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COVID-19 has caused UEA to reevaluate its stance on innovation in schools

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Students and instructors at the STEM Santa Fe engineering camp gather on a video call as seen through the laptop of instructor Esther Lescht in her home on Tuesday, June 16, 2020, in Santa Fe, N.M.

Cedar Attanasi, Associated Press

Just last week, Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews, during a KSL “Sunday Edition” interview, said that only a handful (the very smallest) of Utah’s 41 school districts should reopen this month, and the rest should instead only provide online instruction. She said the state should be “making sure teachers have all the resources they need to be successful in online education.”

Ironically, the UEA, Utah’s only major teachers union, for more than two decades has been the biggest opponent of funding for the very tools that enable teachers to provide effective remote teaching and learning. They have called legislation for educational software and devices “vendor bills,” which is interesting because in the 1980s, the union fully supported legislative funding of textbooks — provided, of course, by vendors.

Fortunately, in spite of the union’s opposition, the Utah Legislature, with support from the State Board of Education, has been plowing hundreds of millions of dollars into computer-assisted instructional software and devices.

While serving in the state Senate, I and other legislators sponsored legislation and funding to give teachers the modern tools they need to personalize learning for every child. But it seemed at every turn the UEA tried to defeat the legislation, saying it wanted the money to go to higher increases in the Weighted Pupil Unit — which have historically tied very closely to annual salary increases.

The state PTA usually rubber-stamped the UEA opposition of spending for 21st-century classroom tools and instead defended the 19th-century “sage on the stage,” one-size-fits-all, “sit and get” model of education that had produced declining student performance in Utah and nationally. The National Assessment of Educational Progressrepeatedly reported that two-thirds of U.S. 15-year-olds are not proficient in math or reading.

Here are just a few examples of the union’s past opposition to the very tools they are now demanding:

The UEA opposed funding for the Early Intervention Reading program to provide reading software for 55,000 of Utah’s 180,000 K-3 students, targeting first those students reading below grade level. At the same time, it opposed funding of DIBELS digital testing tools to allow teachers to quickly assess the specific deficiencies of individual struggling readers to enable precision targeting of effective interventions. 

The union opposed funding for the very tools that enable teachers to assist significantly more students to be reading at grade level by third grade. After experiencing the positive results of implementing these tools with fidelity, teachers and principals in what had been low-performing schools were eager to share their results. They demonstrated how teachers dramatically improved reading scores for the hardest to teach students by personalizing instruction through reading software which typically gave students 20 minutes daily of adaptive, interactive, immediate feedback through virtual personal tutors which were infinitely patient and infinitely positive. Students who had been nervous and felt anxious in a reading group now look forward to private online reading tutors.

Based on the data and the State Board of Education’s progress in identifying the best software providers and eliminating those they found to be least effective, the Legislature made plans to expand funding so that more teachers and students would have access to the tools. But the UEA and a few school district officials worked to prevent the expansion. For example, every legislator in the Granite School District was contacted and urged to vote against funding for the expansion. During one tour for education and legislative leaders, one school principal in Granite School District spoke about the opposition and said that to know the effectiveness of the software in improving student performance and not to provide it would be educational malpractice. 

The teachers union also opposed funding of the STEM Action Center and its math software to enable 200,000 Utah students to get personalized math instruction providing immediate, interactive, adaptive feedback while the students worked the math problems. The results of this software enabling teachers to improve math proficiencies of students have been outstanding. Instead of sending students home to cry over their math homework with parents who couldn’t remember how to help them and turning in homework only to get red marks a day later showing their mistakes, students learn to love math because they get immediate assistance through virtual and sometimes live online tutors. 

The UEA and its handful of allies in the Utah Legislature were not supportive when the Legislature, beginning in 2015 and 2016, funded the nation’s first statewide digital teaching and learning master plan, which was developed collaboratively by a task force at the Utah State Board of Education.  Opponents of the funding for software, devices, Wi-Fi and training argued that money should not go for these purposes until Utah schools are fully funded (whatever that means). 

State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson has stated that the earlier implementation of the master plan and the legislative funding of it and digital learning software enabled Utah to be a leader during the spring 2020 COVID-19 school closures, allowing teachers to more effectively provide remote learning for Utah students.

So, it’s no wonder the UEA represents less than half of Utah’s teaching professionals. But we should all be glad the union is finally calling for resources to assist teachers to be effective in online teaching and learning. It’s just too bad it took a worldwide pandemic and concern for their own health to get them to change.

Howard Stephenson is president of the Utah Taxpayers Association and served 26 years in the Utah Senate, having retired Dec. 31, 2018.