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Few recognize that what is truly needed is not the destruction of public education, but the transformation of public education. With an eye toward individualization, every kid down every street in America should have the opportunity to learn in a way that unlocks his or her potential.

Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.

Boyd Matheson: Public education remains a major concern for the vast majority of Americans. Some call for massive federal investments, others for strict local control. Few recognize that what is truly needed is not the destruction of public education, but the transformation of public education with an eye toward individualization. Every kid down every street in America should have the opportunity to learn in a way that unlocks his or her potential. A discussion on the future of education on this episode of Therefore, What?

Therefore, What? is a weekly podcast that breaks down the news while breaking down barriers, challenges you and the status quo, explores timely topics and timeless principles and leaves you confident to face what's next. I'm Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News and this is Therefore, What?

Christine Cook is the director of education policy at Sutherland Institute. She worked as an English teacher at a public school and in a residential treatment center prior to becoming an attorney. Christine, I always appreciate your view on education. Thanks for joining us on Therefore, What?

Christine Cook: Boyd, thanks for having me.

BM: All right, so the big battle always is about dollars and cents, it seems like, and whether that's happening at a state level or at the national level, everyone's saying more money, more money, more money. What do you say?

CC: Yeah, I think that education should focus more on ideas than just money. And you're exactly right, especially in Utah, we high center on funds. We often talk about per pupil spending as if it's the most important metric. And we know that actually, there's not a strong correlation at all, if any, between per pupil spending and student outcomes. So really part of my effort is to refocus the conversation on ideas and really kind of pushing us to be a little bit more creative in the policy space so that we're meeting students needs.

BM: It seems to me like we do this per pupil spending, how many kids are in the classroom and we're spending a lot of time on the sort of the checklist items, the butts in seat category. How much time are they spending in the seat in the classroom? You know, what are the teachers doing? What are the buildings like, you know, all of those kinds of things that seem to be light years away from, what does this student need? How can we best meet the needs of each of the students?

CC: Exactly. And I mean, so there has been a shift from sort of an inputs conversation to an outcomes conversation, and that really is the right one to have. An outcome is that each student has access to whatever education makes sense for them, that they can reach their God-given potential. In every student out there is really an individual first that has unique strengths, weaknesses, callings in life and that ought to be the aim of whatever we do in public education.

BM: I remember hearing one time, and we've talked about this in the past, about this old model of treating everyone the same, teaching to the average or teaching to the lowest common denominator. The old story of the Air Force pilots and how they took the measurements of all the pilots in the Air Force, and then they built this new aircraft to those dimensions, only to see that the performance was down. There was no accountability. There was all kinds of frustration from the people who were learning how to fly, from the instructors, from the administrators. And of course what they realized was there was no average size, nobody matched the average.

And we see that in education as well. There is no average student. So how do we not teach to the average? How do we teach to the uniqueness?

CC: And I think that it's important to recognize, I think a lot of teachers inherently understand that. They do recognize because they are on the ground, in the trenches with the students. They see those unique gifts and talents and interests. So often, though, I think that the system does kind of hold us back a little bit. We really are aimed at meeting everyone's needs in sort of a general sense, you know, kind of this average that you're discussing. So I think part of the problem is that we need to allow space for innovation in public education.

BM: It's really interesting to me. I think you hit this right on Christine in saying that the teachers do inherently get it, that's why they are a teacher, to make a difference for an individual child, and so often we put so many barriers in the way to them actually doing that as opposed to teaching to a test or, you know, doing all of the checklist kinds of things. And I think our teachers do an amazing job.

I remember seeing a sign in the teachers lounge once that said, "we the overworked and underpaid have done so much for so long. For we've taught the unwilling for the uncaring for the unlearned for so long that we we now believe we can do absolutely anything but nothing." And I think that's a lot of times how our teachers feel, but they do have that natural instinct that there is a better way to do this.

CC: Absolutely. And, you know, honestly, Utah is moving forward in some important ways, with something called competency-based education. Sometimes states will call it mastery-based education that really is switching from seat time and attendance, to what you know. So rather than getting credit for sitting in a semester for three and a half months, you get credit as soon as you can demonstrate that you understand that concept. So that does allow some students to zoom through, and perhaps that's the right thing for them, let them continue on. And others that might mean that they need to stay with something for a little longer before they understand it. And that honestly is a better approach rather than slapping a C or D on that person's transcript and moving them on. What does that signify to anyone?

BM: Yeah, that's an interesting concept. We're so quick to slap a letter grade because of really an artificial time constraint. When you look at the life of an individual or even if you just look at their career in the workforce, you know, just because it took them an extra three months to figure out calculus or how to diagram a sentence that shouldn't follow them for the rest of their lives.

CC: Yeah, absolutely. And this conversation about competency-based is actually bleeding over into even licensing. Rather than saying, OK, once you have 1,000 hours in this profession, then you're good to go. We're saying, hey, if you can demonstrate competency before then, so be it. If it takes more than 1,000 hours, we've ought to wait before you're out there practicing that service for somebody. So I think that it's the right conversation to have. And again, we're focusing on the individual, what they need and what they're able to do.

BM: I think you also raised an important point, Christine, when you talk about what is the best path for the student. I know we have a lot of great innovation in higher education here in the state of Utah. Utah Valley does some very unique things in terms of having both the traditional curriculum but also having the vocational piece to it. What else are you seeing or what are you hoping that can be done to help students prepare to maximize whatever learning path they choose?

CC: I think choice really ought to be at the center of all these discussions, right? So if you really do believe that everybody's unique, then you need to give them as many options as possible. So actually, in a lot of ways higher ed is kind of leading this charge. Western Governors University is a fully competency-based approach to higher ed. I think there's a really important discussion happening right now in the legislative session about apprenticeships. Rep. Mike Winder is actually running a bill that would create a commissioner over apprenticeships. So we have a commissioner over higher ed, a commissioner over u-tech. So this kind of technical vocational space which does often include apprenticeships, but just a very small percentage. So what this would do is create a commissioner role for apprenticeships and really kind of giving some credibility to that path and saying, Hey, you know, there are multiple pathways to career readiness rather than just a college degree.

BM: Yeah, I love the idea of the apprenticeship programs. I think that's such a lost thing in our society today. And there are so many who would benefit. I actually remember Sen. Mike Lee talking to people who were about ready to graduate law school and I'll never forget. We're down at BYU and this student who had you know, taken the bar and was already sworn in and he was so proud. And so he stands up, and he asked Sen. Lee a question. So what is the advice? I'm just graduating, I'm just ready to go, what should I be ready for? And Sen. Lee paused for a moment, and he said, What you need to know is that all of your schooling and all of your law school hours, and taking all of these tests, that prepares you to become a really good apprentice at a law firm. And this poor kid was just so deflated. But then he realized that was an important message, that it wasn't just the learning that took place in the classroom and on campus. And in the library. It was going to be what he continued to learn, this lifelong learning is really the test.

And sometimes I wonder, Christine, are we really teeing people up for lifelong learning? Or are we just getting them to the end of the high school checklist or the college checklist? And so we can say, here's your degree, you know, go forth. You're on your own. Send us a postcard.

CC: Yeah, I hope that we're able to do both. But really, I think a skill set we are teaching is sort of a checklist mentality. To the point about law school, because I've had this experience, I have seen that it's very true. You get done and you really don't have that skills base that you need to actually go be a practicing lawyer, which is why a lot of states including Utah have created this mandatory mentoring component now. So as soon as you get licensed you have to work with an attorney for a year, and so that idea of working with a mentor, having sort of that apprenticeship type of relationship, I think people are starting to recognize that's what you really need. People need that one-on-one learning. They need the question-answer, the instant feedback rather than just taking the test because the bar exam really doesn't show that you're going to be a good lawyer, necessarily, but you do need that relationship piece as well.

BM: So how do we juggle all of that? You mentioned Western Governors University and the great work that Scott Pulsipher is doing over there to again, do things in innovative ways. What other innovations are you seeing? Because I know that there are a ton of teachers out there and administrators as well who are doing very creative things probably under the radar or off the grid. But what else do you see out there in terms of what some good innovation that's happening in education?

CC: I think that actually what's happening in the legislature right now, there's a bill called scholarships for special needs students. And it really is this idea that's starting to grow, that you can let students have kind of an à la carte version of education. So this bill in particular would allow students to access a scholarship funded through private donations of individuals or corporations who get a tax credit for doing so. And through that scholarship, they can purchase a wide range of educational options. So it could be private school tuition, it could be textbooks, it could be educational therapy, special needs therapies, it could be norm-referenced exams, whatever that would look like. So this shift of saying, Hey, whatever the student needs, let them purchase that or access that I think is the right model that we need to go towards and I think more and more people are having this conversation because they realized that it is what's necessary.

BM: I know you've done some work and some research down in Arizona with some of the unique things that are happening. I was down in Arizona last week. And Gov. Rob Ducey is really leading some fascinating innovation there in Arizona. Tell us some of your experience there had to mostly do with special needs students, but some great ideas and some great outcomes.

CC: Arizona has a program called the empowerment scholarship account program. And so the general policy that this is called an educational savings account. We're not talking about 529 OK. This is a K through 12, fully funded by the state server program. And what they do instead of sending the funds that would normally go to that student's school, their district design school, it goes into an account and the parents can then use those funds to purchase a range of state-approved list of educational products, services, programs, whatever. So Arizona was the very first to adopt this policy, there are six states that have it. Utah does not have something that I think Utah should adopt eventually. But it allowed these families, and I saw four or five different families, how it changed their life, how it changed their family's life.

As you mentioned, we met several that had special needs students, and it allowed them to do small things that the parents are so excited about, write their name, count to 10, speak, you know, we actually met a boy who used horse therapy to gain some physical skills and that should all be part of the education if that's what he needs. Arizona's is pretty expansive. So it's not just students with special needs. They have it for students of active military parents. That's a group right there. And I'm also a military brat. My dad served in the Air Force. And so while there's some great teachers that we had access to it also some very fragmented experience. You know, you go from one school doing it a certain way to another school doing it another way. One of my siblings struggled with dyslexia. If you have a problem like that, it's really hard to get traction. That transition is really rough. So the idea there is to give this sort of a la carte version to these families as well.

Arizona also offers it to students in D and F schools. That kind of highlights the importance of being able to grade schools and see where schools are maybe deficient. Students that live on Native American reservations, just a broad range. They're really trying to find those students that we can agree, yes, they have unique needs, they deserve these kind of options. Ultimately, I believe all of us are unique enough to deserve that kind of option.

BM: Yeah, because you could see even scenarios where if you had someone who was a budding concert pianist, where suddenly their days are very different in terms of, you know, attending actual classes, they're off doing performances and touring and so on. But you could see the range, that it's not just about those with abilities that are challenged with. Those with great ability could also access that kind of tailoring again to help everyone maximize their potential.

CC: Absolutely. That's such a good point. Because oftentimes we do focus on those who maybe need some remediation. And absolutely, they deserve the agenda. But those who could just, you know, shoot for the stars and move forward with some unique talent, whether it's a piano or whatever. Absolutely, they should have that opportunity.

BM: Are there other areas around the country that you're seeing that are having some success in terms of innovation or some of those positive outcomes?

CC: Yes. Florida is doing something similar to what Arizona is doing, competency-based education is growing nationwide. In terms of the teacher profession, we're seeing something called opportunity culture. This exists I think largely kind of on the East Coast. But the idea here is to create career ladders within the classroom. So currently, if you're a teacher, and you want to make more money, or you want to progress somehow, typically you go into administration, right. And that's kind of a loss right. There are different skill sets from being a teacher to being kind of the administrative lead. And so a lot of people have recognized that we kind of bleed out some of the best skills over into administration and instead creating this, this sort of teacher-leader role where they can mentor other teachers that might be new or struggling, and they get extra pay for doing that. That's something that I think is growing, that conversation, how can we increase these opportunities while letting them stay in the classroom.

And so we've had some of these discussions in Utah, but I think it's definitely something to revisit.

BM: You know, being able to get a teacher to passionately teach what they love. I mean, that's the real key. And I think so often we shackle those teachers or we get them so pigeonholed, or chasing so many shiny objects. I feel for teachers because they feel like they're teaching to this test or that test or this outcome or that outcome when if they taught what they love, and probably the reason they got into teaching in the first place, that the outcomes would be better and the impact would be higher in terms of students.

I remember sitting down with David McCullough, you know, great historian, and he described this teacher, this random teacher, almost accidental teacher that just changed his world. You know, he was at Columbia. He was an English major. He hated history. I mean, think David McCullough, you know, hated history. And he walked into this class that he had to have to graduate. And it wasn't even a real teacher, it was a graduate assistant. And that graduate assistant got up and said, OK, in this history class, the thing you need to know is that I'm never going to ask you about a date, a location, an event. And David McCullough said, it was like someone just blew the windows open with fresh air. And suddenly history became not a list of dates and times and locations. But it became this never-ending source of ideas and principles to be explored. And I know that most teachers get into teaching to do that. How do we create an environment where we can get more teachers like that in more of our classrooms?

CC: Well, I mean, you hit on a couple of really interesting points there. One in that story, that professor, that teacher, wasn't necessarily on the track to become a teacher, right? Just had this God-given ability to teach. And this has actually been a discussion here in Utah, can there be multiple routes to licensure? I certainly think that there can be. I think sometimes too many come from a different background, perhaps that's where we find innovation in the teaching profession, right. They have a different take on how to train other people. And so I think that's something we need to revisit very often. I think the response there is that, you know, you need to do it one way, it maybe takes away from the other teachers. I don't think that at all, I think that reaching students is the goal of all teachers, no matter who's reaching. Yeah, and so that's kind of the way forward there.

BM: So create a different kind of abundance mentality. I think so often, administrators and teachers are all you know, it's the scarce resources, which is like grabbing on to every little possible dollar and every possible little operation that comes their way where I think there are plenty, if we just start pushing out and allowing, as you said, Christine, to let the innovation happen, especially at the local level, to let that innovation go. And of course, you can have accountability if it's not working. But having that opportunity to innovate and involve parents and do things in a different way, I think is really where we have to get.

CC: Absolutely. Another point to innovation, I think sometimes it makes people nervous, right. That term because it almost sounds like it's an experiment that we're just going to try something random, especially if you're experimenting with our kids.

So as we talked about research-based ideas, and that's valid, I want research-based ideas, but we have to recognize that there is a limitation with that, right. Research-based ideas are limited to those ideas that already exist. So we need to make space for other ideas for us to even have them out there and take a look at them as well. So I really think that just in general we need as a shift in mindset that's a little willing to look at these creative options.

BM: As we come down the homestretch, the last thing we always do on Therefore, What? is to ask, Therefore, What?

So as people have been listening here, part of my takeaway from today is that one, there are great teachers everywhere out there. We need to make sure they're empowered and have the resources to go, but that we also have to innovate and really get to that teaching to the uniqueness of the individual. Everything should be taught not to the average or to the lowest common denominator, but to the uniqueness of each child. As people have been listening Christina for the last 20 minutes. what's the takeaway? What's your Therefore, What? What do you hope people will think different? What do you hope people will do different as a result of listening to this podcast today?

CC: I hope that they'll ask for more from education. So whether you're a parent saying, Hey, what are my options? I hope that they are speaking with their administration, with their teachers. What else can I give my students? I hope they're speaking with their state legislator. I want to preach the good word about state government. Because lots of times I think people think that everything important is happening at the federal level. I work a lot in state government, you can actually have quite an impact and your voice can can actually reach more ears and have greater impact. So speak with your legislators about education policies that are coming down the pike. Have a voice. Ask for more options.

BM: All right Christine Cook, thanks so much for joining us on Therefore, What? today.

CC: Thank you. Boyd.

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