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Today's schools need 'front-line' educators

I think legislators sometimes take a bum rap for our faltering schools. How come so few people seem to go to the Utah State Board of Education for help? It's in charge of education.

Recently, a legislative committee heard from a principal making a plea for a law to require that failing students be held back. One legislator asked why the principal didn't ask his local school board to solve the problem. His reply, in essence, was that the local board did not want to take heat from the parents.

Why didn't the principal go to the State Board of Education to solve the problem?

Under the state constitution, "The general control and supervision of the public education system shall be vested in a State Board of Education." (Article X, Sec. 3); yet, it often appears to let legislators take the heat for problems it should solve. And when pressed to solve a problem, the usual response is that solutions will take more money. As one teacher wrote: "We have a bureaucracy called the public school system, which is failing. Since time began, our nation keeps pumping money into the system, and it is still a failure. Our teachers union wants no change, only the status quo." What front-line teachers want is a supportive environment where they are valued so they can motivate students to love learning.

Changing the environment will require structural changes. Before globalization, corporations paid well for less-skilled jobs and had layers of managers. After globalization, in order to compete, the successful ones restructured. They downsized and eliminated the layers of mid-managers and quality control people. They realized they had to get it right the first time and gave their front-line workers the resources and the power to make decisions so they could deliver a quality, on-time product. The ones who didn't change are long gone.

If you want to make schools productive, start with the teacher pay structure. Teachers love to teach; yet the only way they can get more money is to wait in line to become an administrator. And that's why there are layers of administrators like the ones the private sector had before competition forced them to change. Instead of good teachers becoming administrators to make more money, why not create different levels of teacher pay and compensate according to skills, effort and responsibility to do a particular job? Teacher seat-time should not be the main factor determining pay.

Teachers often feel principals fail to support them from unwarranted complaints and from myriad rules the front office has added onto the ones from the state. And, though principals are responsible to manage their schools, they still have to deal with the area managers who do "quality control" and program specialists who run projects from the district or state offices. Principals and front-line teachers don't need mentors. They need leaders who can set realistic expectations, rather than being preoccupied with "accountability" and data that go into the "data warehouse."

Such a frenetic, production-line teaching environment makes teachers' claims about an oppressive and unsupported workplace ring true. It is hardly a place where teachers want to come with the most important thing they bring to students — the love of learning. In the meantime, the state and local school boards seem to ignore teachers' pleas and insulate themselves from public criticism by stonewalling. School board members attend workshops where they are taught to get along and not "rock the boat." Is it any wonder people turn to legislators rather than their elected school board leaders for solutions?

The Board of Education ought to exercise leadership in carrying out its constitutional responsibility for improving the state's education system, rather than relinquishing it to the Legislature. At a time when our students have to compete with those from other nations, the board should stop trying to fix an outdated system. It first ought to take time to understand how the world has changed and renew the state's education mission to meet the new problems and prepare students to succeed in that changing world. It will require the board to restructure the system so it is able to support front-line teachers in creating an environment where they can use their creativity in challenging students to be life-long learners. That being a given, the board should make the love of learning education's bottom-line for each student.

Institutions change when leadership comes alive. The Utah State Board of Education will have to face the naysayers and the special interest groups, but doing the same thing is not an option.

Utah native John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations, served on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch and on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards. He also has been deputy assistant secretary of labor. E-mail: