I was ecstatic this year when I discovered my son Tyler would have one of the best teachers with whom I’ve ever interacted as his 2nd-grade teacher. That enthusiasm was slightly muted, though, when I remembered that he, like most 2nd- and 3rd-graders throughout the state, will spend hundreds of hours this year learning the arguably ancient art of cursive. I’ll confess that as I watch the enthusiasm and ease of learning our children have toward science, reading, technology and foreign languages, I wonder how spending such time honing the craft of cursive writing will contribute to the skill development necessary to succeed in the 21st century.
Would that time be more effectively spent looking through the lens of a microscope, developing creativity through writing, or using innovative thinking to solve a math problem?
The answer is that it depends — it depends on the desired outcomes of our school system and the sad truth is that despite our state and local governments spending billions this year on public education, there is a conspicuous absence of a unified strategic plan. What are the desired learning outcomes of our graduates and what are the most important skills for them to develop to ensure knowledge acquisition, global competitiveness and optimal employment? In short, what is the purpose of public education in Utah?
When Alice finds herself without a clear destination in her wanderings through Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat wisely informs her that “it doesn’t matter which way you go” if you don’t know where you’re going. Much like Alice, the state of public education lacks a clearly defined destination, the result of which creates an educational system that remains fragmented; each unique and even well-intentioned silo trying the newest flavor of reform without a consistent and clear ultimate objective.
Passionate and committed stakeholders — including teachers, parents, business leaders and elected officials — agree on the value of education and the need for our children to be high performers. However, without a shared and defined vision, these invested parties debate and pursue different solutions, a practice that expends time, energy and resources. A unified strategic plan that identifies shared objectives will create an environment where forces work in concert and thus where limited resources (both time and money) can be more effectively leveraged toward student achievement.
Amidst an intensifying national debate on public education, increased attention is directed at Utah’s education funding, the lowest per pupil in the United States. Again, I ask a question analogous to that of cursive — are we spending enough? Unfortunately, the answer is the same – it depends.
Without a clear and shared vision of specific, desired outcomes, a conversation on funding remains largely ineffective in genuinely contributing to student achievement. Likely, more funding would be helpful, but we should first ensure that money spent on education has a maximum impact on learning. A strategic plan for K-12 public education will provide a framework for making decisions on funding, supporting those objectives which best achieve desired outcomes and de-emphasizing those which do not. And the development of a strategic plan must identify specific, quantifiable milestones — for example, reading on grade level by the third grade — that demonstrate progress towards the desired objective along the way.
Without a strategic plan guiding decision-making in education throughout the state of Utah, I am unable to determine whether my son Tyler’s time spent on cursive fits into what should be the larger and more ambitious goals our education system must have for him.
Through the coming months this column will address specific ideas for a strategic plan supported by clearly identified milestones to help Utah best support effective education. My hope is simply to ensure the time our children spend in the classroom best positions them for future success.
The value of education cannot be understated. Economically and socially it directly contributes to the future vitality of the state of Utah, as well as the nation. Without a clear destination, education follows the same uncertain path of Alice. Consequently, we will continue to blindly allocate the precious resources of time and money spent by our teachers, parents and legislators. As a state, we must create a unified strategic plan that guides decision-making and funding for education reforms, ensuring our efforts, passion and commitment to the students of Utah translate to meaningful support for student learning and achievement.
This post is part of an ongoing series of data-driven commentary on current events. It was originally published in the Deseret News.