Education task force stresses reading, student 'mastery'

Proposals set for discussion Friday are aimed at making Idaho's youth more ready for college and careers.

broberts@idahostatesman.comAugust 23, 2013 


    Gov. Butch Otter's Task Force for Improving Education will meet at 9 a.m. Friday to discuss recommendations from the work of its committees. The public meeting will be in the Hatch Ballroom of the Boise State University Student Union Building.

Social promotions for kids in Idaho schools should be replaced by a system that moves students toward graduation based on their mastery of skills.

Schools should put reading first, before trying to teach other significant content areas.

And the state should give schools more flexibility locally to improve learning.

Those are among the draft recommendations Gov. Butch Otter's Task Force on Education will discuss in a daylong meeting Friday on a plan that has the potential to reshape Idaho's public schools.

Otter formed the task force of 31 educators, government leaders, parents and business people last December, following a bitter fight over education reform that led to defeat of the Students Come First laws in a referendum last fall.

The task force's list of about a dozen proposals covers several aspects of education, including boosts in teacher salaries and school funding and support for Idaho Core Standards over critics who have blasted them as a federal intrusion into state and local public schools.

Some recommendations are a broad picture for where public schools may go over several years, rather than a work list for what task force members think ought to be done in the next year, said Richard Westerberg, the group's chairman.

Shifting to a mastery system of advancing from grade to grade would allow bright kids to move through the system more quickly and not be stuck in a class simply to meet a required credit. But it also would tell struggling students they won't go into Algebra 1, for example, until they are ready.

"Students are promoted from grade level to grade level based on age, regardless of whether they have mastered the content knowledge or standards at each grade level," the recommendations say.

Tom Luna, state superintendent of public instruction, was on the task force subcommittee that drafted the proposal to emphasize mastery over automatic advancement. "We are not going to move you just because of your age and class grade," said Luna.

Changing to a mastery system also would require a change in how schools are financed. Money now is based heavily on seat time - the number of days students sit in a classroom. One proposal would fund schools based on total enrollment and could carry a $60 million price tag.

The task force recommendations are clear on the importance of reading.

"Knowing how to read proficiently enables a student to read and learn content in other subject areas," the draft says. "Reading proficiency is a major benchmark in a student's education."

Schools also need more flexibility to improve student performance, a task force proposal says. Districts face too many mandates on how to do things, when the emphasis should be on improving student outcomes.

The recommendation is short on specifics. But it says school districts should build their own plans on improving student outcomes and produce an annual report on how well they achieve the goals.

Along with classroom changes, the task force calls for restoring $82.5 million in operation money districts have lost since 2008. It also calls for raising teacher salaries - in combination with increased accountability through instructor evaluations - that could cost up to $250 million.

If those proposals come to the Legislature in a well-thought-out, clear list of proposals over several years, they might be favorably received, said Sen. John Goedde, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

Still, the task force recommendations could cost more than $300 million, Goedde said. "I don't know if that is realistic at this point," he said.

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

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