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Randy Shumway: Legislature should empower educators to excel

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 8 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

The Legislature has the responsibility to define, to assess and to fund learning outcomes. Educators must then be empowered and held accountable for developing and implementing the priorities that will achieve the specified results.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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One of the most difficult challenges for virtually any leader is effectively understanding and fulfilling his/her role. When individuals overstep their role, no matter how well-intentioned, there are frequently unexpected consequences.

All of us have seen this philosophy in action. Parents who solve all of their children's problems run the risk of raising overly dependent children. Leaders that micro-manage an organization often create a culture that relies on them to constantly make insignificant decisions.

Effective leaders understand how to focus exclusively on that which they do best while empowering and delegating as much as possible to others — thus creating many independent and capable individuals within their organization. This process is not only more fulfilling for all involved, but also it ensures greater innovation and improved efficiencies.

Today, Utah's Legislature often tasks itself with rendering pedantic decisions within public and higher education — deciding what granular programs to fund and which ones to cut. In this environment, educators are constantly in justification mode, trying to demonstrate the value of their current and proposed programs. Teachers, taxpayers, students and parents subsequently pay the price for a system that is inefficient and ineffective.

No one, in particular, is to blame. Utah is appropriately ranked the best-managed state in the country. And we have an incredible set of educators. This system is simply a reflection of how the relationship between education and state legislatures has evolved in virtually every state.

But Utah can and should do better.

In my last column, I suggested that our state is at a critical juncture. We absolutely must improve the quality and relevance of learning for all our students. Today, more than ever, K-12 and higher education must be our Legislature's number one priority.

The place to start is in better defining the role of the Legislature (or, perhaps more importantly, what the role of the Legislature is not). The Legislature has the responsibility to define, to assess and to fund learning outcomes. Educators must then be empowered and held accountable for developing and implementing the priorities that will achieve the specified results.

Several years ago, while serving on the school board, I was approached by a number of well-intentioned friends who were discouraged when a mutual friend was not interviewed for an elementary school teaching job within our district. I, too, thought this individual would make a great teacher. But I recognized that my role on the board was to hold the superintendent accountable for improving student learning, and his role was to support, coach and hold the principals accountable for the specific progress toward those goals within their schools. If I were to undermine the principals and manipulate the inputs (e.g., tell them who to hire), I could no longer hold them responsible for the outputs (e.g., achieving critical improvements in student learning).

My hope in our upcoming legislative session is that our elected officials focus exclusively on requiring our state's educators to present strategic plans in accordance with well-defined, measurable goals. Once the objectives are agreed-upon, mechanisms to constantly assess and report progress should be instituted. And the state's funding model must reward the desired outcomes.

In this model, our Legislature will focus on that which they do best — providing strategic vision and ensuring optimal return on investment for taxpayer dollars — rather than evaluating specific programs and priorities with which they may have limited experience or exposure.

In this way, our educators will genuinely be empowered to design the structure and programs that will ensure maximum progress in student learning.

The process will require mutual restraint as well as respect for one another's role, but best practices in organizational management have demonstrated the tremendous results of such strategic goal-setting and empowerment. And nowhere are the stakes greater, and therefore our very best methods needed, than in education.

Randy Shumway is chief executive officer of the Cicero Group.

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