In our opinion: Rethinking education

Published: Sunday, Oct. 16 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

Students flood the sidewalks during a passing period on BYU-Idaho's campus, Sept. 13, 2010.

Doug Mckay

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This past week, Gov. Gary Herbert made a live address to Utah's high school students emphasizing the importance of obtaining higher education, and Utah State Superintendent Larry Shumway spoke directly to the state of Utah's schools.

While Herbert touted the importance of education for life-long prosperity, Shumway lamented declines in funding for education, citing a Utah Foundation study showing that the proportion of Utahns' personal income directed toward public education in the form of tax revenue has declined. According to the report in 1992, Utah ranked eighth in the nation in that measure. By 2009, Utah had fallen to 26th.

The Deseret News has chosen excellence in education and financial responsibility as two of six major areas of editorial emphasis. As we consider the problematic state of contemporary educational outcomes we acknowledge that these two values — excellence in education and financial responsibility — could come into conflict. We also have to acknowledge that funding levels could be seen as a method of assessing overall commitment to quality education.

However, we believe that the traditional script for how society discusses education is no longer useful for addressing contemporary educational challenges. The well-worn laments about lack of funds simply don't hold up to scrutiny when we see that the per pupil inflation adjusted costs for primary, secondary and higher education have grown dramatically while student performance has stagnated.

And the simplistic effort to increase diplomas, certificates and degrees fails to account for documented credential-inflation and the mismatch between degrees awarded and the skills, knowledge and know-how required in our 21st century economy and polity.

The brutal fiscal reality is that even if there were a significant reallocation of priorities within discretionary government budgets, our graying demographics, coupled with unreformed entitlement programs for the poor and the aging, will continue to place a severe budget constraint on public expenditures for education.

Given this reality — made even harsher as economic growth sputters — we are thrilled to learn about and champion educational innovations that increase performance for more students while lowering costs.

In today's Deseret News, reporters Jesse Hyde and Sara Lenz share the first of a three-part series that demonstrates how Brigham Young University-Idaho has become just such a model of innovation for higher education — increasing performance for more students while lowering costs.

Most institutions of higher learning, with the current economic headwinds, are seeking simply to stem cost increases.

But BYU-Idaho is showing that by rethinking the underlying model of education, educational institutions can make dramatic strides to increase quality without increasing costs.

We believe that there are several lessons to be learned from the BYU-Idaho experience for educational efforts at all levels. Here are some of the lessons we have gleaned from this report:

Accept the budget constraints. Frugality and modesty are virtues and often some critically important aspects of education are not expensive.

Focus resources on student learning. There is undoubtedly societal value in activities such as research, athletics and cultural arts. But these can be exaggerated in many of our institutions, and many taxpayers, students, and parents would be surprised with how little their dollars invested actually go to student learning. The primary job to be done by most schools is to help students learn so they can flourish. Budget constraints force tough choices. As schools make tough choices they should not lose sight of their primary job.

Increase utilization. The fixed costs of educational institutions should be spread as widely as possible. If one thinks creatively, both physical and human capital can be used more efficiently and intensively.

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