Senate Bill 1184, the third rail of the Luna plan, passed the House today after several hours of debate. The vote was 44-26, so the legislation now goes to Gov. Butch Otter for his signature.
Once again, some of the most stirring floor debate against the soon-to-be Luna law came from Rep. Brian Cronin, one of the only lawmakers with school-age children. We reprint it here with his permission.
Mr. Speaker, ladies and gentlemen, it’s been an honor for me to serve on the Education Committee this year. I appreciate serving, in particular with the good gentleman from 3, the Chairman. I appreciate his willingness to allow testimony and debate, and the respect that he has accorded me throughout the process. And I appreciate the fact that so much of our attention this year has been focused on our singlemost important constitutional responsibility as legislators—the education of Idaho’s children. Unfortunately, I wish the outcomes were different.
We find ourselves here again debating a monumental bill that represents radical change for our public schools. Bill #3. The third pillar. I’ll say one thing about these pillars: They weren’t built with union labor and they probably wouldn’t pass a building inspection. In fact, such pillars remind me a little bit of the dilapidated physical condition of many schools throughout Idaho.
We’re told that this is the new and improved modernization bill. New, in that it has a different bill number on it. But improved? I don’t think so. In S1184, we find the same flawed assumptions, untested ideas, and “brave new world” approach to education that overemphasizes the role technology can and should play in educating children and undervalues the indisputable impact of the personal relationship between teacher and student.
We’re told that the overwhelming, perhaps unprecedented, public outcry about this plan has been heard and taken into account. And yet, I see little evidence of that. One of the biggest objections we heard from the outset—from teachers, parents, and even students—was to give every ninth grader a laptop. And yet, not only did we NOT shelve this plan, but if you were to do the math, comparing S1113 with 1184, looking at total mobile computing device expenditures from 2012 to 2017, you’d find that we’re actually spending $2.3M more in this bill than the previous version.
We’re told that the stakeholders helped to make this bill better—and yet not a single one of them testified in favor of the bill. The Idaho Business Coalition for Educational Excellence didn’t even show up at either the Senate or House Education Committee hearings—an action that speaks volumes.
We’re told that this plan puts our schools on sound financial footing and yet the Superintendent’s own budget table—the “Three Pillars Financial Table”—shows a nearly $54M dollar deficit over the next six years. It’s implied that that hole will be filled by treating the 7 least efficient counties as if they’re consolidated. There’s no legislation to do that now—that bad news will likely come next January when we’ll see a bill cutting the budgets of school districts in Bingham, Canyon, Gooding, Lincoln, Payette, Shoshone, and Twin Falls counties, whether they consolidate or not.
And we’re told that this bill gives the school districts the flexibility they wanted. And yet, the districts and superintendents have been pretty clear about the options that this bill leaves them: They can lay off teachers or they can cut teacher salaries. That isn’t much of a choice. And as predicted, such a dilemma makes a mockery of the notion that we’re going to reward teaching excellence with a performance pay program in S1110 that’s funded by cutting teacher pay.
We’re told that the reason that we need to modernize our schools is because our children are falling behind. We’re told that we can’t compete with children in China, India, Finland, Singapore, and a long list of nations that are supposedly eating our lunch when it comes to academic achievement. To be perfectly frank, I’ve grown quite weary of the constant talk about “competing with the rest of the world,” not only because the comparisons are often not fair and not apt but because we promptly choose to do the opposite of what seems to work in all of these other nations.
Everybody loves to talk about Finland. Well here’s something they do in Finland: For most subjects they have an additional teacher who provides extra assistance to those kids who might be having a hard time with the subject matter. And yet we’re told teacher/student ratios don’t matter and with S1184, those ratios will almost certainly rise. No, it’s not mandated this time but the de facto effect is the same.
Here’s something else they do in Finland: they combine primary and secondary schooling so that kids don’t have to experience what can be a very destabilizing transition between elementary school and junior high. Interesting idea—I haven’t heard it mentioned once in our dialogue about reform. Nor have I heard about the practice of keeping students in the same classroom with the same teacher for several years—another practice applied in Finland.
And there’s one other point we should mention about Finland: Teaching is an elevated and prestigious career there. Teachers are highly regarded and teaching standards are high. In fact, this is fairly universal characteristic in all of these countries that are supposedly beating us.
And yet, of the three pillars, there isn’t a single one that actually puts teachers on top of that pillar, elevating them to a position of esteem and high status. In fact, we’ve done just the opposite this year. We’ve denigrated and devalued teachers. You may not believe that’s true but you only need go to a school in your district and ask teachers if they feel valued with the legislation we’re passing to find out how our actions have affected them.
Let’s talk briefly about Singapore, where teachers start out making as much money as young doctors. But we don’t really talk about that when comparing ourselves to these supposedly superior school systems. In Singapore, teachers have a strong network of mentors and spend a lot of time—15 or more hours per week—planning with colleagues, observing each other’s classes, doing research and other non-classroom activities. But none of that seems to be part of our reform conversation.
And in many of these other countries, we find that teacher unions work hand in hand with their governments to hone the skills of teachers and students on an ongoing basis. Here, we’ve developed an entire plan around the assumption that teacher unions are the problem.
I could go on about the many ways in which the bill is flawed and how the rhetoric fails to correspond with the actual details. But I’d like to focus on the subject of educational technology, which is really the crux of S1184.
I don’t have anything against technology. In fact, I’m a big fan. My laptop, my smart phone, and other devices are indispensable to me.
In my professional life, I participate regularly in webinars, web meetings, and online training. In fact, I’ve even led a fair deal online training myself. I communicate and collaborate via the Internet with people in different states and even different countries. And yes, the Internet is a valuable research tool for me.
I suppose it’s remarkable that I do all these things having never once taken an online class in all my years of schooling. Or is it?
I have to chuckle when a look at a plan like this that purports to prepare our children for the new economy. I have been working in the new economy since the term has become part of our lexicon. I’ve worked for dot.coms. I even started one.
And here’s what I know—young people today are in no way challenged in the workplace due to their lack of familiarity, experience, or comfort with technology. To the contrary, their facility with technology is almost invariably a given. For most young people growing up today, the technology instinct is in their DNA.
The skills that are most in demand today, the skills that are required of leaders and followers in this new economy, the skills in which there may be a deficit in the workplace are the skills that humanity has always prized: clear and convincing writing and speech; the ability to collaborate productively with peers; the ability to assimilate and analyze ever growing amounts of information and data; the ability to solve complex problems—often in a team environment, the ability to focus on a single task and see it through to the end; the ability to make relevant and creative connections between seemingly disparate sets of information.
At times it seems that I live and die by my computer. But I know that there isn’t a computer in the world that can teach any of these things. Good teachers impart these critical skills and they always have.
I am proud and extremely grateful for my education—an education which was almost entirely devoid of technology and which gravitated toward the liberal arts and the humanities. If you listen to today’s reform rhetoric, you might conclude that I’d be out in the cold in today’s economy. I don’t do math and I don’t do science, although I did pretty well in those subjects in school. I’m not an engineer. I’m not a programmer. And though I agree that we absolutely need to be turning out more people in these fields, that isn’t all we need.
Some of you might remember, several weeks ago, the much hyped visit of one of the gurus of online learning—Mr. Tom Van Arken. I found his presentation in committee interesting, to say the least. And his enthusiasm for the promise of classroom technology was indeed infectious.
But I asked Mr. Van Arken a very simple question and I found his answer to be very revealing. I asked, having seen this firsthand while teaching in one of the top ranked districts in the country, about the evidence that many of the highest performing schools in the country—which are also sometimes the more affluent districts—are using largely traditional (rather than technology based or online) teaching methods. Mr. Van Arken hesitated, smiled, and then acknowledged that this was true. But, he was quick to explain, most places in the country simply don’t have the resources to sustain such schools.
In other words, we have models that work in this country and work very well. But our fiscal realities apparently don’t allow us to replicate those models. And this statement echoes the fundamental and extremely disturbing premise of the education plan before us—that our education policy decisions are driven by considerations of what we claim we can afford rather than what we want and know can work.
This plan, ladies and gentlemen, does replace teachers with technology. No amount of rhetorical tap dancing can change that. It is an indisputable fact that we are diminishing our investment in teachers and increasing our investment in computers.
And amidst all the other technical problems, unanswered questions, and dubious claims in this bill, that is the one that troubles me most.
I’ll conclude, Mr. Speaker, by talking about the role and impact of real classroom teachers, some of whom won’t be working in the classroom next year. Last night, I used technology to poll my friends about their favorite teachers and the most important things they taught. Here’s what I learned:
· Mr Peterson taught me I can be and do anything – regardless of what others thought. She made learning interesting and fun through storytelling and repetition.
· Mr. Averitt made me the thoughtful citizen I am today
· Mr. Coughlin always made reading plays interesting and had a great sense of humor.
· Mrs. Bieter believed in me and encouraged me to run for student council. She told me I was a leader.
· Mr. Block taught me how to defend against bullies and how to write and organize a paper:
· Miss De Claire always taught from the heart and really loved her students.
· Mrs. Ciotola, through great literature, taught us that there was a bigger world out there.
· Mr. Christensen taught me to think critically about my own work, and that it was OK not to conform.
· Mr. Bruce taught me about leadership and that I could get more people to follow my lead by building THEM up rather than trying to build MYSELF up in front of them.
· Thanks to Mr. Weisel, I don't think I've missed an opportunity to vote since I was 18.
· Mr Prinzing taught me how to respect and appreciate those who don't see the world the same way.
· Mr. Kinsey taught me that labels like conservative and liberal mean nothing.
· Mr. Kojima taught me not only public speaking, but how to be confident and compassionate, and why to always take an active role in making the world a better place.
I received many other comments that were similar, in that everything they gained from those influential teachers was uniquely human. That is to say, the most important things they learned from these very influential people in their lives could never be taught by a computer.
An education policy that devalues that interaction is one that I cannot support.
It is my hope that as we move forward, we broaden the conversation. That we take a more thoughtful, inclusive, evidence-driven approach to creating stronger schools. That if we are to compare ourselves to other countries, we then explore the many ways in which some of those countries have achieved success and pilot different ideas to see what might work here.
But until then, I still cannot support this misguided plan and I urge you to vote no as well.