Politicizing education

By Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise
Special to the Reader

The House Education Committee voted recently to reject and remove every word of Idaho’s education standards in math, English and science for all K-12 grades. If this decision stands, over 15,000 teachers charged with educating over 300,000 students will have no standards to guide what is taught in classrooms throughout Idaho.

But wait, there’s more. 

The House Education Committee also voted to remove all requirements for teacher certification throughout Idaho. If this stands, children could be taught by people with no professional educator training.

It is beyond irresponsible to remove education standards and teaching certification requirements without replacing them with something better. The counter-argument was, “Oh, nothing will change — the State Department of Education (SDE) can simply reinstate the standards and certification criteria we’ve rejected.” 

I asked why take this action if nothing will change. The reply: “We want to send a message to the SDE.”

“Sending a message” wasn’t the motion the committee was voting on. There was no motion to craft a carefully thought-out message to the SDE. There was no proposal to change standards for the better. There wasn’t a bill to create a review committee. 

Our choice was this:

Accept the standards as they were last year;

Accept them with some exceptions;

Reject all of them. 

The committee chose No. 3. Why would they choose to do something so reckless?

The truth is that the House Education Committee vote was not about standards. It wasn’t even about sending a message to the SDE. It was about saying they voted to “get rid of Common Core” before the upcoming election.

The words “Common Core” have become a political catchphrase to condemn anything that someone doesn’t like about public education. 

Don’t like the test scores? Blame “Common Core.” Can’t help your child with their math homework? Blame “Common Core.” Don’t like a book on a suggested reading list? Blame “Common Core.”   

I respect those who feel this way. A frequent concern I heard from voters, especially a few years ago, was they couldn’t help with their child’s math homework. “Common Core” was often blamed. And there certainly were problems, including a poorly executed statewide rollout that did not adequately prepare teachers or inform parents of the changes. They were also introduced near the height of the recession while education funding was being cut.

But the problem was not the actual standards. Understanding the root cause of the problem requires reviewing a bit of history and knowing that standards are just one part of the total education experience. 

Former Superintendent Tom Luna reminded the committee that it was told the new standards would raise classroom expectations one or two grade levels higher for each grade and test scores would initially go down before they’d go up.

One critic argued that since test scores have not risen much since the standards were adopted, we should get rid of the standards. That’s like saying that if you’re late for an appointment, you should get rid of your car. There are many reasons for being late to an appointment. Similarly, there are many reasons for disappointing test scores that have nothing to do with the standards, such as: inadequate teaching aids, an exodus of experienced teachers, insufficient funding and so on.

Simply blaming “Common Core” doesn’t help identify the origin of the problem. There are three main components to the teaching experience: standards, curriculum (which includes content and teaching methodologies) and assessment.

If you don’t like books on a reading list, that’s curriculum/content, not standards.

If your child doesn’t understand how to do math, that’s curriculum/methodology, not standards.

If you don’t like the tests being administered, that’s an assessment issue, not standards.

Not one person who testified before the committee identified a single page, paragraph, sentence or word of the math and English standards they objected to. However, every teacher who testified implored the committee to approve the current standards.

Instead of trying to figure out the real source of the problem, the House Education Committee voted to simply remove all standards, such as: teaching multiplication, knowing the alphabet, understanding the solar system, along with everything else — and blamed “Common Core” repeatedly during the debate.

The politicizing of education furthers my resolve to be a voice for reason, critical thinking and common sense in the Legislature.

Rep. Steve Berch is a first-term representative for Boise’s District 15 Seat A and serves on the Business, Education and Local Government committees.

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