More change is coming to Idaho public schools.
Teachers are putting in place new reading plans they hope will close the gap for the one-third of third-graders who don’t read on grade level — a pivotal threshold for creating strong readers.
More high school students than ever are signing up for dual-credit classes, giving them a head start on college credit that may lure them to higher education.
A handful of public schools are experimenting with learning based on how well a student can master a subject, not mostly on the amount of time students spend in a classroom.
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Many teachers are earning more money based on a “career ladder” system that will soon take into account job performance in setting teacher pay.
I think the state, the governor, the Legislature and the people involved in the system have done a really good job.
Bob Lokken, CEO of Boise’s White Cloud Analytics and a member of the task force
All these changes and more are rooted in the work of a task force brought together by Gov. Butch Otter nearly four years ago that studied ways to improve Idaho public schools.
Even as lawmakers and state education agencies work to reform Idaho schools, many educators hope Otter will gather experts together again to continue the job.
Otter convened the group after a set of technology-based reforms proposed by then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, supported by Otter and passed by the Legislature were rejected by voters in a 2012 referendum.
Otter pulled together 31 educators, policymakers, legislators, parents and businesspeople in a yearlong discussion of how to make education better in Idaho.
The task force produced 20 recommendations nearly unanimously, covering a variety of needs such as catching school districts up on funding lost during the recession, expanding technology and giving districts more autonomy in how to spend dollars.
“We’ve made such great progress,” said Rod Gramer, president and CEO of Idaho Business for Education, a group of business leaders working to improve public schools. “Virtually every (recommendation) is in some form of implementation.”
The recommendations formed the basis of a consensus plan backed by most Idaho education groups and financed with what will end up being hundreds of million of dollars appropriated by the Legislature.
Now, as the task force recommendations near their fifth anniversary, some educators say it is time to reassemble and assess the work.
$94.6 million Amount approved by lawmakers between 2014 and 2017 to try to backfill money schools lost during the recession and to account for student growth
“I would like to see that committee come back together again (and ask): Did we get this right?” said Karen Echeverria, Idaho School Boards Association executive director. “Which of these things are still valid?”
The teacher career and pay plan was intended to help attract and retain teachers, said Penni Cyr, Idaho Education Association president. She thinks its time to assess how well it’s addressing those aims. “Those are the kinds of questions we need to ask,” she said.
Revisiting those reforms is in the talking stages, Otter’s office says.
Despite occasional questions or quibbles about Idaho’s reform paths, many education experts are pleased with the commitment of lawmakers, the governor and school districts to make it work.
“We clearly have got to invest in education,” said Gramer. “We do have to act with a sense of urgency. We’ve got to act as though a house is on fire.”
While reforms are taking root in Idaho schools, they also are a gamble. It could take years before the results of some of them are known. A plan to move to a system that measures student progress based on mastery of knowledge, for instance, could take a generation, educators says. Where do some of the key elements of the plan stand?
MASTERY OF KNOWLEDGE
Idaho invested $1.35 million in 32 schools this year to develop pilot programs on mastery. Those programs affect 12,000 students out of nearly 300,000 statewide and will run for three to five years so educators can learn how well they are working before expanding the program, said Kelly Brady, state Department of Education director of mastery education.
“The process isn’t lightning fast,” said Richard Westerberg, a State Board of Education member who chaired Otter’s task force. “I don’t think it can be.”
Lawmakers broadened high school students’ access to dual-credit courses by offering more that $4,000 per student between seventh and 12th grades. Students can use state dollars to pay for dual-credit courses for college credit and to pay for Advanced Placement tests, both of which can help them amass college credits while in high school.
The expanded opportunities took effect this school year, so it’s difficult to say whether it will result in more high school students thinking they have a stake in college and being motivated to go on. It’s one of the initiatives aimed at improving the state’s abysmal rate of 44 percent of high school students who go onto college.
The number of dual-credit students swelled this fall, with Idaho’s four-year higher colleges report increases of 24 to 76 percent.
Perhaps the most far-reaching change in 2017 could come from a legislative committee looking at how schools ought to be financed. One lawmaker says its work could leave room for vouchers for parents who want something different from what public education provides.
Idaho’s biggest-ticket reform is the teacher pay plan, linked to how well instructors do their jobs. Lawmakers have put $75 million into the plan so far to increase salaries in hopes of attracting more and better teachers to Idaho classrooms. Lawmakers will be asked to add $58 million for 2018, and an estimated $96 million in each of 2019 and 2020.
Just weeks ago, however, the quality of the evaluations of Idaho teachers were called into question after an Idaho Department of Education review found many didn’t meet all of the evaluation criteria. School district officials criticized the review, saying it was flawed and offered an incorrect picture of how evaluations are done. And officials who conducted the study say it was intended simply to spotcheck the evaluation system, not penalize districts that are preparing for the new evaluations.
For people who don’t follow education studies carefully, it may have left a wrong impression, said Dave Harbison, Idaho Education Association spokesman. Don Coberly, Boise School District superintendent, says districts will have to work with legislators to undo the damage of suggesting that district evaluations aren’t giving a clear picture of how well teachers are performing.
READING AND LITERACY
Otter’s task force called for increased attention to reading among students in kindergarten through third grade, the key years for building strong, effective readers who can succeed in future years and subjects. Districts got $9.1 million for programs to improve reading. Coberly said Boise schools will use some of its money to raise the level of readers who are nearly at grade level. The previous state reading initiative, begun in 1999, offered state dollars to focus on the lowest-performing reader. But Coberly said the biggest gains can be made by helping those nearest their grade level get over the line.
Yet he is concerned that a new reading indicator could be a problem. The Idaho Reading Indicator now is a short five- to 10-minute exam meant to alert teachers to possible reading problems. The state is considering a 20- to 45-minute test that Coberly said could add hours of testing to schools already facing hours of statewide exams.
He doesn’t think replacing a short assessment delivered one-on-one with a computer reading exam makes sense. The assessment is “really, really helpful in an individual setting,” he said.
Legislature convenes Monday
The Legislature gavels into session Monday. At 1 p.m., it hears Gov. Butch Otter present his State of the State address, in which he outlines his legislative and budget priorities. See video, photos, stories and analysis all afternoon Monday at IdahoStatesman.com.