State Superintendent Anne Fox is working to fill Idaho’s schools with discipline, phonics and patriotism.
But the main change students will see this fall from Fox’s efforts is a lot more standardized tests.
Fox can’t make wholesale changes in education in Idaho unless she has the support of state lawmakers, the state Board of Education and local school districts and their boards, who hold the real power over Idaho schools.
“If nothing else, my voice has been heard,” Fox said in an interview last week. “Leadership is not always tied to money or to control.”
Sen. John Hansen, R-Idaho Falls, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said Idaho always has fiercely guarded local control of schools. “It’s been an education to me while I’ve been in the Legislature to find out how little the state superintendent can influence policies at the local level, unless the local districts see fit to adopt suggestions that come from the state office.”
He said of Fox: “If she is respected and has the confidence of the individual districts, then her leadership will be accepted. But it’s a decision that is made at the local level.”
In Coeur d’Alene, many of the changes Fox wants already have occurred, said Superintendent Doug Cresswell. A year before Fox was elected, the local school board started a push for more phonics instruction, more emphasis on arithmetic and stronger discipline.
The changes were prompted by dissatisfaction with local test scores for math computation and spelling, Cresswell said. “We actually rewrote our curriculum the year before last,” he said. The new learning plans went into effect last year.
Fox said she feels her relationship with the state’s school district superintendents has improved since her first few months, and she’s optimistic that districts will support her efforts.
That wasn’t too apparent at the annual superintendents’ meeting this year, at which some superintendents said they felt Fox was talking down to them. Fox ran the meeting as if it was a giant classroom, starting off with the Pledge of Allegiance, a moment of silent prayer, and the whole group singing “God Bless America.” At one point, during a heated discussion over new dual enrollment rules, her department’s attorney, Kirby Nelson, spluttered to the crowd that “some very smart people” had developed the rules and anyone with better ideas should have gotten involved sooner.
An Associated Press poll in March, three months into Fox’s term, said 74 of Idaho’s 112 superintendents had no confidence in her.
Nevertheless, her relationship with local school administrators does appear to be improving. Four recent promotions of longtime education department staffers, including her current chief deputy, Darrell Loosle, have helped that along.
“Her recent hires have been primarily promoting individuals … who’ve been within the Department of Education for quite some years, that superintendents know and have confidence in,” said Cresswell. “I think it probably has improved.”
State Board of Education Chairman Curtis Eaton said the main difference Fox has made so far is in “advocacy for certain groups who feel that she is their representative.”
Terry Anderson, president of the Idaho PTA, said she thinks Fox is open to parents’ concerns. However, she said, “I think she’s listening to a group of parents. I’m not sure that the group she’s listening to is as wide-based as she would need to get to what the real concerns are.”
Fox works with parents who have contacted her, and said a Meridian woman, Barbara Youngstrom, now organizes parents for her when she needs their comments.
“I tell her, ‘I need a home school parent on this issue, or a public school parent on that issue,”’ Fox said.
Youngstrom said she first became active on school issues over a sex education controversy in Meridian, where her son was starting school. She went on to work on Fox’s campaign.
Anderson, whose group is the largest parent organization in the state with 9,000 members, said the PTA is beginning to work with Fox and their relationship is improving. “We’re kind of learning about each other, where we’re at, where our philosophies are.”
Fox said she thinks she has more support among school board members than among professional educators, and Coeur d’Alene School Board Chairman Ken Burchell agreed.
“She was elected as part of a wave of interest in the public for greater accountability on the part of the schools,” Burchell said. “School boards are very sensitive to that, and share that concern with her. We’re working absolutely as hard as we can to improve our schools’ performance.”
Fox’s goals for this school year are mostly popular ones: Stronger reading instruction that includes phonics; helping ensure that school buildings are safe and orderly; setting higher standards and increasing accountability; and promoting parent involvement.
“Most of those things are pretty hard to argue with,” Cresswell said. “What’s important is how it translates at the local school district, what you do to meet the local expectations.”
Fox is pushing school districts to use phonics to teach reading. It’s a traditional method that focuses on sounding out words. Her department has been running voluntary phonics training sessions for teachers, using a $500,000 appropriation from the state Legislature.
Her increased use of standardized tests - to be given in grades 3 to 11 this year - will make schools accountable, Fox said. They’ll show whether students have learned basic skills like arithmetic.
Fox is planning statewide meetings to get citizen suggestions for new curriculum guides that will tell what students should learn in each grade. She recalled the previous guides, saying they weren’t specific enough.
Fox also wants to help school districts strengthen discipline and make sure they teach patriotism. “Some of our people need to be mentored in patriotism,” she said. “That needs to be shored up.”
Fox said she’s hearing from the public that she’s on the right track. She’s visited fairs over the summer, she said, and “When I just go stand there, people come up and talk to me and they tell me … just over and over, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing.”’
“That’s random,” she said.
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