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Identify education's problems, then fix them

"I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto." Matter of fact, I don't know where in the heck we are with education today.

The education policy professionals have one view of what ails education, and teachers in the trenches have another. The scary thing is that it's the teachers that are in the students' lives everyday, and if they are not excited about being in the classroom, how can they motivate their students? You can't give from an empty cup. Somehow, the policy makers don't seem to get it.

Last week, the governor convened an education summit aimed at having participants think outside the box to improve education. Their solutions to the problem included the need for more funding, more "highly qualified teachers," higher standards, staff development and the biggie — more accountability. A top priority was "data-gathering." They never got out of the box.

By contrast, a recent Utah study on teacher supply and demand revealed we do not have a teacher shortage, rather a retention problem. The study found people were no longer rushing to the profession and many were eager to jump ship. Several teachers wrote agreeing with the findings and indicated they were leaving, or had left, because of the lack of support and working conditions.

Most disheartening is that some said they are discouraging family and friends from entering the profession. As one third-grade teacher wrote, "This is my 30th year and I have discouraged four of my nieces and nephews from taking up the career . . ." A newly retired teacher, after 29 years wrote: "During my career I have seen education deteriorate as far as being a desirable career."

Teachers are no longer supported in the classroom by the parents, administrators or the Legislature. Similar comments came from other retirees. Some legislators also commented on how teachers are neglected.

There is a tendency for policy makers to dismiss teacher complaints as sour grapes because of the low wages they feel the Legislature gives out. But, the teachers are not complaining about the money — they are talking about the work environment.

The disparity between what policy makers and line workers see as the problem is the problem. How you define a problem defines the solution. Each group sees it with their own eyes.

America is in danger of losing its position as a world power because of its faltering education system. Yet, our leaders continue to select the usual interest groups (the "stakeholders") to make decisions, thus assuring the status quo. Globalization requires fresh thinking. To do nothing is to relegate our nation to a third-rate status. Our educational system is outdated and the quality of life we have enjoyed is no longer a given. Leaders must act in our national interest. Doing nothing should not be an option.

Make no mistake — doing the same thing while giving token platitudes to dedicated teachers and then treating them as though we are doing them a favor, is demeaning. It contaminates the learning environment and takes away the passion and energy teachers want and need to excite students about learning. Tom Friedman has pointed out that, instead of seeking teachers who are experts in a subject, one should seek out teachers that teach students the love of learning. That is a "highly qualified" teacher.

The renewing of education starts with a clear understanding of the problems our state faces in today's environment, not yesterday's; it requires leaders who can articulate and ensure all understand the problem and can provide a vision and invite all to share in offering solutions as to how to make it a reality. Leaders must then be clear on what needs to be accomplished, and trust in their people's talent to carry out the shared vision. Most important, leaders must create an environment that promotes risk-taking.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., at the summit, pointed out how the world has changed, what challenges we face and why we need to change. He set forth the vision for education — a world-class education for our students. The session, however, quickly skipped to a host of unrelated solutions without an understanding of the problems facing the state and how to restructure education so it is responsive to changes in today's global economy.

I just wonder if we had different eyes — line workers and customers — helping to understand the problem, maybe more out-of-the-box solutions would emerge. All too often, we have solutions looking for a problem. Maybe if we all agreed on the problem to be solved, who knows, we might reignite the passion teachers bring to students eager to be challenged.

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: