Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Moving Cheese: Creating Competition In Utah's Education System

In 1998, Spencer Johnson published the book "Who Moved My Cheese?"  The book is a motivational message about adapting to survive in life that is constantly changing.  The gist of the title refers to the mice that are found in a laboratory maze looking for their cheese.  If the cheese is kept in one place in the same maze, the mice will quickly be able to find it each time they are placed in the maze.  However, if the cheese is moved, the known path to the cheese changes and must be learned anew. 

The crux of the book was that as people, when our "cheese" is moved, we have the choice of how to react.  We can cheerfully adapt and find new ways to the cheese.  Or, we can pout, sulk, and carry on with a doom and gloom attitude.  Sometimes, we find ourselves somewhere between the two.

I refer to this book because of an experience I had recently with some of my colleagues discussing education.  We recently had an opportunity to meet with the stakeholders and parents involved is several Weber County Public Charter Schools.  During this discussion we were able to address some of the issues challenging Public Charter Schools.  However, the most poignant comments were regarding the purpose of Public Charter Schools existence.

In essence, my colleagues who were present at the meeting view Public Charter Schools as a competitive force in the marketplace of education.  Historically, according to my colleagues, efforts to reform the traditional public education system have been too difficult to achieve in a significant way.  Much of this has to do with a giant existing bureaucracy that consumes half of our state budget.  So, rather that try to change the traditional public school system from within, the Legislature has chosen to support a path that creates forces outside of the traditional system to spur competition between the two.  Thus, the Legislature has "moved the cheese" of the entire public education system. (Note: This is not the same as the press' regular accusations of the Legislature "cutting the cheese".  Different issue.)

A most recent example of how this competitive force works is through a recently passed bill that supports online education.  SB65 allowed tax credits to be paid to vendors providing online classes.  Although the legislation will be refined this year, it has had a curious effect already.  Some, traditional school districts are looking to provide their own online classes in order to capture those tax credits.  This is the exact intent of the legislation.

The Public Charter School system provides additional opportunities for learning and does so in specific niches.  The Traditional Public School system provides a valuable service to the community as well.  Let's hope that innovation and improvement continue in both spheres as we work to take Utah's students beyond proficiency and toward excellency.

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