Idaho’s new education standards promise to make homework a new experience for everyone involved

broberts@idahostatesman.comAugust 25, 2013 

Jill Millward, whose son, Ethan, will go to North Junior High this year, isn't sure how the rigorous curriculum under Idaho Core Standards will affect how she helps her kids with schoolwork. "I don't know what I will do different," she said, "because we haven't done it yet." Here she helps Ethan with a Boy Scout nuclear science merit badge.



    These are tips to apply in everyday life and conversations with children, not just helping with homework.

    - Ask why when children tell you they want something or want to do — or not do — something.

    - Use the word “because” after saying “no” or “not tonight.”

    - Give reasons — you to them, and them to you.

    - Encourage questions and explore answers, especially questions with answers that are not yes or no.

    - Explain and discuss issues or problems in your house, neighborhood and community. Brainstorm solutions.

    - Compare how things are alike and different, such as videos, movies and food.

    - Look for patterns.

    - Describe and categorize stuff. Encourage your children to use higher-level words that might describe how they feel about something.

    - Tell your children what you value and why.

    - Encourage and celebrate opinions.


    Common Core is a set of standards for what students should learn in public school. It is being adopted in 45 states. Core standards emphasize critical thinking and delving deeply into subject areas. Some states, such as Indiana and Michigan, have backtracked on standards after residents complained that they are an intrusion on local control. No state has yet dropped the standards.


    Bill covers education for the Idaho Statesman. He has done extensive reporting on Common Core and will continue to follow the standards as they make their way into Idaho classrooms.

Flash cards are gone from Christy Schwehr’s classroom at Amity Elementary School.

Those time-honored teaching devices used to drill math facts into young minds are replaced by “strategy cards.”

Instead of having the answer to a math problem on the back, strategy cards have student-written questions that Schwehr can ask to help coax kids toward the right answer.

The difference between flash cards and strategy cards is a microcosm of the switch to a new rigorous curriculum that goes into classrooms throughout Idaho as schools get underway this fall.

Education is no longer about cramming facts into kids’ heads. It’s not “6 times 8 is 48. Now remember it.”

Students need to visualize numbers and understand those numbers in relation to each other as they seek to discover the answer. So a strategy card hint for figuring out 6 times 8 might say, “You know what 6 times 5 is ... ”

“It’s kind of a question technique to get them to that answer,” said Schwehr, who teaches a third-and fourth-grade combination class.

Idaho’s new approach to teaching is based on Common Core State Standards, a nearly uniform list of what students should know and be able to do adopted by 45 states and Washington, D.C.

The basics are still there. Kids need to know the difference between a noun and a verb. They’ll have to know division. They have to be able to solve equations such as 2x = 10.

“We are still teaching good math,” said Cathy Maloney, a math teacher at North Junior High School.

But how classes are taught and how students are tested is about to undergo a change that will affect how parents help their kids with homework, how volunteers help teachers in the classroom and what students will be asked to do.

The goal is for learning to go deeper into subjects. Students will be asked to evaluate information they are learning by applying critical-thinking skills.


All of this is about to fall on parents such as Jill Millward, who has students at Roosevelt Elementary and North Junior High in Boise. She considers herself an involved and informed parent, but confesses she had not heard about Common Core until days before school was set to start.

She’s not alone.

Two-thirds of the country has never heard of Common Core, according to a PDK/Gallup survey released last week, The Washington Post reported. Even parents who did know about it thought it would have little effect on students.

Millward likes what she’s heard so far about Idaho Core Standards, the state’s version of Common Core.

“I think it is going to raise the bar for everyone,” Millward said. “But I think a lot of kids will struggle.”

She’s not worried about her second- or sixth-graders who will be at Roosevelt when school opens Tuesday.

But her seventh-grader, Ethan, who excels in reading and writing, finds math more challenging, she said.

“I am going to need to try to find a way to be involved to know what he is studying in math and reinforce it at home,” she said.


Teachers are expecting lots of questions about Idaho Core Standards as students get back to school.

Schwehr, Maloney and Emilie Eisenberger, a Whittier Elementary School teacher, all piloted Common Core last year. One of the greatest changes they see — and expect parents will, too — is continually asking kids how they do a task or why they think their answer to a question is right.

“It isn’t so much on the procedure of the math. It’s about thinking. How do I get this answer?” said Eisenberger, who teaches a second- and third-grade combo class.

Students may follow different paths to answering a math problem.

Parents, teachers say, should do the same. Don’t rush in with an answer. Don’t let kids think your way to solving a math problem is the only way.

“One key thing parents can do is question your kids,” Eisenberger said. Ask them, “How did you come to this answer?”

Kids might draw pictures to show you the answer. Or combine numbers in a way that’s different than their parents learned.

But teachers believe the approach will help them get a better sense of numbers that goes deeper than memorization.


Common Core is based on putting learning in a real-world setting, something that will engage kids’ interests. Teachers often will have kids write their own math problems.

Teachers can see through student writing whether students understand the concepts instructors are trying to teach, Schwehr said.

Student-written problems also tend to reflect students’ interests. An example of a student-written problem Eisenberger has seen: I have 18 erasers. I gave some to my friend Kyle and now I have nine left. How many did I give to Kyle?

“If they connect to what they know, they will remember,” Schwehr said.

Math homework won’t look the same, either.

“We are not going to be sending home 30 problems,” Maloney said.

There might be only two math problems, but they will ask the students to go into more depth, by explaining how they get their answers and justifying their work.

Critical thinking is a key component of teaching Common Core. Teachers are no longer purveyors of information, but facilitators, Eisenberger said. They will try to bring ideas out of kids’ minds, not just shove them in.

Schwehr will be less interested in asking her students when George Washington was born than in asking about his leadership.

“Was George Washington a good leader? Why would you consider him a good leader?” Schwehr said. “They are making connections between themselves (and) what they know about leaders.”


Come spring, students are expected to take pilot statewide exams based on Common Core. Multiple-choice tests, the hallmark of the Idaho Standards Achievement Test, will be all but gone.

Common Core exams will require students to show what they know. The difference between ISAT and Common Core tests is the difference between taking a written driving exam and getting behind the wheel.

Sample questions from the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium, the group developing the tests, require students to show how they arrive at math answers.

One math question asks students to move jugs of juice into shopping bags without going beyond a set weight for the bags.

In language arts, the exam gives students the start of a story and asks them to complete it.

One effect: Consortium officials say the exams are more challenging than the ISAT and will take longer to complete — up to 8.5 hours, compared to about 4.5 hours for the ISATs.

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

Bill covers education for the Idaho Statesman. He has done extensive reporting on Common Core and will continue to follow the standards as they make their way into Idaho classrooms.

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