June 1, 2012

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Educating for the Future

LEARNING THAT WORKS Enhancing Utah’s Educational System Ed...Read More

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Article

Educating for the Future

What is the Role of Utah’s Public Schools?

Larry Shumway, Ed.D., State Superintendent of Public Instruction

June 1, 2012


LEARNING THAT WORKS
Enhancing Utah’s Educational System

Education is consistently ranked as one of Utah’s top priorities among citizens, business leaders and policymakers. The state’s economic vitality, after all, is only as strong as its workforce—and tomorrow’s workforce is sitting in today’s classrooms.  In this special feature, we hear from three local leaders who offer their thoughts about the challenges and opportunities inside Utah’s classrooms.

Utah’s kindergarten through 12th grade public schools are a vital part of our economic future. Nearly everyone will agree that our investment in education is an investment in the future workforce our state will need to be competitive on a national and international scale. With this in mind, business leaders rightly want a strong voice in ensuring that schools are preparing students for the workplace of both today and tomorrow.

The rapid pace of change in technology and demographics can lead to difficulty in identifying and understanding the demands of the future workplace. Utah’s public schools deal with this challenge by focusing on fundament skills—literacy and numeracy—and by providing opportunities for specific preparation for options after high school. The choices available to students after high school graduation options include entry into a technical training program at a Utah College of Applied Technology (UCAT) campus, enrollment into a more traditional two- or four-year degree program at a college or university, or direct entry into the workforce.

Several recent studies emphasize the need for a workforce with education beyond a high school diploma. One study suggests that by the year 2020, Utah’s economy will demand that at least two-thirds of the workforce will have two-four year college degrees or one-two year technical certificates. To achieve that target will require continued investment in both Utah’s K-12 schools as well as UCAT and university system.

From my conversations as state superintendent with employers, I take away three key things:

  1. Employers need students to be prepared for the workplace with strong basic skills. This means schools must succeed in teaching reading for comprehension and math for application. These basic skills form a critical foundation in an economy in which every employee will need to frequently adapt to new technology and workplace demands.
  2. Employers need students to be prepared for the workplace with strong work skills. Our schools need to teach self-motivation, responsibility and teamwork. While these attributes are significantly affected by home and community, schools must be designed to support and add to the development of habits of hard work and discipline.
  3. Employers need students with specific skills that allow for immediate contributions. Our schools need to stay current with technologies and practices by communicating closely in each community with employers to align technical education programs with precision to the needs of the current workplace.

All this is made more challenging by the fact that schools are expected and intended to do more than prepare young people to be good employees. Public education has always had a civic purpose. That is why we say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in school and learn the history of the United States. It has always been intended to enrich both individuals and communities. That is why we have school drama programs and high school track teams. Balancing these purposes with the important economic purpose of public education will be a constant challenge. All of these purposes are worthwhile and each purpose has a constituency that speaks with power and persistence.

I have tried to balance the demands on Utah’s public schools by focusing on a clear sense of vision and mission. Our public school system was created in the Utah Constitution, which has as its fundamental purpose (stated in the Preamble) to “secure and perpetuate principles of free government.” I believe that freedom, as envisioned in the Utah Constitution, is a promise to future generations that requires:

  • Citizen participation in civic and political affairs
  • Economic prosperity in our state
  • Strong social and moral values
  • Loyalty and commitment to constitutional government

Public schools are not solely responsible to fulfill this constitutional vision, but they are instrumental. Schools fulfill their part by:

  • Ensuring literacy and numeracy for all Utah children
  • Providing high quality instruction for every Utah child
  • Establishing curriculum with high standards and relevance for all Utah children
  • Requiring effective assessment to inform high quality instruction and accountability

Challenges—New and Old
We face difficult challenges today, and I often look to the past for inspiration. Utah was among the states hit hardest by the Great Depression. In 1932, Utah’s unemployment rate was nearly 36 percent, fourth highest in the nation. By the spring of 1933, one of every three Utah families was receiving all or part of their food, clothing and shelter from government relief funds. Thirty-two of Utah’s 105 banks had failed. The state endured this suffering for a full decade. It was not until World War II that full employment returned, but of course the war brought even greater challenges.

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