“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
When I was first elected to the school board in another state, I spent significant time shadowing principals and teachers in an effort to best understand what things most impacted student learning. What I discovered surprised me. Each member of the school board was sincere in their efforts to propel the success of schools.
But we as a board focused on those things that we understood rather than on those things that mattered most. In doing so, we — the board — were the single biggest obstacle to improving student learning. Each time we spent hours debating insignificant issues, albeit in a genuine effort to be helpful, we distracted our district leadership and our principals; thus preventing them from focusing on implementing critical reform.
Realizing this, we had a large banner placed at the back of the board room that we all looked at during meetings. It stated, “We decide the what, not the how.” As a board, we defined a set of rigorous goals for the schools and, to the best of our ability, a series of measurements in order to constantly monitor the schools’ progress toward those goals. We then empowered district leadership and principals to develop a roadmap to achieve those objectives. Our meetings singularly focused on those goals and the progress we were making toward accomplishing them.
As a board, we resisted the temptation to delve into the minutia. Principals began to more earnestly share best practices with one another and professional development targeted approaches that would help our students achieve at a higher level in the classroom.
Within a few years, we had made significant strides in achieving valuable goals, such as every third-grader reading at grade-level and 80 percent of our eighth-graders successfully completing algebra and biology. We tracked progress in mastering basic skills at each grade-level, which ultimately allowed us to significantly elevate the standards for a high school diploma within the district.
The results in four short years were incredible. With considerable public support, we passed an increased funding mechanism because the public knew the additional funds would go toward achieving measurable and critically-important goals. And our district was recognized throughout the state for the progress we had made at substantively increasing the number of high school graduates that attended college.
With that backdrop, I was disappointed this most recent legislative session as more than 80 different bills were introduced during the session to micro-manage our schools. And on several occasions, caucus meetings were monopolized by a legislator pontificating on laws that should be introduced to prevent the communization of the Alpine School District.
Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice recently emphasized “our greatest national security threat might just be the disastrous state of our K-12 education system.” Despite the vital importance of education, our legislators are mired in the minutia. That which matters most is being sacrificed for things that matter least. We have no statewide strategic plan for education and we have minimal measurements to understand how our students are performing or to determine whether or not we are making meaningful progress.
Our students deserve better.
Utah’s Legislature, in coordination with the state Board of Education, must define statewide objectives for public education and then create a system to help our schools accomplish those goals. They should establish meaningful measurement mechanisms with defined milestones at each grade level in order to assess our progress toward the learning objectives. And our Legislature must then become vocal advocates of public education and our schools’ need to achieve those clearly defined and rigorous goals.
When the public is confident in the strategic plan and in the leadership our schools are receiving, they will enthusiastically fund initiatives that are directly correlated to improvements in student learning. Nothing is more important to our state and therefore nothing else should interfere with this being the focus of Utah’s Legislature.
This post is part of an ongoing series of data-driven commentary on current events. It was originally published in the Deseret News.