American public education seems to be riding a see-saw of political experimentation, rocking from one administration to the next in the name of "reform."
Now, there's nothing wrong with experimentation. In fact, education needs to evolve as fast if not faster than our always-changing society. But as it evolves, it also needs to improve.
The question on the table is exactly that - is the latest incarnation of national education reform better than what came before it? If not, will it be another No Child Left Behind that will be picked away as aspect after aspect becomes unworkable? Or will it be another Students Come First that will end up a political pile of ashes in a ballot bonfire?
We believe that Common Core Standards - or the Idaho Core Standards, as this state's version is branded - take the right approach to education reform and they should be given a chance.
Common Core Standards is not a curriculum; it's an approach to learning. And, more importantly, it's not a set of rigid regulations that will overburden rural schools the way No Child Left Behind has done.
Instead, at least in its theory, Idaho Core Standards uses a common sense, real-world approach to education. It teaches communication and problem solving. Its tests measure how a student arrived at the answer as much as it measures that those answers are right.
In other words, it teaches children to think, not just to memorize.
Remember sitting in math class and wondering, "When will I ever use this?" Remember how you had that one teacher who actually answered that question for you and the lightbulb went on?
Starting this fall, teachers will uniformly teach that way - offering real-life applications for the math they teach. It will also require a more integrated approach to subjects, including more reading and writing in math classes.
Idaho adopted the Common Core Standards for English and Math in 2011, and the standards were revised into the Idaho Core Standards.
Now, it's time for those standards to see the classroom. They will be implemented for the first time this fall. Teachers are being trained and are busy rewriting lesson plans and shifting their approach to meet these new standards.
Common Core Standards is a voluntary opt-in program. Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia opted not to adopt the national standards. And states are free to opt-out at any time - though an argument has been made that the government is using federal funds as a carrot for states that opt-in.
The concern by many is that this is the kind of top-down, federal government control of our local schools that we never wanted here in Idaho. But the truth is, what we're doing isn't working.
A Kidscount.org study reports that 67 percent of Idaho children are "below proficient" in reading at grade level. When Education Week published its annual Quality Counts report this January, Idaho education was ranked 49th in the nation above Nevada and South Dakota (results included D.C. to bring the number measured to 51).
And talk to any administrator at College of Southern Idaho and they'll tell you that the school spends a growing number of resources on remedial education, just getting its freshmen up to a college level so they can start taking credited courses.
We can demand local control, but we must also be aware that our children - especially here in Idaho - will work in an increasingly global marketplace. They will compete for jobs against students in China and India. We need to do what we can to make sure they are ready.
That doesn't mean we should embrace Idaho Core Standards with open arms and closed eyes.
By all accounts, these standards are more rigorous. But what does that mean in the classroom? Will we see the brightest students get left behind as more effort goes to struggling students who need help meeting the standards? Or will it go the other way - widening the gap between the achievers and those in remedial classes?
It's hard to know until the standards are implemented. It's a risk, but one that worth taking.
With all that said, it's important to remember, there's no substitute for a talented, caring teacher in the classroom. We need to hire and work to retain good teachers. Those teachers are the future of education in this country - not education reform coming down from Boise or Washington, no matter how well-researched or how good the intention.