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A few years ago I was sitting at lunch with a good friend, three-time Olympic Gold Medalist Kristin Armstrong. Kristin is one of the most accomplished athletes in Olympic history. She is also the most driven human I have ever known. Underneath all that grit and drive is a meticulous planner, organizer, and thoughtful leader.

Our conversation that day was a vigorous debate about the “formula for success.” Together, we concluded the formula looks like this: Success = Vision + Clarity + Plan + Relentless Action. Each step is critical in the pursuit of success in the Olympics, business, relationships or any endeavor in life. We determined most failures can be attributed to skipping a step in the process.

With that formula in mind, consider the broader umbrella of “education” and the collective state-level response to the challenges of this pandemic. At every level of leadership we failed our kids. With months to prepare for this fall, we have lacked vision, clarity, and a plan. Now with the school year upon us we are scrambling, throwing out excuses and begging for patience from already exhausted families. Our kids needed relentless action and a well thought out plan. We choose to play defense when we should have played offense.

The year 2020 will be remembered for many reasons. I hope it will be remembered for the year we exposed the weaknesses in our traditional education model. We can do better. We must do better, it’s not optional any more.

This past spring I spoke to Jeff Dillon, Superintendent of the Wilder School District, and family friend about his thoughts on the pandemic. Jeff tells it like it is and when he told me their school district transitioned to online in 48 hours, I honestly wasn’t surprised. You see, Jeff is doing calculus in Wilder where most school districts in Idaho are doing basic math. In Wilder, they have been using advanced technology in classrooms for years. Innovation is a way of everyday life and part of their academic culture.

A few years ago, Jeff gave me a book titled, “The Answer is in the Room.” I read it in two days. The answer really is in the room! We have so many passionate educators doing their very best to help our kids but they desperately need VISION + CLARITY + PLAN + RELENTLESS ACTION to find the success our kids in Idaho deserve. Consider our teachers who have dedicated their lives to education only to be let down again and again by a system that needs to be disrupted. Let’s require more, demand the best, expect higher standards, whatever it takes, of the leadership in our school districts and at the state level. We can no longer offer our kids last place as the only option in Idaho. Think about that. Idaho kids have access to first class outdoor opportunities, starry skies, crystal clear lakes and rivers, and miles of wilderness to explore — but we can’t replicate that quality in a classroom? Why not?

We need to create an education system that reflects the strength and the beauty of our state. I want our school systems to align with the quality of our natural resources. It starts at the state level. Perhaps the duties and responsibilities of the State Department of Education and State Board can be better aligned to promote accountability. It has been talked about for years but talking is not helping our kids. It is time for change.

As with most challenges in life, our Idaho education system will be judged not just by our preparedness for this crisis but how we come out on the other end. We can come out stronger, smarter, and better prepared if we take this opportunity that only a pandemic could bring. It’s time to shake things up, to go back to the drawing board and consider what is possible. After all, the beneficiaries of a change in perspective will be our kids for generations to come and they are worth it!

Tommy Ahlquist, a former emergency room doctor, is the CEO of BVA Development and co-owner of Saltzer Health. He ran for governor as a Republican in 2018.

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