Rethinking conventional ideas in education

Every human being is created to do great things. But each has different talents, weaknesses, and interests, and each learns in ways particular to him or her. Sutherland Institute believes that keeping in mind the unique potential of individuals can help us create an ideal education system. We understand that ideas have consequences.

Our philosophy contends that to create an educational system that meets the unique needs of children, we must first combat three widespread ideas that are holding us back: (1) all students are the same, (2) schooling is primarily about social and political objectives, and (3) the government is responsible for educating children.

This paper describes how these ideas stem from popular philosophies and traditions but says that asking big bold questions about our approach to education can lead us to a change in thinking and new ideas. In doing so, we can transform education to meet the needs and potential of the individual student.

You can find the full paper here.

A multi-ethnic group of elementary age children are sitting at their desk and are taking a test in class. One boy is smiling and looking at the camera.

Op-ed: After the election: A new education vision

Originally published in the Deseret News.

Human beings are magnificent. We ask, wonder, reason, reflect and change. We are created to learn. As Aristotle put it, “All men by nature desire to know.”

With a divisive election behind us, we have an opportunity to move toward substantive discussion and elevated dialogue about principles and policies in our communities, especially regarding how we approach education.

While real debate about how to improve public education was lost amid both sides’ extreme campaign rhetoric, Americans continued to live the realities of our education system. They experienced, and continue to experience, excessive testing, one-size-fits-all classrooms, a lack of alternative options, teachers leaving the profession after only a few years on the job, inequities in access to quality schools, low scores on national and international tests, and heavy-handed federal initiatives.

Behind these realities is one ultimate question: Is our education system designed to encourage the learning of children, each of whom has unique interests and learning needs? It’s telling that, perhaps in answer to this question, enthusiastic education reformers exist on both the right and the left sides of the political spectrum.

The promise of a renewed education dialogue rests on two main ideas: (1) education requires that we meet the unique needs of the child; and (2) education calls for the empowerment of parents, students and taxpayers to create learning paths as unique as each student.

Noam Chomsky said, “A public education system is based on the principle that you care whether the kid down the street gets an education.” But what type of education? America doesn’t need the destruction of public education, but its transformation. Every kid down every street should have the opportunity to learn in a way that unlocks his or her innate potential. Anything less is a misuse of public funds.

To make education work for the individual, states should pursue a flexible education spending policy that allows parents to use their child’s state funds to purchase a variety of academic options like tutoring, textbooks, curriculum, exams, tuition or therapies. It should first prioritize students from families that qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, children from families experiencing intergenerational poverty; special-education students; children who have been adopted or are in foster care; or students residing on Native American reservations.

States should pursue local control through tools like “assessment choice,” where districts choose tests that best fit the needs of their students and their demographic realities from a menu of approved assessments. Excessive testing, data privacy and the influence of assessments on instruction worry many parents. The level of government closest to the student’s family — where parents are empowered, not sidelined — should determine which tests students take.

Education policies should break arbitrary barriers to learning. Instead of first seeking to raise taxes, educators should empower students to progress at their individual pace — the philosophy behind “competency-based education.” It’s worth rethinking grade levels, the Carnegie Unit, the classroom, the role of technology and the relationship between funding and enrollment. Education leaders should be investing in the ideas of the future, rather than being content to remain invested in the ideas of the past.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do … he only holds the key to his own secret.” Respecting the pupil is our vision.

Achieving a transformation requires from everyone the best creative, intellectual and interpersonal efforts. Most importantly, it requires leaders and engaged citizens willing to stand up in their own communities and reject a politics of strident voices, character assassinations, cloakroom deals and corruption. We will need space for open conversation and elevated dialogue, the seedbed for great ideas.

All human beings are created with the ability to learn, the desire to grow, the potential to improve and a purpose to accomplish extraordinary things. Education policy and dialogue ought to reflect these truths. And if we each engage in an elevated dialogue about education within our communities, it will be possible.

Education System

Op-ed: Utahns will invest in education, but not in same old system

Originally published in The Salt Lake Tribune.

The results of a recent survey from Envision Utah have been referenced as a sign that Utahns don’t understand public school funding. Some are pointing to that reading of the survey to make the case for raising income taxes on Utahns.

From a strategic standpoint, this makes a lot of sense. How do you convince policymakers, who have repeatedly been re-elected on a platform of protecting taxpayers from higher taxes, to take more money from taxpayers? One answer: Tell elected officials that voters are uninformed and don’t understand what they’re voting about.

But rather than question voters’ intelligence when it comes to education funding, we should first question our own understanding of the issue, and think about the environment in which voters find themselves.

According to the survey, 71 percent of Utahns believe that K-12 education funding is too low. And yet, 50 percent of Utahns are either unwilling or unsure about their willingness to pay for education funding.

Information could be at the root of this outcome, but it is just as likely that Utahns hold serious reservations about what is happening in education.

Our public education system is at a crossroads. We must decide, through our elected leaders, whether we want public schools that are invested in the past or are investing in the future. This decision is largely one of focus.

Being invested in the past means focusing on keeping our schools firmly in their 20th century model, designed for factories and farms, not for unique individuals in a high-tech, highly collaborative world. This leads to so-called reforms that follow a familiar pattern: raise taxes, spend more taxpayer dollars, adopt centralized government education programs and keep unions happy. These ideas appease powerful political interests, but are proven failures in producing the education outcomes and academic achievement that Utahns want for their children.

Investing in the future means focusing on meeting the unique needs of children. That requires exploring the possibilities for public education in the 21st century, including innovations in teaching and technology that can unlock every child’s innate desire to know and understand. It asks more of education reform — to not simply rely on money, but to entertain bold new ideas that break the status quo. It also leads to the conclusion that centralized academic decision-making is strikingly odd in a world where you can customize everything important in your life — from your diet to your doctor to your Netflix recommendations.

Utahns see many current and would-be education leaders investing in the future by embracing opportunities to promote engaged learning through innovation. But they also see these leaders and our public schools being held back by those who seem satisfied to remain invested in the past. In that situation, it is no wonder that Utahns would believe public school funding is too low, and yet be hesitant to pay more for an education system that balks at leaving behind a structure that is becoming irrelevant.

Are Utahns willing to pay more for that system when they recognize its success is being held up notwithstanding the money they invest? Not likely.

If we are serious about improving public education outcomes in Utah, then we should start asking courageous questions about our system instead of blaming voters for not understanding the issues. Are we invested in the past, or are we investing in the future? Getting the right answer to that question will have a far greater effect on positive public school outcomes than raising Utahns’ income taxes.

Why we cheer National School Choice Week

school choiceThis week is National School Choice Week. School choice – the freedom of parents to move their child from a system of learning that is failing them to one that better meets their individual needs – has reaped many benefits for children and families across the state and the nation. This is especially true for parents and children living in poverty or in areas with failing public schools, whose need for the freedom to pursue other options is the greatest and where the potential benefit to society is the highest.

In honor of National School Choice Week, we recommend that you take a few minutes to browse the new Educational Freedom Wiki, just released by Cato Institute. This wiki explores and explains the problems in the public education system that create the need for school choice, the promise that school choice extends to children who are in failing schools and being left behind by the public education status quo, and policy ideas for offering that promise to more children and families.

As a state, Utah is doing moderately well in the arena of school choice – we are far from the worst state, but we are far from the best as well. In general, parents in most areas of the state have at least a few options to meet their child’s learning needs, whether home school, private school, digital learning, public charter school or traditional public school.

But many families in Utah still lack genuine educational opportunities, due to difficult financial, geographic or other circumstances. Read more

School Trek: The Next Generation

The Country School, by Winslow Homer

The Country School, by Winslow Homer

For those who care about improving public education for Utah families and children, National Affairs recently published an intriguing essay about Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) titled “The Next Step in School Choice.”

This essay, referencing Milton and Rose Friedman, captures well the realities of human nature, psychology and behavior that the public education system has generally failed to grasp (and that therefore plague that system):

People can either spend their own money or someone else’s money, and they can either spend it on themselves or on someone else. The Friedmans argued that people generally have a stronger incentive to economize when spending their own money than when spending someone else’s money. Likewise, people generally have a stronger incentive to maximize value when spending money on themselves than when spending on someone else.

The lack of incentive to reduce costs or maximize value is particularly acute when the spender does not know whose money he is spending or on whom he is spending it. For instance, a person is more likely to purchase a lavish dinner with a corporate expense account than when a close friend is paying. Likewise, someone is less likely to maximize value when buying a gift for the office holiday gift exchange than when buying a gift for a significant other. In the latter scenario, the spender’s knowledge of what would provide the greatest value is also considerably higher when he knows the recipient well.

Public-school officials, like all government bureaucrats, primarily engage in the worst kind of spending: They spend other people’s money on children who are not their own. As competent and well-meaning as they may be, their incentives to economize and maximize value are simply not as strong as those of parents spending their own money on their own children.

Recognizing and addressing this human reality is one of the major purposes of ESAs, which deposit taxpayer dollars into savings accounts for parents to use to provide for their child’s education – through home school, public school, private school, private tutors or some combination of these, depending on the child’s need – and allowing parents to save any leftover money to use for their child’s college education. In short, ESAs allow a child and those closest to a child to tailor that child’s path for learning and education according to their personal, individual needs and give parents an incentive to seek out the greatest value for the least cost, so they can save toward the significant costs of higher education.

Some in the past have opposed ESAs in Utah because they don’t think an ESA system is workable in practice. But in reality, two states – Arizona and Florida – have established working ESA systems. In the face of this evidence, to argue it can’t be done in Utah is to argue that Utah’s education leaders don’t have the competence to handle what other states are already doing. And that argument does not seem based in reason or reality.

Hopefully, Utah policymakers will look past the fear-based arguments of special interests in public education and support legislation to create ESAs. Children in Utah deserve the freedom and joy in learning that Education Savings Accounts can bring.

State school board selection: The ‘partisan elections are unconstitutional’ argument

800px-University_at_Buffalo_voting_boothAfter federal Judge Clark Waddoups’s recent ruling that Utah’s current state board election system is unconstitutional, a new argument from advocates of nonpartisan state school board elections has begun to make the rounds: that partisan state school board elections are barred by the Utah Constitution. While this argument represents a novel reading of the state Constitution, and certainly provides something new for talking heads to discuss, it has not been accompanied by much fact or substantive reasoning to back it up.

The constitutional provision in question (Article X, Section 8) reads: “No religious or partisan test or qualification shall be required as a condition of employment, admission, or attendance in the state education systems.” In prosecuting their argument, the nonpartisan election advocates have simply quoted or cited this provision and moved on without further explanation, evidently assuming this citation closes all possibility of debate to any reasonable person. I mean, what part of “no partisan test” don’t you understand, right?

But for the common good and for the sake of free society, deeper thought and more substantive consideration than that is required for determining such an important policy and constitutional issue.

The plain language of Article X, Section 8 makes clear that it only applies to three areas of public education: employment, admission, or attendance. Obviously, state school board members are not seeking to be admitted to or attend public schools, so the only constitutional leg left for this argument to stand on is the area of employment.

So the relevant question becomes: Are we electing school employees when we vote for our state school board representative?

The common sense answer is “no.” Voters don’t go to the ballot box to choose their favorite education bureaucrat. Rather, they are voting for a person who is willing to take time and effort away from work and family to help administer the public school system — not as a source of employment, but as a public service to their community and state. Of course, we also recognize the financial difficulties that this service would create if it were left purely as a charitable donation of time, not to mention the implications for free society if only the wealthy were able to serve. Therefore, society has decided as a matter of policy to provide some basic financial reimbursement to school board members to help more people be able to serve. But the presence of modest financial reimbursement does not lead to the conclusion that state school board members are public school employees. Read more

Utahns have 6 weeks to give Gov. Herbert feedback on Common Core

800px-School_bus_invasionGovernor Gary Herbert recently introduced a robust process by which state education policy, including the controversial Common Core State Standards, will be carefully reviewed. Of great importance, the process includes the means by which

…parents, teachers, community members and other concerned citizens and organizations across the state have the opportunity to provide feedback on these standards. To give us your feedback, we’ve created a webpage,, where anyone with a concern can review the current standards and give us their opinion. This can be either positive or negative feedback, but it needs to be specific. If there is a standard or grade level benchmark that you disagree with, I want to hear about it. This input will be shared with Dr. Kendell’s work group and will be invaluable, as the group completes its evaluation. This site is now open for comments and it will be open through the end of August. (emphasis added)

As has become his pattern, Gov. Herbert outlined principles that will guide the review process. Specifically, the state must:

  1. Maintain high academic standards in all subjects, not just math and English, and for all students.
  2. Monitor and limit the federal government’s role in education.
  3. Preserve state and local school district control of our education system, including curriculum, materials, testing and instructional practices.

Last week’s introduction of Utah’s review process comes at a time when an increasing number of states are carefully evaluating the Common Core in the context of their public-education policy. Read more

Could blended learning fend off tuition increases?

graduationA recent Deseret News story reported that the Utah Board of Regents approved a statewide college tuition hike of four percent for the 2014-2015 school year, with increases up to 5.5 or 6 percent at the University of Utah, Utah State University, and Snow College. This was reported to be the “smallest tuition increase in more than a decade” and was celebrated by higher education officials, in large part because it represented larger increases in taxpayer funding for Utah’s colleges and universities than have typically occurred in recent years.

If you really want to, I guess you can spin as a good thing the fact that Utah college students will “only” be paying $378, $290, and $208 more per year to attend University of Utah, USU, and SUU, respectively. But in the end, they’re still paying more money for the same college education they could have gotten for less the year before, and I’m not sure that is something to tout.

Iis it really worth celebrating that we chose to increase the financial pain of paying for a college education for students, while simultaneously choosing to increase the financial pain on taxpayers more than normal? Especially when tuition and fees in Utah’s public four-year colleges and universities has gone up by 46 percent in less than 10 years (between 2004-05 and 2013-14) – after adjusting for inflation.

That sounds like pretty institutionalized, inside-the-box thinking – which perhaps we ought to expect from institutions of higher education. But it seems that a genuine accomplishment truly worthy of celebration would be figuring out to decrease tuition and lower the funding required from taxpayers for higher education, by using the ingenuity and innovative thinking that should typify higher learning.

Enter digital learning.

A recent study published by the National Bureau of Education Research randomly assigned (the “gold standard” method in social science research) 725 subjects to either a traditional introductory economics class, with two in-class lectures of 75 minutes each, or a “hybrid format,” with only one in-class lecture of 75 minutes. Importantly, the two college professors that taught the courses each taught a traditional and a hybrid section, with identical curriculum materials available to students across formats. Read more

Why Herbert should veto preschool bill – Mero Moment, 3/25/14


Most little children are better off at home and tax dollars are better spent on the special needs of truly impoverished children.

Most people know that Barack Obama has been pushing for universal health care since his initial campaign in 2008. But did you know that universal preschool has been on his implementation list for just as long?

The “Preschool for All” concept took center stage in his two most recent State of the Union addresses. President Obama has proposed that $75 billion in mandatory funding be allocated “for a Federal-State partnership that would provide high-quality preschool to all 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families, while also creating incentives for States to expand publicly funded preschool services to middle-class families and promoting access to high-quality full-day kindergarten and high-quality early learning programs for children under the age of 4.”[1]

Enter HB 96, Utah School Readiness Initiative – a heavily debated bill passed by the state Legislature but still unsigned by Governor Gary Herbert.

In order for a state to obtain “Preschool for All” money, there are eight qualifications it must have in place legally. Utah has had three of those qualifications in statute. HB 96 puts the other five remaining requirements in place. To be clear, supporters of the bill say that obtaining even more federal funding isn’t the goal of the bill. But the lure of more federal dollars is hard to dismiss.

Read more

Here’s how Utah can really level the educational playing field

This post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations.

Photo by Anissa Thompson

Photo by Anissa Thompson

Ten years ago, Sutherland Institute published a powerful analysis of public education in Utah called Saving Education and Ourselves: The Moral Case for Self-Reliance in Education. Our argument is easy to understand: Able families should receive encouragement to become self-reliant in education, and families unable to be self-reliant in education are welcomed into the public school system.

Admittedly, this education policy model is quite different than what we now have in Utah. Our current system is a top-down, bureaucratic model that assumes that children belong to the state, not parents; public education is the center of democracy, not the family; and only “experts” trained to educate children know what they’re doing.

State law, both in our constitution and by statute, is double-minded about what model to use. The constitution doesn’t trump state statutes in this case because the state Legislature has ultimate control over education funding.

Typically, you have two types of education bills at the Legislature each year – one type serving the education establishment and public school system and another type serving parents and children. A good example of what I mean is the attempt by the education establishment to repeal tax exemptions for dependents. The establishment complains that large families don’t pay their fair share into public education and one way to even the playing field is to get rid of dependent exemptions in the tax code.

Of course, that’s a pretty myopic view of both Utah families and funding for public education. For instance, the same education establishment utters nary a peep about poor families that pay absolutely nothing into the system.

Ten years ago, Sutherland Institute created a better, more equitable way to fund public education in Utah. But to get there, we have to face some realities.

Read more