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Idaho Education Chief Defends Reforms

To kick off the second day of the SIIA Ed Tech Industry Summit, keynote speaker Tom Luna, the superintendent of public instruction in Idaho, spoke about the myriad of education reforms passed last year that is re-shaping everything from what classrooms look like to how teachers are compensated in that state.

"I believe that there's an inseparable link between a high-quality education system and a growing, robust economy," said Luna. "You cannot have one without the other."

Looking at the education statistics in Idaho before the reform, 92 percent of the state's students graduated from high school, but only 46 percent continued on to postsecondary education. Of that 46 percent, 40 percent needed remediation upon entering higher education, and only 38 percent went on to a second year of postsecondary education. As it is, only 34 percent of Idahoans have a postsecondary degree, while 60 percent of jobs require one. That, said Luna, was one of the main impetuses for the comprehensive reform.

In addition to the economic and academic reasons for reform, the fiscal climate of education funding in the state required a change, said Luna. "We had to make deep cuts, and we realized we were in a recession that was deeper and longer than any of us had ever been in before," he said. "We had to be willing to spend the money that we have differently. That is a hard call to make for education."

So what is changing in Idaho? For one, in three years, every high school in the state is scheduled to be a 1-to-1 computing environment. Whether that will be laptops or tablets is yet to be seen, but every high school teacher and administrator in the state is supposed to receive a laptop this year to undergo a year's worth of professional development. Next year, those devices will start rolling out to high school students. The initiative is fully funded, said Luna, but how it will be implemented is still being worked out. The state has set aside $4 million per year for professional development, and $100 million to be spent on technology over the next 10 years.

In a controversial turn of events, the education reforms also eliminated tenure and collective bargaining for teachers, while implementing a pay-for-performance system. "We know that the most important asset is the quality of the teacher in the classroom," said Luna. "And we must have a system to make sure that every student has the highest quality teacher every year in every classroom." Eighty-five percent of teachers are supposed to receive some kind of bonus, either for working in a hard-to-fill position, taking on a leadership role within the school, or for hitting academic targets. Each teacher is eligible for up to an $8,000 bonus per year.

Luna wrapped up his comments by emphasizing that while technology is an important part of the reforms, it is not a silver bullet for education. "Technology is not replacing teachers," he said "Technology is replacing chalk."

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