The new leader of Utah’s education system, the fourth person to hold that job in as many years, comes to office at a tumultuous time when the challenges facing public schools are as pressing as any in recent history. Sydnee Dickson, appointed last month as superintendent of public instruction, has vast experience as both an educator and an administrator and is no doubt well grounded in the challenges facing teachers in the classroom and policymakers in the boardroom. On each level, the tasks before her are formidable.
The state is on the verge of a crisis in maintaining sufficient ranks of qualified teachers. We are also immersed in cantankerous debate over the development and use of core curriculum, and we are far from united on how best to measure classroom success through standardized testing. Her resume suggests Dickson will be adept at seeing policy through the lens of someone who has worked in the trenches. She promises to make frequent contact with teachers and students, explaining to the Deseret News, “It's really important to keep those fresh voices in my ear and see their faces. By doing that, when you engage in policy, it becomes real."
Dickson has served as deputy superintendent and as interim superintendent after her predecessor, Brad Smith, took a medical leave of absence before resigning in March. She is aware of the navigational challenges inherent in a position that must balance the interests of students and teachers with those who manage the purse strings and set policy courses for curricula and compliance. The chair behind the superintendent’s desk has always been a hot seat. As Angela Stallings, associate superintendent of policy and communication for the school board, says, “It truly is, I think, one of the most difficult public service offices in the state of Utah. Depending on the policy, the state superintendent and the state board often get the blame for anything that goes wrong, but they very rarely get the credit for anything that goes well.”
To be sure, many things are going well for Utah schools, but there are also many areas in which we struggle. Growth in enrollment continues to put pressure on budgets, and a high rate of attrition among teachers brings its own array of challenges. How that problem is addressed will go a long way in determining whether we can assure present and future students a quality education. As Dickson takes the reins, we are confident in her ability to render a sober assessment of the state of our schools and to chart a course, in collaborative fashion, for the future. That will require relentless attacks on those obstacles, large and small, that hinder our ability to achieve a level of excellence in a system that now serves more than 600,000 Utah children.