Commentary: Utah can learn from the successful school turnarounds

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Erika Linford works with students on reading comprehension in her third grade class at Lincoln Elementary. A new state program will focus on trying to turn things around with struggling schools.

According to Dr. Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, “Improved education is the key to the future for the U.S., as our economy depends on having a highly skilled workforce.”

Utah has historically enjoyed a robust economy and is rapidly developing into a tech hub for the nation. However, if we are going to keep the promise of economic opportunity for future generations of Utahns, we have some work to do.

Former Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser identified the ongoing improvement of Utah’s schools as essential to Utahns’ quality of life. He believed that every student in the state deserves access to a world-class education and that parents have a right to know how their students’ schools perform.

In 2015, Niederhauser and Rep. Brad Last created Utah’s School Turnaround and Leadership Development Act as an innovative approach to increasing student success at the lowest-performing schools in the state. As an elected member of the Utah State Board of Education, I enthusiastically supported members of the Utah Legislature as they created a bold solution for Utah’s under-performing schools.

Now, four years later, the results are clear. According to a Utah State Board of Education press release, “Nearly 90 percent of the schools that first entered Utah’s school turnaround program in 2015 have met exit criteria or have qualified for an extension.”

These results are unprecedented. Although the media has thus far only focused on the 10 percent of schools that failed to improve student performance, the real legacy of this legislation is the thousands of students who are now learning and growing in meaningful ways.

While it is important to examine what went wrong in the few schools that did not improve, we can’t forget to learn from our successes as well. Now that these turnaround schools have shown that measurable improvement is possible, Utah must continue this vital work.

Last year, the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress results, commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card, were released. The Utah State Board of Education, with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson, identified some significant gaps in learning among several student groups.

The average scores for Utah’s low-income students were at least 20 points lower than those of students not considered low income. Moreover, Utah’s fourth-grade students with Latinx heritage scored 31 points lower in reading than their white peers. The vast majority of the turnaround schools identified in 2015 serve low-income students and students of color. Again, Utah’s turnaround successes demonstrate that when given the right supports, Utah’s schools can help historically underperforming student groups reach higher levels of achievement.

In an era characterized by a new explosion of knowledge and technology, we must continue Niederhauser’s work and educate all students well. We cannot afford to maintain gaps in opportunity and achievement. In the face of an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, now is the time for Utah to ensure that education makes a difference and prepares all members of our community for continued prosperity.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Spencer Stokes Utah Board of Education, speaks in support of SJR16 during a Senate Education Committee meeting at the Capitol, Friday, March 2, 2018.

Spencer Stokes represented District 2 on the Utah State Board of Education from 2014 to 2018.