Monday, March 21, 2011

Education In Idaho

Editor's Note: The following column was submitted to the Idaho State Journal and is reprinted here with the generous permission of the author.

Education In Idaho
by Leonard Hitchcock

It would not be unfair to say that Idaho is a comparatively ignorant state. This conclusion could easily be reached by attending a session of the Idaho State Legislature, but I happen to have relied upon the state’s educational statistics. Idaho ranks 38th among the states in both the percentage of its population that have bachelor degrees and the percentage that have advanced degrees. So, if ignorance is measured by the extent of formal education, then Idaho has it in greater abundance than most other states.

I’m not suggesting that “academic” ignorance is equatable with either stupidity or incompetence. No doubt many Idaho farmers, ranchers and businessmen who make good money and support families in comparative comfort do so without the aid of college degrees. There are, however, other, quite plausible, consequences of having an ignorant population. For one, a public that lacks academic sophistication in areas like history, political science, theology and economics is likely to be susceptible to political manipulation. For another, an ignorant public may well not value very highly that which it does not possess and which may well seem relatively unnecessary to it, viz. quality education.

Idaho certainly doesn’t seem enthusiastic about supporting K-12 education. The state ranks 41st among all states in its per capita expenditures for its students, and it should be noted that in many states where expenditures are higher than in Idaho, the average family income is lower. Idaho ranks 41st in the number of students it requires teachers to have in their classrooms: 17.9 students, compared to the national average of 15.5. Teacher salaries in Idaho are ranked 33rd in the country when starting salary, average salary and local cost-of-living are taken into consideration. When it comes to higher education, Idaho ranks 45th among the states in terms of the percentage of high school graduates that matriculate directly to college, and 44th in the percentage of college freshmen who graduate within six years (2002-3 figures).

Given this data, one might well predict that Idaho’s K-12 students would rank equally low in their performance on nationwide tests, specifically the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. But they don’t. In scale scores on 4th grade math and reading, Idaho’s kids rank 13th and 18th; in 8th grade math and writing, they rank 23rd and 18th. What explains the fact that our students’ achievements are so much more impressive that our state’s?

I have been fortunate to become acquainted with a young woman who teaches 6th grade in American Falls. What I know of her and her work suggests a simple answer to that question: teachers do the job they are hired to do, and expend whatever time and effort is needed to do that job well. Their commitment to their work is profound and durable, and it’s a good thing it is, because their job is a daunting one. Educating a child is not like downloading data to a hard drive. The child must participate in the process, must make an effort, must be willing to read its assignments, do its homework and study for its tests. Parents, too, must participate. They must believe in the value of learning. They must reinforce their child’s motivation when it falters.

All too often, unfortunately, these elements of the educational equation are missing. Many students have no real interest in learning, or come from households in which no one supports their efforts to make academic progress. Moreover, there are inevitably students that have learning disabilities, or an incomplete mastery of English, or behavioral problems. Teachers must try to compensate for all these special handicaps and, at the same time, teach.

Idaho’s teachers have done well by their students, despite the best efforts of the state to demean and discourage them, but their tolerance has to have its limits. The state is currently doing its best to make public school teachers’ work even more difficult while it reduces their status to that of temporary office workers. It has allowed the proliferation of charter schools, which siphon off the more motivated students. It has exacerbated the worst aspect of No Child Left Behind, viz. the trivialization of teacher achievement by mandating that text scores be its only measure. It has now deprived teachers of their union rights: the ability to determine their work environment, their right to due process, extended contracts and reasonable job security. It threatens to fire hundreds of teachers, replacing them with lap top computers (thus insuring continued campaign contributions from education software vendors), and to increase average class size, the surest way to reduce teacher effectiveness. How long will teachers’ commitment withstand this kind of treatment?

Email hitcleon@isu for a list of the data sources used in this column.

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