Writings and observations

A useful direction, cautiously

A few thoughts about the new public schools proposal in Idaho by Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, why Washington and Oregon may want to give serious consideration to parts of it, and why Idahoans might be cautious about some other parts.

Much of the base of it, and much of the best of it, actually track with a theme of returning Oregon Governor John Kithaber: To think in terms not of the existing structure, but in terms of what ought to be accomplished. Students in public (and generally in private as well) schools mostly are taught in ways not so different from those used a century and more ago, with often-outdated textbooks and materials, in a day when information technology makes so much more possible. So if you forget about the way the job has been done and instead think in terms of educated students, and how they might best be educated, you may come up with something a lot different.

Here’s the centerpiece of the Otter/Luna (mainly Luna, with Otter support) proposal.

– The 21 st Century Classroom: The 21 st Century Classroom is not limited by walls, bell schedules, school calendars or geography. In a 21 st Century Classroom, every student has access to a highly effective teacher, the necessary technology, and high academic standards comparable with any in the world.

To create the 21 st Century Classroom, the state will invest $50 million over the next two years in both hardware and software for every Idaho classroom. Every 9th grader will be given a laptop, and high school students will be required to take online courses to graduate. Idaho will raise the bar by implementing college- and career-ready academic standards that are comparable with any country in the world. If a student meets graduation requirements early, the state will pay for dual credit courses in the student’s senior year.

– Great Teachers & Leaders: Students will have a highly effective teacher every year and a highly effective principal at the helm of every school.

The current way the State of Idaho pays teachers, based on experience and education only, is archaic. To recruit and retain a great teacher and leader in every classroom and school building, the state will fully restore the instructional salary grid, raise the minimum pay for new teachers to $30,000, and implement a pay-for-performance plan that builds on base salaries to reward excellence. The state will continue to empower great teachers and leaders by ensuring all professional development if focused and meaningful. The state will phase out tenure in Idaho schools by offering every new teacher and administrator a two-year rolling contract. School districts will no longer be able to use seniority as the only criteria in determining teacher layoffs. Districts must tie at least a portion of teacher and administrator performance evaluations to student academic growth.

Transparent Accountability: Parents, taxpayers, and policymakers have current, accurate information on all student achievement results and financial matters in their schools and districts.

The state must ensure school district leaders are held accountable for student achievement results and taxpayer dollars at the local level. To do this, the state will empower parents by giving them input on teacher evaluations and access to understandable fiscal report cards for each district. Locally elected leaders now will have more flexibility to manage from year to year by streamlining collective bargaining practices. In addition, the state will work with every local district to ensure they take full advantage of statewide purchasing contracts, and will require that all taxpayer dollars follow the student.

More advanced use of technology for education – especially at the ever-diminshing cost levels for communications tech – seems like a no-brainer, albeit not one that’s been actually used much, and it’s emphasized here. (Useful new laptops aren’t all that expensive anymore; the idea of outfitting students with them generally, while some issues attach, doesn’t sound unrealistic.)

Education “not limited by walls, bell schedules, school calendars or geography” likewise seems not just right but overdue; it suggests the kind of reaqch and flexibility that ought to be integral to the idea of creative learning. Online course, nothing new in other contexts, have great potential for public schools. The sorts of rigid bureaucracies our schools have had seem more limiting than helpful, unless you’re a system administrator. The idea of more flexibility, too, in building a solid teacher corps, and a substantial base level of pay for newcomers, seem sound too. Washington and Oregon, which spend more on schools and more as well on top-heavy administrations, might do well to give some of this a good hearing. In these cash-strapped times, maybe they will.

Other elements of the Idaho plan raise some red flags. In speaking to legislators Luna seems to diss the idea that larger classrooms are more difficult to teach, and yield weaker results, than smaller classrooms; that runs afoul of a lot of experience over a lot of years. The Idaho Education Association (no supporter of the new proposal) estimated that 500 teaching jobs would be cut in Idaho, as part of the way to pay for other elements of it. You get the sense that Otter and Luna think they’ve found a way to cut school budgets (education on the cheap?) without hurting outcomes; but it’s unlikely to be that simple. A cut of hundreds of teaching jobs, and heavily expanded class sizes, seem highly likely to weaken education in Idaho.

One question we’ve posed to the Department of Education is where the new on-line courses would come from. Doubtless there are excellent providers out there, and they could be a real asset. The department replied to us that “it will be up to each local school district to determine, but we believe the majority of online courses will be delivered via Idaho Digital Learning Academy and the Idaho Education Network, which connects every high school and college and university in the state. The State Department of Education will ensure all courses meet Idaho content standards.” Which generally sounds reasonable. But keep watch; there’s potential for mischief in the wrong hands. Luna’s campaigns have taken money from would-be vendors, and some of them have agendas. Would the required courses tell Idaho students about the world according to Bill Bennett – or Glenn Beck? Maybe not. But as elsewhere, details are important.

And while Otter and Luna doubtless would see undercutting the IEA as a perfectly acceptable (even fortutious) side-effect of their new effort, another reality is this: Good teachers, and a sufficient number of them, remain an essential component of good education. If teachers get the word that Idaho considers them a lot more dispenable than do other states, then Idaho isn’t likely to get its share of the best professionals.

Some good material here. Some with question marks attached. But definitely worth pondering, not ony for these rough economic times but also for what lies beyond.

UPDATE A response to the Otter/Luna proposal from the Idaho House Democrats:

During his campaign for re-election, Superintendent Tom Luna assured Idaho voters that our system of public schools was strong and that student achievement was on par with or exceeded that of almost any other state. Just two months after his re-election, Mr. Luna has announced to the Idaho Legislature that our public school system is broken, unsustainable, and unable to meet the needs of our students. This shocking assessment raises two important questions. First, what happened in these last two months to cause Idaho’s system of public schools to go from “excellent” to “broken”? Secondly, if after four years of his leadership, our public school system is “broken”, why should any parent, student or voter put the slightest faith in any idea proffered by the architect of such failure?

Mr. Luna mistakenly feels that computers can replace teachers and that taking all semblance of job security away from new teachers will attract the best and the brightest young teaching talent to our state. He asserts that software pedaled by those who contributed heavily to his campaign fund is superior to curriculum adopted by individual local school boards.

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    January 23, 2011

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