Pillar to post: gutting education in Idaho

As a student at the University of Idaho, I worked as a research assistant, a teaching assistant for General Botany and for Learning and Study Skills, and as a tutor. I took a couple of my credits for my B.S. (Mechanical Engineering) degree as correspondence classes. While working for Hewlett-Packard Co. as an engineer in Boise, I took several graduate level courses via the Stanford Instructional Television Network, and completed them successfully (and conveniently), but did not gain a lot of satisfaction from the arrangement. We had two or three students and an on-site assistant, watched lectures on videotape, completed assignments, and so on. I also acted as assistant for one such class. I attended Stanford University in HP's Resident Fellowship program, and earned a Master's Degree in June 1990, after three quarters' work on campus.

It was clear to me from both the U of I correspondence classes, the SITN video courses, and in working with other students that while "distance learning" is a useful tool in the absence of more direct, personal contact, it is a poor substitute. Completing coursework and getting a satisfactory grade is not the same things as gaining mastery of the material, and in my engineering career, I often recognized that the correspondence course in a fundamental subject had left me with an important weakness. Mechanical engineering comprises many disciplines, and I was fortunate to work in a setting where others in teams could make up the difference. If I were able to start over—or advise current students—I would not use depersonalized means for anything in the core of a curriculum.

Electronic tools are indispensible for communication, and yes, learning. But they are not primary tools for the latter. They can extend the reach of teachers but cannot replace them.

Excerpt screenshot of the Thomas Edison State College website Idaho's Superintendent of Public Instruction, now in his second term, had a rather different experience of education than I did. He "attended," as they say, Ricks College (now Brigham Young University-Idaho) and Boise State University. And he obtained a degree in liberal arts with an emphasis on measurement science from Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey, an early adopter of online education and administration. TESC features the question How Much Will It Cost? most prominently on its website homepage. (Second most important message: "Finish your degree anytime, anywhere.") They apparently take transfer credit from the school of hard knocks, and don't have any distracting campus life, since "students rarely visit the campus."

It appears that online learning worked well enough for Tom Luna. He was able to serve on the Nampa School Board, the Idaho Achievement Standards Commission and Idaho Assessment and Accountability Commission, and from 2003 to 2005, in the U.S. Department of Education, directing the Rural Education Taskforce (although no one's been able to find much in his permanent record from that stint). There's an old saw that "those who can't do, teach." In Luna's case, it seems more like those who can't teach, do. Such is the state of education and politics in Idaho.

What Luna has rolled out as "Three Pillars for Customer-Driven Education" starts with a plan for a $50 million investment in technology, at a time when quite a few of our state's teachers are buying classroom supplies with their own money. It proposes to give every 9th grader a laptop, in spite of the mixed results such programs have shown to date. It encourages students to hurry and get done, with a monetary incentive for early graduation, and would require that students take one out of six of their high school credits online. I appreciated Advanced Placement credits from high school to start my college career; I'm sure I would have enjoyed a bonus payment, too. But faster learning is not necessarily better; I finished my correspondence coursework quite quickly.

The second pillar emphasizes teacher "pay-for-performance" as a carrot, while swinging a stick to end tenure and to reduce the power of the teacher's union. Reducing—or eliminating—the power of the teacher's union seems to be the most important pillar of the Luna plan. How else can you explain a man with no background in teaching not bothering to consult with the Idaho Education Association (representing 13,000 educators), the state PTA or the Idaho Association of School Administrators? As Dan Popkey detailed in yesterday's paper, Luna put the rush on getting "unanimous" support from the Idaho School Boards Association, giving them "four days to sign off on the biggest rewrite of Idaho education law in memory." Oh, and a Survey Monkey final exam:

  1. Do you support the Superintendent's Plan? Yes No
  2. If not, what option do you support?
    1. Cut the system? Yes No
    2. Raise taxes? Yes No

Increasing class sizes is not featured as a "pillar" but is an essential component of Luna's program to make ends meet. The Twin Falls Times-News interviewed Luna last week, and they report he said there's no evidence to suggest that larger class sizes hurt student performance.

"There is no credible study that decreasing class size has a positive effect on student achievement or increasing class size has a negative effect," Luna said, adding that the most important factor is the quality of teachers and principals.

Apparently a "quality" teacher is capable of spending just as much time with the individuals in a class of 25 as a class of 29 in the new math they teach at Thomas Edison State College. Why then stop at 25 or 30 students per class? Why not have the whole state in one glorious one-room schoolhouse, and put a computer in front instead of a teacher?

If our Superintendent of Public Instruction actually had any experience in public instruction, he would recognize that larger classes are reasonably certain to reduce the quality of education in the state. Will the "innovation" make up for the losses? We don't have any evidence to suggest they will, only Tom Luna's notions and hope. The third pillar of "Transparent Accountability" seems to apply more to everyone else than to the Superintendent's own plans.

Tom von Alten, Jan. 26, 2011