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How Can We Make Utah A World Class Education Destination?

By Ari Bruening, COO, Envision Utah.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 edition of Silicon Slopes Magazine.

Ask any one of the 42 percent of Utah teachers that quit within their first five years why they left and you’ll hear a variety of reasons: “I didn’t have enough support and mentorship.” “I couldn’t make enough to provide for my family.” “I didn’t have the resources I needed to succeed.” “I left to raise my own family.” While the reasons may vary, the story remains the same: too many Utahns feel that teaching is not a justifiable career path.

More and more, education is the key to escaping poverty, successfully attacking life’s challenges, and making positive contributions to society. Utah has great, well-educated workers — we’re also rapidly increasing graduates in STEM fields and improving our outcomes across a variety of metrics — but we’re small and need to punch well above our weight in order to keep up. Many rapidly growing tech companies are forced to expand elsewhere because they can’t find a workforce at home.

That means now, more than ever, we need graduates who have the skills to excel in the knowledge economy. We need Utah to become a world class education destination. That’s hard to do when we face challenges like a teacher shortage that exceeds a thousand teachers each year.

Education is not a simple issue — and there may not be a “silver bullet” solution that will change things overnight — but with a little collaboration and teamwork, there are things we can do to improve education in our state.

That’s why Envision Utah is bringing people together to identify and implement strategies that will really move the needle on educational outcomes, so we’ll have more graduates — and more diverse graduates — who are ready for the economy of tomorrow.

We brought together the brightest minds in the state on education, ensuring we had representation from a diversity of groups and policymakers, and agreed on a set of strategies that will really improve outcomes. Those strategies start as early as birth and continue until more Utahns graduate with a postsecondary education:

  1. Talk to your baby. Education starts with our own children. Parents have a huge responsibility to teach their children, and that begins on day one. By the time your child turns four, nearly 80% of her brain will be developed. The amount of language she hears and the interactions she has with you in those first years will shape her ability to learn later in life. The more talking, the better. Parents and caregivers can use everyday moments to build their kids’ brains and give them a foundation of learning they can use for the rest of their lives!
  2. Begin with preschool. Every year, thousands of kids start school without the foundational skills to learn and succeed. Kids from tough circumstances — including children growing up in poverty or children whose families don’t speak English — are especially likely to be unprepared for kindergarten and first grade. Once kids start behind, it can be very difficult to catch up. High quality preschool can help every child have the right foundation to gain the knowledge and skills they’ll need. Even though preschool is for young children, the effects of good preschool can last throughout a child’s education and throughout a child’s life — helping them become productive, contributing members of society.
  3. Support great teachers. Within a school, teachers have a greater impact on a child’s education than anything else. But we aren’t getting enough good teachers in the classroom, and too many teachers are leaving the profession. Many districts can’t even find enough teachers to fill all their needs. We’re hiring more and more teachers who aren’t fully trained. Not only do we need to keep great teachers in the classroom, we need to recruit the state’s the best and brightest into the profession. Then we need to give them the support, mentorship, and resources they need to succeed.
  4. Help every child succeed. Every child deserves the chance to receive a quality education, but challenges like poverty or being an English-language learner can make it especially hard for some students to succeed in school. Latinos in Action is a prime example of this strategy in operation. It’s a middle and high school course specifically for Latino students that focuses on building Latino leaders in Utah. Nationally, 77.8 percent of Latino students graduate high school — Latinos in Action participants graduate at a rate of 98 percent and 85 percent go on to college.
  5. Look beyond high school. The economy is rapidly changing, and more and more people need to further their education beyond high school to succeed in that economy. People with only a high school diploma are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as people with a bachelor’s degree. And people with more education are more likely to volunteer, live longer, participate in civic activities, contribute to the economy, and have greater family stability. If we want to remain a prosperous state in the future, we will need more people to obtain education beyond high school.

The bottom line is that each of us needs to prioritize education and learning. It will take all of us working together. Whether it’s in the home with our own children or in the community encouraging students to take school seriously, we can each do our part. We can ensure that kids enter school ready to learn from great teachers who love their profession and feel valued. We can ensure that kids who need help succeed, so that everyone has the opportunity to further their education beyond high school and enter the workforce educated and skilled.

It’s Envision Utah’s goal to let every Utahn know that we can do this. We can make Utah a world class education destination. Let’s talk together, plan together, and work together to make it happen.

You can learn more about Envision Utah’s efforts at envisionutah.org