October 20, 2005 in Idaho

Arts backers flunk graduation changes

By The Spokesman-Review
 

November meeting

The state Accelerated Learning Task Force will meet in November to review public comments on proposed graduation requirements and amendments before forwarding its recommendations to the Idaho Board of Education. Comments can be sent to: State Board of Education, Attn: High School Rule Changes, P.O. Box 83720, Boise, ID 83720-0037.

Friends of the arts gave scathing reviews of a state proposal to add more math and science credits to high school graduation requirements at a packed public hearing Wednesday night at North Idaho College.

Nearly 200 people – including many students and educators – attended the hearing, the last in the state, on the Accelerated Learning Task Force’s plan. The proposal calls for increasing high school math requirements from two years to four and science from two years to three, and mandating that students choose a career focus and take college entrance exams.

The plan also calls for middle school students to take pre-algebra and prepare a “post-secondary readiness plan” at the end of sixth grade – a suggestion that drew laughs from the audience.

In general, the critics panned the new requirements for being expensive, elitist and undermining the arts.

Teacher Tim Sanford calculated that to meet the requirements, the Coeur d’Alene School District would have to spend more than $1 million to hire more math and science teachers and purchase portable classrooms.

Like many of the speakers, Sanford worried that many elective programs would be eliminated so the school district could afford to meet the new requirements.

That fear drove many students and teachers to wax eloquent about the virtues of a liberal arts education, with an emphasis on “arts.”

From learning what it means to be human to developing brain synapses that lead to higher-level thinking, the arguments for arts education and electives in general were varied and numerous.

“Many students find a sense of belonging in their elective classes,” said teacher Cynthia Chapman. “Are we prepared to build more dropout retrieval schools?”

Sue Thilo, the only state board member to attend the Coeur d’Alene hearing (although all comments were taped for the benefit of other board members), said a working group of state agency staffers and legislators is examining the costs of implementing the proposed changes.

Some speakers feared those costs would not be covered by the state, but passed down to local taxpayers.

One rationale for the more stringent requirements is that while Idaho has one of the nation’s highest graduation rates at 81 percent, the state has one of the lowest college attendance rates. Only 34 percent of Idaho high school graduates go on to college and of those 14 percent graduate.

State officials are worried that too few Idahoans are prepared for the high-tech workforce. Furthermore, less education means less earning power.

A glossy eight-page overview of the issue, handed out at the hearing, featured charts and statistics to show how poorly U.S. students perform compared to other countries in the world. It included a quote from Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft: “When I compare our high schools to what I see when I’m traveling abroad, I am terrified for our workforce of tomorrow.”

But speakers Wednesday said forcing more math and science credits on unwilling students isn’t going to solve the problem.

A music teacher suggested that affordability may be the biggest barrier to the college-bound student. Idaho’s per-capita income is among the lowest in the nation, but the cost per credit is high at public universities, she said.

But of greatest concern to many who testified was that making all students take more higher level math and science while narrowing their elective options will prompt more to drop out.

More than one speaker pointed out that states with the highest college-bound rates also had high dropout rates.

“The percentage who graduate is more important than the percentage who go on to college,” said Harry Amend, superintendent of the Coeur d’Alene School District. “I hope our state board is not willing to make that tradeoff.”


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