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John Florez: Faith can move education forward

State School Board Superintendent Brad Smith said “it is to have faith … that we can change this very big, very complex system in a way that benefits our kids." Here are some ways that faith by Smith can help Utah's public education.
State School Board Superintendent Brad Smith said “it is to have faith … that we can change this very big, very complex system in a way that benefits our kids." Here are some ways that faith by Smith can help Utah's public education.
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Mark Twain once said, “There are those who scoff at the school boy, calling him frivolous and shallow. Yet it was the school boy who said, 'Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.’”

But Utah’s State School Board Superintendent Brad Smith has a different take about faith and education. “It is to have faith … that we can change this very big, very complex system in a way that benefits our kids," he said.

Smith must have faith if he believes this can be done; but he has to keep away the state Legislature that is constantly disrupting education — changing requirements and laws — as well as the governor and employers who add to the confusion with another 10-year plan.

Note the superintendent said “to benefit our kids” — not simply Utah’s workforce, as the governor and Legislature keep pushing. Smith is right. The world is changing exponentially, and the jobs 10 years from now have not yet been created. We have allowed our policies to lag behind our changing world. Who knows if 10 years from now today’s STEM learning will be outdated, as our economy, societal and technology needs change. Many new jobs have not yet been invented, so maybe we are measuring the wrong things — testing, more money and teacher accountability.

According to Fareed Zakaria’s new book, “In Defense of a Liberal Education,” the U.S. spends more money per capita on education than most countries, yet scores poorly on international tests with its peers (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development 2012 study). Yet, in spite of these poor scores, the United States “has dominated the world of science, technology, research and innovation” since 1964, when the test was first given. Zakaria does not view these test scores as “good predictors of our national success.”

The superintendent is right in making student learning outcomes a priority, instead of how much money we spend. And legislators should leave him and the state board alone to create a vision and a plan to carry it out, in keeping with the board’s mandate. Outcomes ought to be measured by what happens to students when they leave school, when they go on to higher education or go on to work.

Smith might start by having faith and trust in his teachers and staff. Successful leaders, as former Motorola Chairman Robert W. Galvan suggested, “must have the courage to take a risk and believe in the abilities of the people in their organization. … Leaders must establish an environment in which workers feel respected and valued.”

While today the focus is on STEM, students for tomorrow must also be constant learners, able to imagine, innovate, create and communicate with others. They will be changing jobs frequently to keep pace with change. That will require an educational environment that promotes risk-taking, failure and a thirst for learning. Smith will have to have faith and create an environment where teachers are eager to come ready to cultivate the natural curiosity all children are born with.

If Smith wants to change the system, he ought to first downsize the structure with less overhead costs. Next is to have faith in local school districts by establishing an office that writes performance contracts for them, monitors them for performance, provides incentives and cancel contracts for nonperformance. This allows school districts the flexibility to customize education for their students, giving them local control. His main challenge will be to protect his employees from constant interference by lawmakers.

Smith may find that faith and trust in his employees can, indeed, move the system.

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