If you pay attention to what you read and hear about the national rankings, you might think that our public schools are in the water hazard.
In Idaho, the funding is low, test scores are horrible and the go-on rate for graduating seniors stinks. In summary, Idaho may be the nation’s worst place to educate kids – if you believe everything you hear or read.
I get a different view from Drs. Bob and Mary Ann Ranells, two superintendents who have been in the education business for 46 years. Bob heads the Wallace School District, my old home ground, and Mary Ann is superintendent of the West Ada School District, the largest in the state. While they are not blind to the challenges facing public schools, they see more positives than negatives.
Mary Ann and I have one thing in common: We both graduated from high school 50 years ago; she went to Pocatello and I graduated from Coeur d’Alene High. The similarities end there. She was named one of four finalists for national Superintendent of the Year, which tells all you need to know about her abilities as an educator.
“It’s amazing how many opportunities the kids have today compared to when you and I went to school,” she said.
High school students at West Ada are taking 38,000 hours of college credits, compared to the 18,000 credit hours they were taking when Mary Ann came to the district three and a half years ago. “This year,” she said, “we had 73 seniors who graduated with their associate degrees a week before they graduated from high school.”
She is just as proud of the 54 career technical programs offered at West Ada – some that will require further education, and others that don’t.
The Wallace School District, one of the state’s smaller districts, doesn’t have the resources of West Ada, but there’s no shortage of quality. And I thought it was excellent more than 50 years ago. Of the 115 school districts in Idaho, according to one source, Wallace ranks 19th in terms of best places to teach, 25th in the category of safest school districts and 35th in best teachers overall. It’s proof that the best and brightest teachers are not necessarily in the larger schools.
Bob and Mary Ann agree on fundamental aspects of public education. “Nationally, we have the best-trained teaching staff in the history of public education. The teaching is better, the curriculum is better, and the technology is better,” he said. “Secondly is the return on investment. Kids are achieving at the highest levels ever.”
There are challenges as well -- some that the schools can remedy. Socioeconomic factors are not as easy to resolve. Either way, they tell me, there are no magical solutions to complicated problems – or even a consensus on what the right solutions are. “We can’t even get unified support for full-day kindergarten,” Bob says.
Superintendents don’t wait for solutions from the state. “We don’t depend on the state superintendent or the Department of Education for help, and we’re not disappointed when we don’t get it,” Bob says. “There are people who want to think that the state superintendent, just by the office position, can perform miracles, but they can’t. The miracles are performed in those classrooms every day and by principals and teachers.”
Mary Ann, a former deputy state superintendent, is more generous with her assessment. She gives credit to state officials for promoting increases in the career ladder for teachers, greater emphasis on literacy and providing more funding for guidance counselors – initiatives that have made a big difference in her schools.
She views test results as valuable tools for evaluating what kids know, or don’t know, but they don’t tell the complete story.
“The teachers and kids feel that what they are learning day-to-day, week-to-week and month-to-month is what matters more to them in terms of quality,” she said. “My litmus test for success is talking with the kids. I love to ask graduating students how well we prepared them and what we did to help them.”
As you might imagine, she gets plenty of positive feedback.
With the likes of Bob and Mary Ann Ranells, public education in Idaho is in good hands. They remind me that Idaho schools are not backward and “Dueling Banjos” is not our state’s song.
Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org