Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Tuesday June 20 is "Meet the Governor" Day

One really cool thing about being friends with Wayne Holland (Utah's Democratic Party Chairman) is that when I'm in Salt Lake City for any number of reasons, I get to visit with Wayne Holland, and sometimes he introduces me to important people.

Yesterday, June 20, I went up to SLC to attend the Democratic Candidate Legislative Fundraiser Breakfast. I talked to several people at the breakfast, including Senator Mike Dimitrich who is from Price and who is a *really* nice guy. I also had a good conversation with Pat Jones and Carol Spackman-Moss, who are *both* classy women whom I admire.

After the breakfast, Wayne Holland asked me if I wanted to go a swearing in ceremony for Darcy Dixon Pignanelli, who is a new tax commissioner for the state of Utah. I agreed, and a group of us headed for the ceremony. After the ceremony, Wayne introduced me to Darcy, who congratulated me on my bid for political office. Right after that, I was introduced to Mayor Dan Snarr, Mayor of Murray, Utah. We had a wonderful conversation about how hard it is to run as a Democrat in such a "red" state, but he congratulated me and said that it sometimes is harder to stick to your guns and stay with your convictions - a lesser person would have registered as a Republican to ensure political clout and a win. He said that no matter what, Doing What's Right is indicative of a strong character and he was happy that I had done the right thing. These conversations are *always* inspiring to me. Mayor Snarr is also Trisha Beck's brother - Trisha is running for Senate District 9 and was instrumental in helping me to make my decision to run for office. Great family.

Before we left, Wayne marched us right up to the front of the room, and introduced us to Governor Jon Huntsman. I have always liked Governor Huntsman, and I was not surprised that he was kind and cordial, and even wished me the best of luck in my race for Senate District 28, even as a Democrat. We had a nice 90 second chat and the governor was on his way.

All in all, a great day.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

What I Like Best About Utah

I just read a great article in the Deseret Morning News which reports that Utahns of all ages volunteer their time more than the residents of any other state. This speaks volumes about the character of people who live here, and just goes to show that Utah is filled with good people who are working hard to make a difference in the lives of others. In this day of "what's in it for me" it is good to know that Utahns want to give their time and energy to worthy things.

I, too, was raised in this tradition of volunteerism and spirit of giving back to my community. I remember when I was 12, there was an outbreak of Fruit Flies in the Bay Area. I remember the newscasts "The Fruit Flies are Coming!" and the experts were urging all residents to pick the fruit so that it would not go to waste and also so that it would somehow encourage the fruit flies to "move along." We lived in an area known for its *great* fruit, and there were different varieties of just about every kind in just about every yard. And so, the young men and young women in my ward got together and came up with a plan to help people to pick their fruit. We spent several days in the summer going from house to house, picking fruit. We concentrated on the elderly, first, but quickly moved to other families. This was hard work! But our little group of 15 or so went along for two weeks, going from door to door, asking our neighbors if we could help them pick their fruit.

No time is better spent than that spent in the service of your fellow man. I learned this *early* in life. There is nothing better than helping someone in need. It's even better to help someone when they are least expecting it.

The other night, we were putting sod in our front yard. It was getting dark, but Mark was bound and determined to get it on the ground. And so we went for it. Within about 5 minutes, two neighbors had joined us. They brought big shop lights and their willingness to help us get a job done. Within 45 minutes, we had our entire yard completed.

We were so grateful for the help. We didn't ask for it, and we certainly didn't expect it. But our good neighbors saw that there was something to be done. They didn't ask "why" (although I'm sure they thought we were nuts to be out there at 9:30 pm laying sod) - without judgement they just came along and helped us get the job done.

This is the spirit of Utah. This is what I love about our state. We give so much to our neighbors, our churches and our communities. We understand the bigger picture of "love one another" and we get in and do hard things that are out of our comfort zone because we believe in helping each other. I'm proud to be part of that great spirit.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

No Child Left Behind -What Could Have Been

What “NCLB” *should have been*

Woulda shoulda coulda. That’s what my dad always used to tell me when I would bemoan my 20/20 hindsight. But it’s time for some thoughtful reflection on what *could have been.*

Before I launch into my diatribe about what No Child Left Behind *should* have been, it is important to understand where I am coming from. When I first heard the phrase “No Child Left Behind” I thought it was a *beautiful* concept. Without knowing anything about the legislation or how it impacted public education or even how much it would cost or who voted for it, I thought it sounded like a wonderful thing. No Child Left Behind. Every Child A Success Story. All Children Will Succeed Because of No Child Left Behind.

Now, however, after seeing NCLB at work, I don’t quite get it. In my myopic view of things, I can’t figure out how this thing is actually helping our kids succeed in school. I feel that if a kid doesn’t fit a mold or a teacher doesn’t play the game right, then some child is going to get left behind. I know kids who are not model students, and yet they are creative, talented and even intelligent people. Does NCLB have room for these kids, and does it really help them by trying to fit them into a “mold” of the ideal student? Some kids don’t test well at all. How about the teachers who are really wonderful and really talented, but who aren’t “highly qualified” by some set of standards determined by some bureaucrat somewhere? I know there are a lot of variables to this thing, and maybe there are answers to my questions, and even reasons why NCLB is a “good idea.” I’m simply saying that from my point of view, the program seems too big, too political, and too bureaucratic to actually be effective. And I *hate* standardized testing. I don’t understand how standardized tests help kids learn, especially if you’re starting out with a teacher who doesn’t know how to teach. Disclaimer – not all teachers fall into this category, but there are plenty out there with a bad attitude who are less than inspiring. I do not see one bit of evidence that teachers are any better now than they were before this whole thing got started. Because really, what we’re talking about is providing a better education for America’s kids. No Child Left Behind was supposed to do that. But all I see is “business as usual.”

So I have a better idea.

It’s time for a paradigm-shift, folks.

Utah’s Department of Child and Family Services is one place we could look to see a complete paradigm shift from “business as usual.” In 2000 DCFS introduced this really cool thing called “The Practice Model” the impetus behind it being a class action lawsuit brought against the State during 1993 that alleged Federal constitutional and statutory violations in the operation of Utah’s child welfare system. During 1994, a settlement agreement was reached that gave Utah 4 years to cure the violations, at which time the agreement would terminate. All DCFS regions, local communities, allied agency partners, parents & families in the system, and advisors from across the State were given an opportunity to submit recommendations through a series of community forums. This collaborative process for developing a new model of practice also resulted in the identification of necessary practice skills. The result of all this input resulted in “The Practice Model.”

Basically, the Practice Model resulted in a major Paradigm-Shift for Utah’s Department of Child and Family Services.
This initiative required a philosophical change from a law-based, compliance model to a social work, strengths-based model.

Changes were made in policy and practice to reflect the new model. Today, other states come to Utah, specifically the Southwest Region (that includes my home of Iron County) to learn about Utah's Practice Model - because it is working. Utah's Child Welfare system has completely changed and leads the nation in returning children to their natural parents, and has the lowest incidence of repeats into the system. Translation: Kids aren't removed from homes for insignificant reasons, Kids who are removed are returning home sooner, and kids who really can't go home are placed in permanent homes faster. The system *changed* and Utah has rewritten the way Child Welfare must do business.

So, where am I going with all of this and what in the world does it have to do with NCLB?

In my view, NCLB should have been a “Practice Model” - the ideal that all schools should strive for. And instead of forcing all US schools to adopt its policies *or else*, it would have been far more effective to call it an “initiative” that school districts could buy into.
It could have been a training program, developed to help local school districts produce teachers and administrators who are the *Best* of the best, or the “wave of the future” – instead of mandating testing, it could have provided educators with an opportunity to learn about how to really teach kids, be trained by the best of the best in things that work and things that don’t, with the end result being that kids retain more information and do better and become better citizens.

As a nation, we could have developed a brain trust to learn about what is working in countries like Finland, considered to produce
the smartest children in the world, and draw on their strengths and learn from what they already know. Their emphasis is *completely* different. NCLB *could have been* an opportunity for us to really change focus and try something new.

The beautiful thing about what *could have been* is it would have emphasized a total paradigm shift in how educators help kids to learn.
What *could have been* is an opportunity for parents to be involved by providing input to the NCLB drafters – because I think parents are the only experts when it comes to their children. NCLB *could have been* America’s next “Brave new Frontier” – where we could have been pioneers, paving the way, and setting the new standard in how kids are taught and how they learn.

Instead we have a federal program that requires school districts and state legislatures to jump through hoops in order to keep their funding.

And I can tell you first hand that this is not working.

The worst part is that we're stuck with this NCLB thing, more pressure is being put on school districts, students, parents (as if we don't worry our kids enough) - and nothing has really *changed* about how we educate kids.

I say it is time for Utah Educators to develop a new practice model. We need a paradigm shift. I truly believe that people who really want to become educators have their hearts in the right place. I don't want to step on any toes here, but in my view they have all been trained in an old, antiquated system that only works some of the time, and doesn't work for every person. I like to think "outside of the box" and find creative ways to solve problems.

I like with this "Emily for Utah Senate 28" reader had to say:

"If we want educational choice, let's make ALL schools "choice" schools. We can't do this while piling the regulations on one one side of the coin while easing up on others. Let's get the federal and state governments out of the ed business so much and concentrate on local control."

I would take this to another level - that the federal and state governments should not mandate so much of what is to be done in the schools, but instead provide assistance and training to help the districts succeed at what they do best. That's what NCLB *should* have been.

In the final analysis, I say that in order to make all schools "choice schools" I think we need a paradigm shift. Let's face it - we live in a different world and everything is changing. Shouldn't we rethink the way we are teaching our kids?

Monday, June 05, 2006

Educational Choice

Today I was cruising around Blog World and found an interesting discussion regarding paying Utah teachers what they are worth. Several folks on this blog were proponents of educational choice. I did enjoy one anonymous post, where the poster said "those of us who CHOOSE to send our children to public schools would sure like to have higher confidence in our public schools again" (or something to that effect).

I have tried to understand the "school choice" argument for a long time. Since I live in Cedar City where there really aren't any viable private schools, and since SUU is the number one employer, followed by the Iron County School District, I don't see how "educational choice" would make much of a difference here.... if you believe the argument that giving parents a choice in education helps public schools to perform better, I am not so sure that Cedar City or Iron County or *any* of the counties in Senate Dist. 28 would benefit much. I don't think we have the income or the population base or the wages to put that much pressure on the public schools. If parents want to send their kids to private schools, that is absolutely their choice. Likewise, if a parent wants to homeschool their kids, that is absolutely a choice they are entitled to make.

NOW... I don't want this to spiral into a conversation about tuition tax credits and school vouchers. I have long held the idea that by giving public money to private schools, we run the risk of greater regulation of private schools. The cry of “accountability” for schools receiving “public money” would be irresistible. Also, many rural areas of our state receive absolutely no benefit from educational choice. (Panguitch comes to mind, where the population is dwindling, not growing.)

So, let's imagine that in 2007 the Utah Legislature decided to fully fund education, and that somehow they worked out their medicaid problems and were still able to provide all necessary funding for transportation. Everybody had what they needed and everybody could do what they wanted. Would this *do it* for Utah Education?

As I have said before, as a community and a state that values its children, we should make sure that Utah schools are at the top of the list and not at the bottom.

But how do we do this?

While I think we can all agree that education must be fully-funded, we also know that just throwing cash at it does not necessarily make for better education.

What to do about this paradox?

Utahns are known for being creative. We have a long history of being industrious and making the impossible happen - creating a flourishing community in the middle of the desert comes to mind.

So, with that thought, we really must get creative to make our public schools the very best that they can be. There are million and one things we could do - both at the local levels and from the legislature. We need to work in conjunction with the school boards and the Utah Educators to make sure that we are getting the best teachers around.

I still argue that you get better performance out of people who are paid better, and that the best teachers *would* stay in Utah if they were paid competitively.

(as a sidebar, I have a brother in law who will not move to Utah because he is a teacher, and he can make more money in Colorado. Doesn't matter if his whole family is here (brothers, parents, etc.), he simply won't take a pay cut. He's a pretty good teacher and football coach. But we'll never see the likes of him in these parts. ;-) )

How do we determine who are the best teachers? We can't do it based on the number of A's students get, because then teachers would just hand out A's. If we did it by test scores, there would be corruption in the testing system (as some say there is in the No Child Left Behind).

This is just food for thought. I'm open to creative and thoughtful suggestions.

There Is a Bigger Picture

I had a great weekend. Our LDS stake put on a "24 hour roadshow" - each ward had exactly 24 hours to produce a script, design costumes and sets, have rehearsals and then present a 7 minute show to the entire stake. The adults worked in the background while the youth (ages 11 and older) learned their parts and choreography.

Being the theatre nut that I am, I was one of the first to volunteer. Mark and I both jumped on the bandwagon and were anxious to get involved and make it a fun experience for *everybody* involved. Our 14 year old son, Chas, also was excited about having a part and putting on the skit.

Our little committee gathered together on Friday night and we quickly decided on a "Napoleon Dynamite" spoof. With the help of two fantastic women, Chas and I wrote the script. The next morning we all met at the church and the hard work began. We have the best youth in our stake! They did a great job, jumped in with full enthusiasm, and by the time we had presented our roadshow on Saturday night, they were all theatre pros! The best part was that our ward won two awards.

Even though it was fun to get to know these kids and to watch them enjoy themselves so much, there is always a bigger picture. It was great to see them *work together* to create a final product. Even though we threw this script at them and some of them felt totally out of their comfort zone, it was *wonderful* when one of them had an idea to make something work better. They worked together to solve problems and make for a great final product. We didn't have any fighting or jealousy, and nobody tried to upstage anybody else. They just took on their responsibilities and WENT for it.

I decided that this is how life should be. Sometimes we get so caught up in life that we forget the bigger picture. We're all in this together, and no matter how "out of our zone" we feel, it is important to work together to solve problems. For example, in my little family it is great when we all get together and work on a project - the end result is so much more meaningful, because we all play an important part in the process.

There is a bigger picture. We're all in this together. Fighting and standing on our own side doesn't get us anywhere. We should try to think outside of the box and try new things. We should work hard to make sure we're pulling our weight. When we all work together, great things happen.