It is time for a revolution in education in Utah. Yes, I know. Every few years a bunch of do-gooders comes along determined to fix everything that is wrong with education. When I talk about a revolution in education, I’m not talking about fleeting movements or technical fixes. I’m talking about fundamental changes to how we view education built upon truths we’ve already learned. The kind of revolution in education I’m talking about is like the American Revolution, not the Russian or French revolutions. I’m not talking about destroying all that we’ve built that is good. I’m talking about building upon the good as we reconsider some realities that seemingly have slipped our minds.
First, we have to recognize that public education is for rising generations. It’s not for the adults – the teachers, the administrators, the parents or the policy makers. When we recognize that education is for children and youth who will soon become adults, we will see, at its most fundamental level, we’re educating rising generations to live peaceably and prosperously in a free society.
Like most revolutionary ideas, this one is radical. I would guess that the common assumption about the purpose of education today is that we educate kids for the job market. That’s not a new idea. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we have been using the public school system to prepare kids for the factories. When we understand that public education is really citizenship education we will begin to not only shape minds but also shape good character. We can’t have just a class on character education. It can’t just be some edict from the state Legislature. Character needs to be the central theme of K-12 education, regardless of the subject being taught.
Second, like governments, the best education is the one closest to the child. Parents are this nation’s first educators. Any public policies that diminish the role of parents in the education of their children need to disappear. We give lip service to this principle. We have parent-teacher associations. We have parent-teacher conferences. But these associations and meetings place parents in subservient roles. Parents are not the servants of teachers or administrators – and the reverse is true too. All of us should be united as servants of the children. If a child doesn’t have a solid home life, that child needs an angel outside of the home and policies should be developed and enacted to embrace that child.
Third, teachers should be treated as the professionals they are. Like with any profession, there will be competent and incompetent people. One smarter than the other. One easier to work with than the other. But these realities do not remove the expectation that the instruction our children receive will be professional instruction. Let people trained in the profession, do what they were trained to do. Again, if our overall educational goal is the character of the child, we won’t be so distracted with standardized testing. If you want to standardize something, standardize the nurturing of good children who will grow up to be responsible adults. Let teachers nurture these children rather than test them.
Fourth, education ought to be an all-hands-on-deck operation. If Utah classrooms are filled with too many children, find ways to reduce the burdens on the teacher and increase the opportunities for the students. We’re worried about the teacher shortage today and the state school board has come up with a reasonable solution to expand teaching opportunities to people who have subject-specific experience even if they didn’t go to teacher school and learn all of the relevant pedagogies. This policy makes a lot of sense.
But we can do even better. In addition to trying to encourage more professional teachers, why aren’t we filling our classrooms with competent teaching assistants? Teachers who have received professional teaching degrees can be the senior or master teacher in the room and receive the higher pay. But the teaching assistants can get paid too, even if a lesser salary. Again, I’m not talking about teaching assistants still in school earning their degrees, though they need experience, for sure. I’m talking about people who are already grown up who have life experience as well as subject-specific experience. If the state is going to spend more money on education, let’s give professional teachers the respect they deserve with more money and, instead of wringing our hands over a teacher shortage, start paying for teaching assistants to help cover our larger classrooms.
Lastly, a responsible revolution in education needs to be depoliticized. Counter intuitively, we can depoliticize education in Utah by putting control of public education back in the hands of public servants accountable to the people – the state Legislature. The Legislature is best equipped to keep education on mission. It is ill equipped to administer education. So the state Legislature must quit micromanaging education from on high. Ensure we stay on mission but let educational professionals do their jobs. If that requires a state constitutional change, so be it.
But no revolution takes place without first settling on the mission of public education. It can’t be all things to all people. It must settle for certain victories. It can’t shoot for everything. What we can do – all of us united…parents, teachers, administrators and policy makers – is settle on an education mission centered on the child and how that child will grow to be a responsible, decent adult living well in a free society.