Words Matter: How Utah is Updating Education Policy to Signal the Future of Learning in the State

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Topics: Assessement & Accountability, Education Policy

Utah has been proactively tackling policy obstacles and identifying ways the state can support innovative learning models, including grants to support digital teaching and learning and competency-based learning. The commitment was embodied by the state board last year when they incorporated personalized teaching and learning as one of the four goals in their strategic plan. Utah quickly recognized that seat-time and the connection to funding is a fundamental barrier, but the state acknowledged that it would take time and that the approach would need to be methodical.

Recognizing in 2016 the need to provide flexibility for innovative programs, the state board created “nontraditional programs” defined as distance, online, blended or competency-based learning programs. Simultaneously, the state board authorized an alternate form of reporting attendance called “continuing enrollment membership,” which is defined by the school district but may include a minimum student login or teacher contact requirement or required timelines for a student to demonstrate completed work. This change allowed nontraditional programs to begin developing alternate measures of student membership and participation for funding purposes.

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Earlier this year, in response to a request from the state’s competency-based advisory board, the term “nontraditional programs” was replaced with “learner-validated programs,” using language that will better describe the evolution of focus in schools – and recognizing that for many, what was considered “nontraditional” has become the norm. The board also updated their definition of “face-to-face instruction” to reflect an “attendance-validated program.” While the definitions remained very similar, the new terms signified great change.

And this month, the board took an even bolder step.

Introducing educational services

Although maintaining both the 180-day and 990-hour requirements, the board replaced “instructional hours” with “hours of educational services.” Educational services are defined as “providing learning opportunities and services designed to support a student to be prepared to succeed and lead by having the knowledge and skills to learn, engage civically and lead meaningful lives, including by providing:

  • High quality instruction for each student
  • Personalized learning supports for each student
  • Implementation of evidence-based student health and wellness practices”

This new definition is in lieu of instruction specific, attendance or student time requirements.

For Utah State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson, “these changes are incremental steps on our path toward advancing the vision laid out in Utah’s Portrait of a Graduate. Part of this vision involves valuing competencies over seat-time and a broad definition of student success – values that are reflected in these language and policy changes.”

While COVID-19 has required every state to provide some sort of flexibility in how schools will report student attendance and receive funding, Utah was in a strong position to go beyond waivers because of actions the state had already taken. Utah is implementing permanent change to support innovative learning models – and theirs is a good example for other states to emulate.

What other accountability issues arose from COVID-19 that federal policymakers should address?