Education — when will we ever learn?

September 23, 2019

Originally published in Deseret News.

Education policy debates in Utah almost always turn into full-blown arguments. Given education’s standing as the highest ranked priority for Utahns year after year, and the diversity of views around ideas and solutions, it’s no wonder.

When will we learn that the “us vs. them” approach — pitting traditional models and structures against innovation and change — is not solving the problem?

To begin framing a conversation, as opposed to a confrontation, we need to consider four areas of agreement — guiding principles, if you will.

First, students must be the priority. They are individuals with unique God-given potential. They are built to learn — and often in different ways.

Second, effective education requires that we meet the unique needs of each student while respecting parents and taxpayers. Stakeholders should be empowered as stewards of a system that creates learning pathways as unique as the student.

Third, change for the sake of change should not be anyone’s goal. However, change that leads students toward reaching their full potential must be at the heart of innovation and is essential to sustainable improvement.

Fourth, while it’s true that Utah has the lowest per pupil funding in the nation, we also have — thanks in large part to caring teachers and engaged parents — above-average outcomes. This should tell us that money matters, but how we spend it matters more.

How is it that we can agree on these principles and still fall into discord? How is it that each side of the debate considers itself the principled side? Could it be that we have lost the ability to listen, to trust — or both?

Education — and students statewide — suffers with the loss of an open exchange of ideas. Some of the more critical concepts include conversations about funding, teacher pay, empowering parents, increased options for students and an examination of established methods of school governance.

This loss of dialogue is unfortunate, because without a competition of ideas, we are not going to make real progress. And there can be no competition until we can allow for suggestions to be heard and considered.

For example, maybe we could suggest that a dependence upon federal funding is less than ideal, without raising the ire of those who would respond, “Why would we not take federal money?” In Utah we should unite around the common challenge that both sides share: We are at once dependent upon and disadvantaged by the federal government, due to federal control of lands and the resulting forfeited tax revenue. What if our dependence on federal dollars could be reduced through realizing tax revenue that should belong to Utah in the first place?

.What if teachers had greater control over curriculum and content — with the freedom to teach students what their community values most rather than content deemed at the federal level as the priority?

What if technology were not viewed as a threat to teachers or a panacea for all students, but simply became a tool in the toolkit?

And what if those on either side could finish a sentence before the assumptions kick in and the trust shuts off?

In order to find meaningful solutions, we must drop the defensive posture and acknowledge that we can improve the current system.

The highest potential in public education requires that we effectively maintain what works — beginning with the passion and commitment of good teachers, while allowing for adaptation that makes use of new technology, innovative approaches and beneficial changes to the traditional classroom. If there’s one thing that experience should teach us, it’s that education is a local issue. Our education priorities in Utah should be established by parents and local teachers, not mandated by the federal government.

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