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Idaho's top school official shares her vision with legislators

Idaho state Superintendent Debbie Critchfield shared her vision of education Wednesday with member of the House Education Committee.
Screenshot from Idaho Public Television
Idaho state Superintendent Debbie Critchfield shared her vision of education Wednesday with member of the House Education Committee.

Superintendent Debbie Critchfield talks about a new strategic plan and a move back to emphasizing reading and math.

Idaho school Superintendent Debbie Critchfield says the state needs to return to the basics of education.

Critchfield shared her vision of the state’s education system Wednesday in presentations to the education committees in the state House and Senate. She says her agency will submit a new strategic plan to the state Board of Education later this year. That plan has four major points.

The first focuses on instruction in reading and math. Critchfield says the state has made progress is helping more students, especially third grade and below, to improve their reading skills. The goal is to continue that improvement. She says that includes a return to tried-and-true phonics instruction.

“The science of reading is founded in phonics. Go figure. We got away from that,” she said.

She says many districts have made the move back to phonics and are finding that more of their students are meeting the state’s reading standards. She says those districts are sharing their stories with districts experiencing less success.

For math, Critchfield says the state is not satisfied with student progress, especially in grades 5-8.

“We want to put into action a similar process for math that we have for reading,” she said.

She says her agency will work with the state Board of Education to reassess the math standards and develop a strategy aimed at making math instruction more relevant for students.

“Many of the math classes that our students take are not applicable to the career choices they’d like to have. So we’re looking at what are those essential math standards, how do we build upon those our students feels as though they have the foundational pieces that they need to be successful, whether they want to be a mechanical engineer or a lineman or everything in between,” she said.

Critchfield says the second point of the strategic plan aims to prepare students for life, not just for college and career. She says her agency will do a full review of the state’s graduation standards, perhaps simplifying the state requirements and leaving local districts to add their own. She says she would like to see the state put more emphasis on internships and apprenticeships and promote career-technical education as options for students who don’t plan on attending college. As an example, she mentioned a recent initiative in north Idaho in which the state is working with the forest industry to create a curriculum and more career opportunities in forestry and logging.

Critchfield says the state needs to make the senior year more productive for students.

“In many ways, I believe that our system created ‘senioritis’,” she said. “We get seniors to a point where they think that that last year is something they just have to endure, rather than something that gives them the skills and the training and the jump start that they need for the options that are so readily available in the communities around Idaho.”

Critchfield’s third goal in the strategic plan is to make Idaho a better place for teachers and school administrators.

“There is a non-financial aspect to being an educator that needs help,” she said. “The number one issue that I hear from teachers, without exception, does not focus on pay. It focuses on the needs for more tools and strategies in the classroom for classroom behaviors. We hear that consistently, constantly, everywhere around the state.”

She praised the legislature for allocating more money to increase pay for teachers and classified employees. But she says the state needs to restore the value in being an educator. Critchfield acknowledged rural districts are having a hard time attracting teachers, especially those new to the profession.

“We’re looking at ‘grow your own’ programs, how you take a very effective para educator and get them into non-traditional teacher programs. We’re seeing more of that,” she said.

She also emphasized the state needs to clarify the role of educators as teachers of academics, not as places where students can get therapy. She says schools need to be able to refer students and parents to professionals in their communities.

The fourth goal, says Critchfield, is to modernize the funding structure for Idaho schools. She says changes made this year have allowed the state to keep as much as $165 million in state money that’s been allocated from getting to the districts that need it. She wants rules that allow local districts to have more control over how to spend money allocated to them.

Doug Nadvornick has spent most of his 30+-year radio career at Spokane Public Radio and filled a variety of positions. He is currently the program director and news director. Through the years, he has also been the local Morning Edition and All Things Considered host (not at the same time). He served as the Inland Northwest correspondent for the Northwest News Network, based in Coeur d’Alene. He created the original program grid for KSFC. He has also served for several years as a board member for Public Media Journalists Association. During his years away from SPR, he worked at The Pacific Northwest Inlander, Washington State University in Spokane and KXLY Radio.