By Howard Stephenson
Utah State Senator, District 11
The report card measures each of the nation’s 50 states against the 10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning as it relates to K-12 education. State policy plays a central role in either accelerating or constraining the scaling of next generation models of learning.
With an overall score of 92%, Utah beat out Florida, Minnesota, Georgia, Virginia and Kansas, who were the next highest scoring and the only states to secure a “B”. All other 44 states received a “C” grade or lower.
Since education improvement is critical to achieving an educated workforce and since Utah spends more on education than any other part of the state budget, this achievement should be important to all taxpayers. It represents real efficiency and effectiveness in the use of education tax dollars.
This recognition places Utah at the forefront as an example to other states of how to advance student-centric reforms through technology, innovation and smart policy. As states are moving to modernize their policies to create new opportunities for students, explore new models of learning, and provide needed infrastructure, Utah is leading the way.
The report shows states are advancing student-centric reforms, reducing barriers to blended learning, and encouraging the use of technology to offer a more personalized college-and-career-ready education. In 2012, more than 700 bills involving digital learning were considered by state legislatures and more than 152 were signed into law, with nearly every state enacting a bill that advanced a digital learning policy.
The low 22% success rate for these measures is due in large part to the general opposition to such legislation by entities representing the education community. In Utah, for example, some of the most significant digital learning legislation have been opposed by organizations representing “Big Education”: the UEA teachers union, State PTA, School Superintendents Association and School Boards Association. Even the State School Board has opposed many of the digital learning initiatives proposed or passed by the legislature.
This opposition to legislation providing digital technology is surprising because when deployed at the classroom level, it empowers teachers, assisting them to personalize student skill building and content knowledge, giving teachers more time for one on one student interventions with struggling students. Contrary to teacher union dogma, digital technology is not meant to replace the teacher, just as electronic spreadsheets have not replaced accountants and CAD systems have not replaced engineers.
One example of legislation which distinguishes Utah as a leader in digital learning and which was opposed vehemently by Big Education is Utah’s Statewide Online Education Program. The legislation frees all Utah high school students to take online courses from a multiplicity of competing providers with the dollars following the student to the provider of the online course. As DLN reports, “Louisiana, Georgia and Utah are leading the way in adopting ‘course choice’ programs that offer students the option to take publicly-funded, online courses from providers approved by the state.”
According to DLN, “State policy plays a central role in either accelerating or constraining the scaling of next-generation models of learning.” Utah legislators have embraced this important role.
During the recent 2013 Utah Legislative Session, 18 education technology related bills and appropriations were considered with 12 successfully passing (a 67% success rate). The measures will deploy a multitude of digital initiatives including learning technology, computer adaptive testing and infrastructure, competency-based education, online course choice options, literacy and math solutions, blended learning options, college entrance test prep tools, and more.
When digital tools are deployed effectively to provide individualized learning in the classroom and at home, student performance shows marked improvement. For example, in 2008 the Utah Legislature appropriated funds for every English language learner to receive 45 minutes a day of computer delivered personalized English language training. As a result, the 35,000 children who would typically have taken four or five years to become English fluent are now able to perform on par academically with their native English speaking peers in a fraction of the time.
Last year the Utah Legislature passed HB 513 (in spite of strong opposition from Big Education), to provide reading software to assist teaching professionals in giving 30,000 kindergarten and 1st grade students a half hour of digital reading instruction each day. According to Ernest Broderick, principal of Stansbury Elementary in West Valley City, student reading progress has doubled since using the software, “I felt that to know the efficiency of reading software intervention and not to provide it, would be educational malpractice.”
Mr. Broderick’s commentary on the effectiveness of the software in assisting his dedicated staff to teach more effectively is similar to those in every school receiving software. Nevertheless, Big Education opposed legislation to expand the number of licenses to reach up to 90,000 K-3 students in the coming school year. They also effectively killed a bill to provide math software for elementary students statewide, calling such legislation “vendor bills.” These same entities which now oppose legislative appropriations for digital learning supported legislative appropriations for textbook “vendors” in the past.
Commenting on the DLN report which cited Utah’s achievement, Jeb Bush, former Florida governor and chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd), said, “We need leaders in every state who are willing to make the necessary changes so that student-centered education is a reality. I am confident we can meet the challenges ahead, but only if we harness the opportunities afforded to us through technology and innovation.”