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John Florez: Public education needs transformation

A hird-grade teacher, left, high-fives a student during a math lesson, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013.
A hird-grade teacher, left, high-fives a student during a math lesson, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013.
Steve Ruark, Associated Press

“If you have a child entering grade school this fall, file away just one number with all those back-to-school forms: 65 percent.”

“Chances are just that good that, in spite of anything you do, little Oliver or Abigail won’t end up a doctor or lawyer — or, indeed, anything else you’ve ever heard of. … Fully 65 percent of today’s grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet,” according to an article titled Education Needs a Digital-Age Upgrade in the New York Times in 2011.

If we don’t know what kind of work our students will be doing in the future, why do business folks and politicians keep making incremental changes to education when the world is changing exponentially? We are in the midst of a digital revolution and our schools are being left behind; yet business leaders keep lulling us in to complacency with cosmetic changes. Over the past decade, the business community has proposed plans and held summits to improve education; however, many of their solutions are the same ideas they take from the professional experts that have benefited by keeping the same system.

What we need is a transformation, if not a revolution in education. If our business leaders are serious about educating our children, they must look beyond their workforce and act to educate all children to thrive in the unknown world they will inherit. We need business leaders who have the courage to spend the same political capital on education that they have spent in making Utah a top business-friendly state — deregulate education. They should lobby legislators to create a stable, predictable and politically regulatory-free environment for education; otherwise, lawmakers will continue to stifle education with their yearly dozen laws, the latest fads and unproductive data gathering.

Business, legislators and the governor should give the needed support and resources to the Utah State Board of Education that is constitutionally responsible for public education, instead of undermining it and leaving education rudderless. They may be well intentioned, but they are blurring accountability in the system when they keep starting rogue commissions, task forces, summits and committees. This leaves public education in constant chaos, creating an oppressive, overregulated, unstable and toxic work and learning environment.

The problem with education is a structural one where no one is accountable for the failure or success of education. Only when the board declares its constitutional powers, and our elected leaders honor the important role the board has in educating our students, will we transform education for the 21st century. With a free-market environment, the board would be free to create schools that prepare students with skills needed to thrive in an ever-changing world — curiosity, imagination, creativity and innovation — the innate talents all children are born with. We must cultivate a culture in our schools that nurtures those talents, life-long learning and risking failure. That’s over and above STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

With new board leadership and a new superintendent, we have a window of opportunity to transform public education for the 21st century by creating a vision. It will take support from our elected leaders, business and citizens overall. What’s at stake is the future of our children. Great societies succeed when their leaders create a vision of what they ought to become and do it with confidence.

If Utah parents knew their child could be one of the 65 percenters sitting in today’s classrooms learning skills for jobs that may no longer exist, they would demand change.

Utah native John Florez served on the U.S. Senate Labor Committee and as Utah industrial commissioner. His White House appointments included deputy assistant secretary of labor and Commission on Hispanic Education member. Email: jdflorez@comcast.net