Education Reform without a Price?

On Facebook this past weekend, I was pointed to an article about Tom Luna’s plan to reform education in the state of Idaho. This caught my attention because 1) I am an educator who studied education reform intensively during graduate school, 2) the reform in question is happening in a state that I left precisely because of the education system, and 3) education is a central component to parenting for any child, but especially for children with disabilities.

While the article itself focuses on the many for-profit education companies that have contributed to Luna’s campaign, I’m looking at the specifics of the “Students Come First” legislation. There are too many to cover in one post (at least without boring you). I’ll take a look at three of them.

Laptops for Every High School Student and Technology in the Classroom

Several studies have demonstrated that use of laptops in the classroom can improve learning outcomes, but these studies also include an increase in teacher expertise in teaching with this technology—something that is missing from Luna’s plan. It is imperative that we not conclude that simple availability of technology is enough, especially for highly impoverished schools. Or schools that aren’t accustomed to such technology as is the case for most Idaho schools.

Luna clearly believes that access is the primary issue. This is evident in his straightforward statement that Idaho will be dramatically increasing standards (a topic for its own post) and that “every student will be college and career ready.” I suppose that depends on your definition of ready. Putting a laptop into high school students’ hands is a good idea. Thinking that this alone will improve test scores is foolhardy at best.

Meaningful Professional Development for Teachers

Maybe Luna plans to address the above issue with his statement that “All professional development will be meaningful and focus on what students and teachers need.” The problem with this is simple: Who decides what is meaningful and what students and teachers need? Since Luna believes that all high school students need laptops, he must also believe that all students and teachers need professional development that emphasizes effective use of technology in the classroom (and by the way, teaching with a PowerPoint or asking students to create a PowerPoint doesn’t qualify as effective use of technology in the classroom).

But what about the rest of the professional development that teachers need? Consider that more and more students with disabilities are being included in the general education classroom (this is a GOOD thing!) and that teacher preparation programs nationwide have yet to catch up with this trend. Don’t teachers need professional development addressing inclusivity and effective instruction for diverse student bodies? What about cultural competency? What about teaching in low socioeconomic status schools where the challenges to meet standards are extreme (who can think about math when they haven’t eaten since lunch yesterday)?

One would think that ultimately, teachers and parents would decide what professional development will be meaningful. This might be Luna’s intention given that he wants to involve parents in teacher evaluations. Or maybe he’s planning to decide based on the outcome of his plan for pay-for-performance for teachers (again, a subject for another post). Yet, this isn’t what he says. He says only that professional development will be meaningful and will focus on what students and teachers need. If his assumption is that students need to meet standardized test scores, he’s well out of bounds of effective educational practice.

Local School Board Authority

Maybe the School Board will decide what professional development will help their teachers and students since Luna wants to give more authority to local school boards. I’m not opposed to local school boards—not by a long shot—but I do recognize that school boards are not reflective of the student body that they represent most of the time. Trained educators rarely serve on school boards. People in poverty don’t serve on school boards. Most school boards are extremely limited in cultural diversity. So if they don’t represent the student body, don’t have a strong understanding of issues of poverty and its impact on education, and don’t really understand what makes for effective education, precisely what do they have more authority over? Hopefully, the budget and evaluation of administration. I suspect, however, that this isn’t quite what Luna has in mind.


There is a lot to be said for the Idaho education system reforming. It needs reform and it needs a lot of it (Idaho isn’t alone in this). At the same time, Luna is out of his mind to think that effective, quality education can be accomplished without raising taxes, by paying teachers bonuses for higher test scores, or by putting a laptop into the hands of high school students who may or may not know how to use them while they are being taught by teachers who may or may not know how to teach with them.

The positive is that this opens the door for more conversation about reforming the education system that we’ve relied on in its current form for far too long. With a little luck and a lot of on-the-ground activism, it could be that educational best practices actually make their way into that conversation.

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