A simple plan to reduce education costs

Anytime cuts in education spending are mentioned, there is an assumption that children and teachers will suffer. While that might be the case with across-the-board reductions, there are selective ways to reduce costs.

One that is never mentioned is for school districts to stop increased high school graduation requirements. Most Utah residents are probably unaware that many school districts exceed state requirements for graduation.

Currently the Utah Department of Education requires that students complete 24 credits of coursework to graduate from high school. Many school districts, however, require up to 28 credits before they will award a diploma. While that might not seem like a big difference, it amounts to an extra half year of classes. Just imagine how much that extra half year costs when one considers how many Utah students are attending high school.

The 24 credits required by the state include:

4 credits of English;

3 credits of math, including 1 credit of Algebra 1, 1 of geometry, and one of advanced, applied, or supplemental math;

3 credits of science, including 2 from earth systems, biology, chemistry or physics, and 1 from the foundation courses, or the applied or advanced science core list;

2.5 credits of social studies, including 1 of U.S. history, 0.5 of geography, 0.5 of world civilization, and 0.5 of U.S. government and citizenship;

3.5 credits of directed coursework, including 1.5 credits of fine arts, 1 CTE credit, 0.5 of computer technology and 0.5 of general financial literacy;

2 credits of physical education and health; and

6 electives.

It certainly seems like a comprehensive list. Districts that require additional credits will argue that the extra courses ensure that students receive a better education. It would be nice for the school districts to provide the supporting data and a detailed analysis of how much those additional classes cost.

Most Utah high school graduates that continue their higher education will do so at a Utah college or university. Very few will go to Ivy League schools, Stanford, or similarly academically rigorous institutions. Students who complete the coursework required by the state and who excel are still qualified to attend those schools. Beyond grades, it is what those students do outside the classroom that usually determines whether or not they will be accepted.

Consider a couple of hypothetical examples:

Student X graduates from a Utah high school that requires 24 credits. He plans to attend college and takes appropriate coursework. He graduates with a 3.8 GPA. He scores 26 on the ACT test. During school he competed in tennis and was a member of the jazz band. He was class secretary his junior year.

Student Z graduates from a Utah high school that requires 28 credits. He takes the most challenging classes available. He finishes with a 3.4 GPA. He gets a 28 ACT score. He earned his Eagle Scout award.

Both students apply to the University of Utah. Guess what? Both will probably be accepted. Which one will be more successful in college or after college? It is impossible to predict. The traits that will ultimately define their ultimate success will not be determined by those additional four elective credits in high school.

The truth is that in many cases, in addition to costing more, those extra classes might actually hurt a student’s performance. Over four years, those extra credits mean additional class work and home work for students. Instead of being able to concentrate more effort in core classes, students’ efforts and time will be more divided. If a student gets a poor grade in an elective class, it still has a negative impact on his GPA.

Requiring credits that exceeds the state requirement increases costs in several ways. Additional teachers, classrooms and materials are all obvious extra costs. In addition, there are less obvious expenses. For example, in many districts requiring 28 credits if a student opts to take released time seminary that student can never have an open class period in his schedule during all four years.

That means no study time during a school day. All assigned work will need to be completed outside of school hours. That creates a stressful situation if the student is also trying to participate in extracurricular events like sports, music, drama, or even a part-time after school job. In many cases it leaves very little time for homework or study. The end result is that the student doesn’t do as well academically.

Here is where a less obvious extra cost comes in: what if that harried student who has a full day of classes followed by drama ends up failing English one semester? The state requires four credits of English to graduate and after the failure the student will be a half semester short. He will not graduate unless he makes up the deficit credit. He has no opening in his schedule, so he will have to find a way to make up that semester of English either after school, on weekends, or during the summer. And the district must provide a way to facilitate that student’s need.

This is not an unusual situation. It happens to thousands of students each year. As a result districts have the expense of special make-up programs, including the costs of materials, teachers, classrooms, and in some cases, entire schools. It would be difficult to calculate the exact cost statewide because it varies from district to district. But it could easily be many millions. All this occurs because some districts decided to exceed the state education requirement of 24 credits.

Reducing the amount of credits to match the state requirement would not reduce the length of time students spend in high school. It would give schools the flexibility of offering fewer elective courses and allow students the flexibility of more study time during the school day.

Certainly Utah’s educational system needs significantly more money. But that doesn’t seem a likely possibility over the short term. For now, there are certainly ways each district can be smarter with the existing funding.

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