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Idaho Board Softens Career Focus Following Criticism

By Linda Jacobson — November 29, 2005 6 min read
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It looks as though Idaho high school students will be adding more math and science courses to their transcripts, under rigorous new standards approved by the state board of education.

Board members celebrated their unanimous adoption of the plan Nov. 16. Rod Lewis, the president, called the recommendations “a strong foundation in preparing our students for postsecondary education or entry into the workforce.”

But the proposed requirements, which must be approved by either the state House or Senate education committee aren’t nearly as strong as the original package of high school improvement measures proposed by the board’s Accelerated Learning Taskforce. (“Idaho Studies Minimum GPA for High School Admission,” Nov. 2, 2005.)

The task force deleted much of that plan after quick and stinging public criticism of the recommendations. The change of course provides a lesson to other states on the volatility of attempts to retool high school, as many political leaders want to do.

Gone from the Idaho plan is a proposal that middle school students maintain a C average throughout the 6th, 7th, and 8th grades in order to enter high school. That idea was perhaps the most controversial piece of the package.

The task force also removed a recommended requirement that high school students take “career focused” electives to be more prepared for college and a future profession. The concept had many parents worried that their children would have to cut back on activities such as band, debate, and drama. South Carolina, by contrast, has adopted such policies. (“South Carolina Launches Career-Preparation Initiative,” this issue.)

Also dropped was a proposal to have each middle school student create a “postsecondary-readiness plan” beginning in 6th grade instead of in 8th grade, as current policy requires.

“I’m somewhat disappointed,” Sue Thilo, the state board member who chaired the task force, said about having to revise the package. “A lot of work and research and scrutiny went into that original plan. It was not haphazardly developed.”

Students, she said, will now miss out on the chance to begin planning the courses they’ll need in high school at an earlier point in their education.

Opponents of the readiness plans called the idea a form of academic tracking. Ms. Thilo countered that the task force just wanted students, along with their parents and school counselors, to begin a “meaningful dialogue” about students’ academic plans for high school.

“Sometimes, students find out too late that they should have taken two years of Spanish or something else,” Ms. Thilo said.

An Unwilling Public?

Across the country, states have launched projects to redesign high schools, often with leadership from national organizations such as the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va.

The strategies being implemented to improve high schools include strengthening teacher quality, improving adolescent literacy, downsizing schools, and doing more to ensure students gain the skills they’ll need to succeed in college or on the job.

Change of Plans

Original redesign proposal:

• Increase the number of required math courses from two to four by 2012

• Increase required science courses from two to three by 2012

• Require middle school students to maintain a cumulative C average to enter high school

• Require 6th graders to begin creating a “postsecondary readiness plan”

• Require high school students to take “career focused” electives

• Require a senior project

• Require high schoolers to take a college-entrance exam, such as the SAT or the ACT

• Require high schools to offer opportunities for advanced study, such as Advanced Placement courses, International Baccalaureate courses, or classes at a postsecondary institution

• Require students to take pre-algebra before entering 9th grade

Revised redesign proposal:

• Increase the required number of math courses from two to three by 2012, and to four by 2013

• Increase required science courses from two to three by 2012

• Require a senior project

• Require high schoolers to take a college-entrance exam, such as the SAT or the ACT

• Require high schools to offer opportunities for advanced study, such as Advanced Placement courses, International Baccalaureate courses, or classes at a postsecondary institution

• Require students to take pre-algebra before entering 9th grade

SOURCE: Idaho Board of Education

Idaho’s experience, however, illustrates the problems policymakers can encounter when they try to raise high school standards and introduce ideas that constituents aren’t ready to accept—at least as they were proposed there.

And if there’s blame to be spread around for the failure of the Idaho plan to resonate with the public, Ms. Thilo says some of it rests on the task force itself.

“We didn’t do a good enough job of explaining,” she said, adding that if given another chance, she would probably have given the career-focused electives a different name.

Those courses, she said, “weren’t meant to dictate [a student’s] life—just give some future direction.”

In spite of the task force’s series of six public hearings statewide and other attempts to get its message across, the negative reaction was insurmountable.

“Sometimes, when a train leaves a station, there’s nothing you can do,” Ms. Thilo said.

Laird Stone, another state board member who served on the 18-member task force, said he also liked the earlier version of the plan, but thinks maybe it was just “too much at once.”

Even so, he said, he has also received calls and e-mails from parents and teachers wondering why those other task force recommendations on career-focused electives and the C grade-point average were dropped.

Under the revised proposal, students who are scheduled to graduate in the spring of 2012 would have to pass three years of mathematics and three years of science, which is one more year in each of those subjects than is required now.

The class of 2013 would need one more year of math, for a total of four. Originally, the task force recommended requiring four years of math by 2012. But during its Nov. 16 meeting, the board agreed to phase in the extra two years of math over two years in response to districts’ concerns about needing more time to develop the courses.

Students graduating in 2012 would also be required to complete a senior project under the proposed changes.

Worries About Cost

Some observers have suggested that Idaho residents might not have seen a need for the changes the task force was urging.

Unlike states with large urban populations, Idaho is a place “where the public might not have been used to hearing that things aren’t going well in the schools. So maybe there’s some apathy there,” said Matthew Gandal, the executive vice president of Achieve, a Washington-based organization founded by governors and business leaders that works to help states raise academic standards and prepare students for postsecondary education.

He added that perhaps the task force didn’t do enough to lay the groundwork for the proposed changes and show people the need for them.

“It’s a wake-up call for a lot of people, but it was almost like starting a conversation from scratch,” he said of the Idaho effort.

Ms. Thilo agreed that this might have been part of the problem, even though facts were presented to the public showing that the state’s college-attendance and -completion rates are below the national average and the state’s economic base demands a more skilled workforce.

“Nobody likes to hear that they’re not doing a good enough job,” she said.

Some people also felt the board’s timing for the proposal was just wrong.

“It came at an interesting time here in Idaho,” said Sherri Wood, the president of the Idaho Education Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association. She added that course electives have been cut in the state recently and that teachers have not had an increase in their base salary in five years.

“Here we are asking for reform,” Ms. Wood said, “when we can’t afford to pay for what we have now.”

Even with the scaling back of the plan, she said, concerns remain about how the state would pay for additional math and science courses and provide remedial help to students who didn’t pass them.

The state board has prepared some preliminary cost figures that it will present to the legislature for such needs as teacher training, teacher salaries, and senior projects that would include a research paper and an oral presentation. For fiscal 2007, the board estimates, the additional costs would come to about $1.4 million, with the amount increasing annually until it reached $17.1 million in fiscal 2013.

Criticism of the earlier redesign plan also came from some Idaho school administrators, who said they were left out of the process.

But Ms. Thilo rejects the suggestion that the task force tried to be exclusive.

“I think a lot of times when folks don’t like something, there’s a natural reaction to say, ‘I wasn’t a part of it,’ ” she said. She added that she thought the task force included a wide range of “education stakeholders.”

Ms. Thilo also said that although some earlier parts of the plan had to be dropped to move forward, she’s not going to forget about them.

“I’m not giving up the notion that we still need to invigorate our middle school curriculum,” she said about the controversial idea of the C-average requirement. “If that isn’t the plan, then what is the plan?”

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