Guest Opinions

Idaho education study shows importance of students’ personal, intellectual growth

Gus Schmedlen
Gus Schmedlen

When it comes to educating students, Idahoans seem to have endless ideas and opinions. But a study we released last month shows that Idahoans are united on one thing: The purpose of education is the personal and intellectual growth of students.

More than seven out of 10 teachers, school administrators and business leaders agree that the personal and intellectual growth of students is more important than preparing students for specific jobs. Interestingly, parents place a higher priority on job skills, but even then, 66 percent agree the purpose of education is personal and intellectual growth.

One reason these diverse stakeholders may agree on the purpose of education is that in today’s economy, jobs are ever-changing. In fact, economic studies predict that up to half of the jobs in America could be at risk of elimination by the year 2030 due to the impact of new technological advances in robotics and artificial intelligence.

Idahoans seem to see that it’s more important for students to have well-rounded life skills when they leave school than training for jobs that may not exist. These so-called “soft skills” are the ones that have intrinsic staying power regardless of which jobs exist in the future.

Business leaders especially have this view. When asked what the most valuable skills students need, 53 percent of the business leaders surveyed said “personal responsibility.” That skill was followed by the ability to navigate change; persistence; innovation; computer literacy; and the ability to communicate.

These findings are based on what 2,000 Idahoans told HP researchers in a four-month study commissioned by Idaho Business for Education. The study asked parents, educators, policymakers and business leaders what they think is working and not working in the education system, and how it can be improved.

When more than 900 parents were asked to rate the quality of Idaho’s schools, nearly 60 percent said they were good (40 percent) or excellent (18 percent). But when parents were asked to compare the quality of Idaho schools to other states, 70 percent said they were about the same (35 percent), somewhat worse (27 percent) or much worse (8 percent).

Parents offered mixed reactions when asked whether the schools were preparing students for college or the workplace.

Some key issues raised by the study:

  • A growing number of students in Idaho face mental health issues, and most schools do not have adequate resources to address these issues.
  • Too few students are reading proficiently by fourth grade, and it’s hurting them later in their education and career journeys.
  • Teachers are not valued by their communities as much as they should be.
  • Balance must be struck between giving school districts autonomy and ensuring students have tradable and transferable skills.
  • Consensus among stakeholders is required to move Idaho’s education system forward.

The report contains several recommendations about what we can do:

  • Strengthen mental health services in Idaho’s schools, but not at the expense of career and college counselors.
  • Close the “achievement gaps” between economically advantaged students and economically disadvantaged, and for Hispanic students.
  • Ensure greater emphasis on reading in preschool through third grade, at school and at home.
  • Elevate the teaching profession and continue to ensure teacher compensation is competitive.
  • Scale-up proven and effective interventions to help struggling students.
  • Create a comprehensive, statewide vision for education which allows for local adaptation.
  • Leverage families to promote, improve and set strong values associated with education.

Admittedly, many of the report’s findings and recommendations are not new, but they remind us of two important things: Just as with our students, we need “persistence” to successfully reach our goals, and stakeholders must assume “personal responsibility” if we are to improve our student outcomes. Real change takes all of us working together.

The good news is we can build on the one thing everyone agrees on: The purpose of education is to help our students grow personally and intellectually so they can be successful in this ever-changing world.

Rod Gramer is president of Idaho Business for Education and Gus Schmedlen is vice president of worldwide education for HP and the leader of the study.