developed with a specific local curriculum in mind to teach mental health in an effective way to students.
Consider one possible example: A school begins offering computer coding classes. Without so many requirements, a seventh-grader now decides to take beginning coding her first semester of seventh grade. She likes it. She takes intermediate coding her second semester of seventh grade. Then she takes advanced coding the first semester of eighth grade and becomes a teacher’s assistant the next semester and helps teach beginning coding. Her proficiency at coding has substantially improved her self-confidence, and her mental health and she lands a job that summer teaching at a teen coding camp.
The state board is looking forward to hearing many stories like this with the new flexibility our local schools and students will now have.
By making this change, the state board is asking districts and schools to consider working with students and parents to find out what they want to learn, and then offering those opportunities. However, if any school is uncomfortable with this change, they are welcome to retain the status quo and keep all the same requirements in place.
Our teachers and schools have the ability to engage and inspire students to become life-time learners, and this change gives them the opportunity to do that better. I look forward to seeing what happens.
Joel Wright is an attorney and member of the Utah State Board of Education. He represents District 9 and resides in Cedar Hills with his wife and five children.