Randy Shumway: Education must be Legislature's highest priority

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 25 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

The Utah State Legislature for a special session focused on congressional redistricting maps Monday, Oct. 17, 2011, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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As we encounter a range of diverse challenges in our state and country, the value of education can't be overstated. Economically and socially, education is the key to the future vitality of Utah and the nation.

The word "education" and "teachers" are rarely discussed independently from one another. This is for good reasons. Teachers are at the very heart of education. Most of us can quickly name those teachers who changed our lives for better. Our four-year-old daughter, Ellie, is named after a teacher who served as a catalyst in my wife's life. A year doesn't go by in which our family doesn't benefit from the commitment and energy of good teachers.

Research demonstrates that high quality teaching is the most important factor in boosting achievement — quality teaching is more important than class size, dollars spent per student or the quality of textbooks and course materials.

Great teachers are rightly given accolades for their efforts. But when education struggles to meet its objectives, the first reaction for some is to blame teachers. While high quality instruction is a necessity in developing an efficacious education, let's not forget the critical role of parents and the sadly, but increasingly old-fashioned concept of individual student responsibility.

All of these things taken into account, I believe the primary challenge to address in education is a system that fundamentally incentivizes the wrong outcomes. The system too often spends money in the wrong places, obstructs much-needed innovation, assesses and rewards both efforts and results incorrectly, obfuscates parental and student responsibility and increasingly diminishes the nobility of teaching.

In January, Utah will embark on a new legislative session. While many stakeholders are responsible for creating a unified strategic plan that guides decision making and funding for education improvement, our Legislature and able governor still have the greatest capacity to affect the needed changes to our system.

For this reason, I will dedicate a series of upcoming articles that will address specific legislative priorities that will establish a system focused on our ultimate desired outcomes. I will also try to pragmatically articulate specific ideas for the state to less expensively but more effectively serve Utah's students. While these recommendations will be tactical in nature, the specificity will demonstrate that innovation and improvement is not as elusive as we often assume.

I'll also propose changes in the way Utah funds education, focusing more on desired outputs than solely on inputs.

In each, I will try to weave in approaches that place increased responsibility and accountability on parents and students.

To be clear, to achieve the best policy ideas, a collaborative and respectful process is necessary. My intent in delineating a few legislative priorities is to initiate an open discussion on what it will take to improve student learning. My proposed strategies will not be the final answer. My hope is that by circumscribing several specific solutions to the challenges we face, additional and better ideas will be instigated.

Utah is at a critical juncture. We must improve the quality and relevance of learning for students. K-12 and higher education must be our Legislature's No. 1 priority.

We won't be able to solve every problem. Therefore, we must collectively focus on the few most important things, ensuring a system that will continuously assess, recalibrate and make improvements to achieve critical objectives.

Randy Shumway is chief executive officer of the Cicero Group.

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