The last task force on education was commissioned by Governor Otter in 2012. A new one has started to meet in order to address education in our state. The following is my emailed message to this task force.

Idaho Task Force on Education:

Thank you for asking for my feedback on this process as an Idaho educator as noted in the current issue of Idaho Education News (https://www.idahoednews.org/news/little-announces-new-k-12-education-task-force/). I am pleased that you are reaching out for citizens’ initial thoughts on this process (OKIF@gov.idaho.gov).

I am a high school English teacher, about to start my 9th year in the public high school setting. I started classroom teaching at nearly 40, after many years in a variety of educational settings and roles. 

Here are a few of my own observations, thoughts, and concerns about the current state of public education in my corner:

I LOVE Being a Teacher!

First, it is difficult sometimes to speak as a critic of education because I am surround and supported by many dedicated teachers, support staff, administrators, and community members. To critique can feel somehow unappreciative. Make no mistake, I feel surrounded by so many with such intense dedication. 

Second, I am grateful for a strange life-path that has circled around education, but only somewhat recently brought me to the classroom. Many of my contemporaries have spent 20 years in  classrooms already. They are accomplished and they are, quite often, TIRED. They’ve lived their professional lives keeping children first as they have been embattled by all the things I will name and more. My own perspective is merely mine, one voice, not definitive. 

And now for my most central concerns. 

Changing Educational Environment

First, our ratios of students to professional staff have not kept up with the changes that have been implemented to ensure that we are offering a uniform public education to all students. Economically and geographically stable, middle-class students who have engaged, maybe professional, parents and a supportive extended family represent a small portion of today’s schools and classrooms. Laws and policies to increase equity mean that the majority of our schools need to account for the following circumstances:

Modern Stressors on Education

  • Broken community supports — Homes with only a nuclear family or only one parent face more stress in maintaining well-rounded, well-supported environments.
  • Fewer attentive hours with caregivers — Homes with parent/s who work multiple jobs may struggle to find enough time to provide full and consistent support to their students.
  • Geographic instability — Moving frequently locally or more distantly to follow jobs means potentially disrupted educational experiences for many students.
  • Economic insecurity — Research shows that even upper-middle class families are experiencing stress related to their sense of security. This compounds the issues around break-down of community, extended family, job stability, and multiple wage-earners in the home, all of which leads to increased stress for adults and then also increased stress for children.
  • Ethnic diversity — including refugees and other immigrants, but also recognizing the differential experiences of students from non-white ethnic backgrounds
  • Language diversity and background — If students have come immediately or recently from other countries, there are language and cultural barriers and these may need a wide variety of strategies in order to address their needs effectively.
  • Gender and sexual identification — Students who identify as LGBT+ have greatly increased rates of suicidality and may put extra strain on allocation of resources to support their mental well-being.
  • Special needs students — Cognitively, physically, and emotionally disabled students have an ensured education in the least restrictive environment that can be maintained. Numbers of students who can be categorized as emotionally disturbed or emotionally fragile have been on the rise for a number of reasons. These students all deserve a fair and equal education, but the resources expended to provide this can be relatively immense.
  • Changing economics — Decades ago, students could drop out and assume factory or other labor-intensive jobs (logging, mining, farming, manufacturing). That is not the case today. Disaffected students have few useful skills if they walk away from their education before graduation.

Adult to Student Ratios

What this means to me, personally, is that we are doing an extremely poor job of providing the raw staff to differentiate all these needs, both in the classroom as well as in the school community in general. Of course, the classroom numbers and certified teacher to student ratios are completely unsupportable and this applies to every category of student. My honors students can produce more and longer work, which means that even though they do not require much “management”, they deserve equal attention to their work and discussion. Students who struggle will take others down with them if the ratios are off — and they are off; therefore, students with exceptional behavioral needs are causing chaos for students who are not insulated from them.

However, the ratios of professionals to students needs to include many other categories. The support staff who work in the classrooms, paraprofessionals, are critical. Yet they are too few, they are too undertrained, and they are too underpaid. Counselors have, for far too long, been schedulers. This is a discourtesy to their broader expertise and skills. They are also far too few. If they are to truly know and work with students, the national association recommendation is 1:250. That doesn’t account for the fact that there also need to be on-campus social workers at a ratio of 1:400 and on-campus psychologists, at the ratio of 1:500-1:700 (https://www.nasponline.org/x27124.xml). Beyond that, administrative teams and their staff must be adequate to manage student as well as staff needs. A final piece of professional ratio is the interaction between students and adults in their community — schools need to be able to get INTO the community for a wide variety of authentic interactions and adults in the community need to be in our schools and classrooms, to see what students are doing and to be a part of their education and growth.

Facilities & Infrastructure

To adjust our ratios, serious engagement in facilities growth must happen. Generations of students have been taught in the same “temporary” portable classroom spaces and this is, as I said, while still maintaining untenable ratios that can only lead to unsatisfactory results by any measure.

Valid & Reliable Assessment

The other point I want to address is that last one I mentioned, measurement. I firmly believe that more measurements and more metrics are essential. However, people who design and then assess anything from standardized assessments need to visit more classrooms, not just for testing day/s, but across multiple days and learning experiences. The ways in which student attitudes towards any given assessment (and there are a LOT of assessments) varies and can therefore completely invalidate a test’s data are potentially mind-boggling. Related to this, then, the conversations and particularly the decision-making that occur around assessments must include teachers, once whose voices and expertise will be respected. Otherwise, decision-makers are really making decisions based on completely fabricated information — what many assessments tell us is a story quite different than many would think.

There is, of course, much more I could say about what I would want our state-level task force to consider. However, I firmly believe that optimizing ratios, including resulting facilities needs, and assessment methods and data analysis are two critical areas to address the intense and important needs of the students we are trying to educate and support.

Thank you so much for your time and I hope to hear more about the conversations this task force has. More importantly, I hope to see tangible changes as a result of this process.