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1. The Nature of Flexibility

By Daniel E. Witte

Sutherland Institute applies the FARM paradigm (Flexibility, Accountability, Representation and Modularity) to assess particular educational proposals and laud Jefferson Charter Schools. Here we consider the nature of Flexibility.

A recent movie, Waiting for Superman, posits that the solution to America’s educational woes is “great teachers.” But this is like the proverbial mouse that proposed belling the cat: End solutions are self-evident, but the means to the end are elusive.

Paul Gustavson, an organizational design consultant, noted that “organizations are perfectly designed for the results they achieve.” This suggests the current government school system has design characteristics inherently adverse to attracting and retaining great teachers. Unless those characteristics are changed, government schools will continue to lack the critical mass of great teachers needed to produce satisfactory results.

Teacher pay is not the problem. Studies consistently show there is no correlation between teacher pay and student performance. Moreover, locales that pay teachers the most – like Washington, D.C. – often have the worst teachers and most dismal student performances.

Great teachers are not motivated primarily by salary. They are drawn to the profession because of the opportunity to make a personal connection with students and initiate a positive difference in young lives. For these educators, teaching is a kind of calling. The payoff is seeing a child’s eyes light up with an epiphany that will change the future.

Great teachers not only know their subject matter, they understand how to adapt their presentations to the unique characteristics of each class and each student. They tend to calibrate their efforts based upon student learning styles, goals, demographic backgrounds, economic conditions, cultural preferences and other individualized factors. Student excellence is always the end goal, but flexibility is required to guide a student from her current knowledge base to a new horizon.

When an educational environment stifles a great teacher’s ability to adapt and create pedagogical conditions that will make a meaningful difference in the lives of students, the light in the children’s eyes flickers out and the real payoff disappears. Great teachers then confront a personal crisis – they must play along with a system that is destroying children, or fight the system and be marginalized.

Over the decades, many great teachers decided they could no longer bear to watch the carnage and left the profession. As mediocrity filled the void, it solidified its hold against excellence. Entry barriers were imposed against great teachers through inflexible certification requirements, hiring selection processes, and other means. Teacher incompetence, student apathy, parental hopelessness, and public indifference gradually intensified as part of an educational death spiral.

It is impossible to re-enthrone great teachers without restoring the working environment needed to attract and retain them. That, in turn, means that teachers must once again become masters of their own classrooms. They must be allowed to maintain a disciplined environment and innovate with their teaching techniques and materials, while remaining constantly subject to the “Accountability” principle.

Flexibility means reduction of the number and impact of regulations – federal, state and local – to the bare minimum feasible, so that maximum autonomy, discretion and ability to innovate over time is afforded to the board, principal, school organization and, especially, teachers. It means getting federal bureaucracies, state bureaucracies, local officials, union representatives, vendors and lobbyists out of educational governance; restoring a direct, meaningful stimulus-response mechanism for classroom control between teachers, students and parents; and allowing local schools, as guided by local parents, to select curriculum materials. It means that K-12 schools, like American colleges, must be free to recruit teachers who have practical experience in other fields, rather than being forced to rely almost exclusively on teachers with education degrees.

Innovation cannot occur in Utah if those who govern a school are so hamstrung by orthodox external government constraints that they have no practical range of freedom to act. Innovation is seldom achieved through the centralized imposition of rules. Instead, innovation is usually achieved by numerous, varied, creative experiments, which collectively yield a limited but continually accruing set of new insights. These new insights have a “ratcheting effect” on the entire collective community as they are disseminated through voluntary imitation and adaptation throughout constituent members of that community.

Put another way, the odds of obtaining a genuine innovation from any particular limited experiment are small. However, the odds of obtaining a genuine innovation from a collection of many different limited experiments are large. It is virtually impossible to achieve wide-scale systemic improvement without some limited-scale experimental failures, and it is virtually impossible to achieve limited-scale successes needed for systemic improvement if the wide-scale system prohibits any deviation from embedded wide-scale flaws.

Yet would-be reformers of the government education community often fail to appreciate this basic principle, perhaps due to the fact that all government entities have an inherent tendency to be centralized and rule-based. This is one reason why, in isolation, the notions of “hiring good teachers,” “raising teacher pay” and “raising standards” are typically effective as political platitudes, but they do not substantially change actual student performance.

Lawmakers in some states have attempted to afford more flexibility to local government schools. In Colorado, for example, the Innovation Schools Act of 2008 was enacted to allow government schools, government school districts and groups of schools to apply for exemption from collective bargaining agreements and the most onerous of state regulations. Utah and other states are also beginning to seriously question the wisdom of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the consummate example of a well-meaning but misguided bipartisan effort toward education reform. A great deal of flexibility could be recovered if Utah were more willing to forgo federal funding conditioned upon compliance with retrograde federal regulations.

Of course, history has taught us that there are a few matters of concern that probably ought not be left wholly to local experimentation. Such exceptions would include, for example, continued enforcement of laws prohibiting racial discrimination, basic fire and safety codes, and financial-reporting requirements designed to ensure proper use of public funds.

The author is director of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Educational Progress.

 

2. Job Opening at Sutherland: Manager of Donor Relations

Sutherland Institute is seeking a Manager of Donor Relations to reach out to our growing network of supporters across the nation. This role will report to the Director of Development.

The Manager of Donor Relations will:

  • Work closely with the Director of Development and senior leadership team to implement an integrated fundraising strategy, including individual, foundation and corporate supporters
  • Identify and develop long-term relationships with existing supporters and key prospects
  • Solicit current and prospective donors for financial support for SI
  • Interact with donors through telephone calls, one-on-one visits and written correspondence to keep them informed of our work
  • Use fundraising database to ensure current data on donors, gifts and prospects
  • Track progress and analyze resultsThe ideal candidate will have the following attributes:
  • Entrepreneurial spirit and ability to be a self-starter
  • One to three years of experience in fundraising
  • Experience interacting with individual donors preferred but not required
  • Notable relationship-building skills and an outgoing, friendly personality
  • Excellent communication skills, particularly writing skills
  • Ability to multi-task, organize numerous moving parts of a project, and meet deadlines
  • Deep understanding of and commitment to the principles of limited government, free enterprise and personal responsibility
  • Experience with databases and basic Microsoft Office products, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook.
  • Ability to travel on a regular basis
  • Bachelor’s degree

This position will require travel throughout Utah. Expected travel: up to 60 percent at times.

To apply, please email your résumé to lmontgomery@sutherlandinstitute.org.

 

3. Caucuses, Conventions, Cookies and Punch

Just in time for party organizing conventions, Sutherland will hold our Responsible Citizen Course: “Caucuses, Conventions, Cookies and Punch: Understanding Utah’s Electoral System” next Thursday, March 3, at 7 p.m.

Utah’s electoral process has been called unique and quirky. Most newcomers find it complicated and confusing. In this introductory class, we will follow Utah’s electoral process from precinct caucus meetings to the general election. As a result, you will leave with a clearer understanding of the system and of just how great your individual impact is in selecting your elected officials.

This class will be held at Sutherland’s headquarters (click here for a map). It costs $10 for the public but is free for those who join the Responsible Citizen Exchange.

To register or for more information, email rce@sutherlandinstitute.org .