I grew up hiking, climbing, biking and skiing in our incredible mountains here in Utah. I have learned and relearned three important lessons:

  1. When climbing a mountain, you must be steadfast in your goal to actually reach the summit.
  2. You must have a detailed plan with milestones and waypoints.
  3. There are many paths that lead to the top of the mountain, but choosing the best path and staying on it is imperative.

In addition to my experience in running economic development for the state, I have been involved in and committed to education throughout my life. There have been numerous disparate education studies and plans, including many that measure Utah’s current education status and achievement in a variety of ways. A couple of conclusions jump out at me:

First, numerous people and organizations have done incredible work researching and analyzing education as well as developing and executing educational plans. The data prove that Utah generally punches above its weight in education, especially considering the amount spent per pupil and teacher pay.

We have many strong and dedicated leaders in education working hard to prepare our children and students both for life and for good jobs. Parents and families, Gov. Herbert’s Education Excellence Commission, the State Board of Education, the Utah Foundation, Envision Utah, the Gardner Policy Institute, the leaders of the Our Schools Now, teachers’ organizations, the Salt Lake Chamber and others have all done excellent work. 

Clearly, we all agree — excellence in education is of the utmost importance. Few things, if any, are more important to our families, our communities, our economy and to our future, especially in the high-tech, fast-moving society in which we live. This is even more important to our at-risk students and families.

My second conclusion is less positive. Although we understand many of the issues and have even identified a variety of solutions to the challenges, we have failed to find real consensus on our education goals, outcomes, metrics and the assessment methods. In climbing a mountain, consensus on goals, plans, milestones and waypoints (outcomes) is critical to reaching the peak. 

Specifically, we need to answer a variety of questions related to what educational excellence is and how it should be measured. Questions such as: 

Is it testing, high school graduation, ACT scores, college placement? Some combination? What combination? What is meaningful? What really makes a difference to students and families?

We rank last in the nation in per-pupil spending. Are we OK with that? Is that even a meaningful measure? What should be our goal?

Numerous education rankings exist. What rankings are really meaningful? What are our goals to achieve better rankings (if it’s important)? 

We face teacher shortages, low teacher pay, difficult teacher to pupil ratios. What should be our goals? What is optimum pay, and teacher to pupil ratios? How do we attract and maintain an outstanding teacher workforce?

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What should be our specific objectives and milestones for at-risk students?

The recent legislative audit called for by Senate President Stuart Adams offers a step in the right direction. However, we still need a real consensus approach with everyone onboard. Part of the problem is Utah’s fragmented education governance. The parents, the educators, the State School Board, the districts, the Board of Regents, the governor, the Legislature all play key roles — but the buck doesn’t really stop anywhere.

Today we need to have a moonshot. I believe that our children should receive the best education in the country — simply being above average is not good enough. 

Now is the time to agree on reaching for the top of the mountain — we are all Utahns, and working together we can indeed have the best educational outcomes in the country.

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