How to bring the success sequence to Utah students

April 12, 2023

Already the 2024 presidential race is making headlines. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hasn’t declared his candidacy, but he’s a popular choice for speculation among some Republicans who liked his approach to pandemic restrictions and education policy. In education, DeSantis has been a muscular executive, willing to take arrows for his leadership in Florida’s policies on critical race theory, girls sports, parents’ rights in education, and the push for more substantive education choice for parents and families.  

Utah has also been a leader in the education space, particularly for its passage of a universal scholarship program in January that gives parents new options. Utah has prided itself for its focus on parents’ rights in education and strong families generally.  

But as Ian Rowe explained at the recent Sutherland/American Enterprise Institute FREE Forum in Salt Lake City, there is always room for improvement even when a state is doing well:  

I recently came across the book Good to Great, Jim Collins’ classic book about how companies, strong companies got better. These companies accepted the adjective of “good,” even if relative to their peers, they could be hailed as “great.” So please don’t take the description of “good” as undervaluing what Utah has already accomplished. Take it as the mindset that there are always higher levels of greatness, and it is within your grasp. So, I think the theme for our FREE forum Salt Lake City is how to go from “good” to “great.” As a senior fellow at AEI, I am obsessed with the goal of upward mobility and the factors that promote success for anyone of any background. … Part of why I wrote my book Agency and why we’re holding these forums is that increasingly, in my view, young people are getting the message about everything that they cannot do in American society. If we truly care about upward mobility, we must challenge the meta-narratives that are dominating the world views of how young people shape their sense of possibility and their belief as to whether or not they can even achieve the American dream. 

Perhaps part of Utah’s path for going from good to great in education policy ought to include information about the success sequence for students. 

Rowe explained at the FREE Forum that the success sequence is a series of choices that successfully prevent poverty. Among millennials, 97% who graduated from high school, got a full-time job, and had children only after getting married stayed out of poverty. It should be a commonsense set of facts to share in school, but it is controversial in some circles, including the education establishment.  

There is merit to teaching the facts of the success sequence to Utah students, but the question for advocates who want Utah to lead in teaching it is this: What is the best way? 

Local school boards

One option is to encourage local school boards and districts to lead the way through curriculum decisions. According to Utah Code, local school boards “shall implement the core standards for Utah public schools using instructional materials that best correlate to the core standards for Utah public schools and graduation requirements (emphasis added).” Basically, one of the jobs of the district school board is to adopt a curriculum that meets the state standards set by the State Board of Education. A school district could adopt curriculum for their schools regarding the success sequence – something that Ian Rowe and AEI are working to release this fall.  

Making curriculum decisions at the local level allows the most local participants – families with kids in the public schools – to have a voice in what is taught to their children through public meetings about district curriculum decisions. This means parents are likely have more buy-in for the concept being in classrooms, which should decrease political friction later.  

However, the main downside of pursuing change at the local level is that it spreads at a slower pace, since each district and charter school in the state must independently adopt it for it to go statewide. Further complicating it is that a 2022 statewide audit revealed that every district makes curriculum decisions very differently – some use a top-down approach to decision-making, while others let individual school departments or even teachers to make decisions.  

State Board of Education  

According to the Utah constitution, “the general control and supervision of the public education system shall be vested in a State Board of Education.” In practical terms this has come to mean that the USBE, in part, creates statewide standards for different subjects taught in public schools.  

One subject where the success sequence could fit is in the required one semester financial literacy course. During the regular standard revision process the state board could add standards or strands on the success sequence and/or information on avoiding poverty that incorporates this data. 

The benefit of creating a state standard that prompts discussion about the success sequence is that it requires the policy change statewide, with some level of specificity while also allowing some flexibility and buy in from districts. Board members are elected for the express purpose of having “general control and supervision,” meaning its constitutionally appropriate to come from them. The board is a natural place for gathering public input specifically for education.  

However, unfortunately, the reality is many people do not know who their board members are nor how to engage the state board and often neglect it. This dynamic could create less buy-in from parents, thought leaders and advocates than one would hope for.  

State Legislature 

The Utah Constitution says that “the Legislature shall provide for the establishment and maintenance of the state’s education systems including a public education system, which shall be open to all children of the state and a higher education system.” 

In short, the Legislature has perhaps its clearest role in funding education. Sometimes the level of specificity in the law can cause conflict with the state board, which is the entity in the state constitution tasked with administering public schools.  

Further, enacting education policy reforms legislatively can generate hurdles for implementation. If a new law regarding success sequence instruction in public schools were passed, for example, the state board of education would be required to enact a rule to implement it. Then school district boards, individual school leaders and teachers would have to implement that rule. Those multiple layers of implementation create possibilities for straying from the spirit, and at times even the letter, of the law.  

As usual, the benefit of the Legislature’s lawmaking power is that it’s efficient and impacts the whole state at once. Further, because more people follow the legislative session, the success sequence may garner more public awareness and support statewide.  

Teachers and parents 

Teachers and parents are the on-the-ground educators for any student, in reality. When it makes sense, educators can teach the facts of the success sequence to students, in age-appropriate ways. Logistics matter – which means data about the success sequence is more likely to find its way to students when curriculum and content are accessible to educators.  

There are efforts underway to make a success sequence curriculum publicly available for educators to use. Of course, educators should not be rogue operators if something prohibits teaching the curriculum within the publicly delivered system, but they could instead find state standards in which the information might fit. For parents who are home-schooling, they can consider if the success sequence is being taught implicitly through other institutions or not at all, and how to teach it to students. 

Students deserve to have access to good information that can help them improve their future lives. Teaching the facts of the success sequence to Utah students ought to be seen as a commitment to going from good to great. Advocates would do well to make sure how they accomplish that is done thoughtfully. 

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