Idaho leaders take lessons from national experts

Tony Bennett says school choice works. He also emphasizes the importance of setting standards in education, aligning appropriate assessments and attaching accountability, calling them the “three legs of the same stool.”

Eric Hanushek says the future of the country and the state of Idaho depends on having a skilled work force. “History shows a direct correlation between education and economic growth,” he said.

Eric Hanushek
Eric Hanushek

Bennett and Hanushek spoke to Idaho lawmakers and education leaders Tuesday morning at the Statehouse as part of Idaho Business for Education’s Legislative Academy.

Bennett was elected Indiana state school superintendent in 2009 and served as commissioner of education in Florida in 2012-13.

Hanushek is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. He has written or edited 23 books; his most recent work is titled “The Knowledge of Capital Nations” and describes the economic impact of higher achievement.

Tony Bennett
Tony Bennett

A handful of elected officials attended the event, including House Education Chair Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, and Lt. Gov. Brad Little. Emmett Superintendent Wayne Rush and Melba Superintendent Andy Grover were among a handful of education leaders in the audience.

Hanushek started by presenting sobering thoughts on Idaho education, which performs well below many states and countries. “If Idaho rose to the level of Minnesota schools, or more modestly the level of Montana, it would increase GDP over twice as much the next 15 years.”

He outlined a Q&A:

  1. Does achievement matter?
  2. Is the United States competitive?
  3. How is Idaho doing?
    Not so well
  4. Are there things to be done?

Improvement is possible in Idaho, Hanushek said, but not easy. “You don’t get gains by just throwing more money into schools — you need to do smarter things.”

Most important, he said, is improving teacher quality. Resumes that include advanced degrees, experience, certification and hours of professional development do not identify good teachers. “Principals, teachers, parents and probably the janitor can identify good teachers,” he said.

Hanushek also said Idaho leaders should align teacher pay and performance. “Reward success,” he said. “Maybe zero is the right pay. A strong system of accountability is important with local autonomy and parent choice.”

Bennett, a former Indiana basketball coach, admitted that while leading Indiana schools his administration pushed education reform to uncomfortable levels. The Republican lost his bid for a second term while education reform was a key platform of his tenure.

“There is a price to pay but the price is worth paying,” said Bennett, whose house was vandalized and his wife was shut out of the education profession while he pushed Indiana to become the second-highest education growth state in the country. “Don’t do what’s politically expedient at the cost of children.”

While state superintendent, Bennett told Indiana educators “we’re keeping score.” He also pushed several overhauls:

  • Rebuilding teacher certification, making it easier for professionals to join the teaching ranks.
  • Increasing investment in school choice, charters and vouchers.
  • Assigning letter grades to schools. The state took over at least four failing schools, which was “very difficult work.”
  • Reforming collective bargaining.
  • Rolling out a statewide teacher evaluation model, where only 33 percent of pay was based on experience and degrees.

“A certain portion (of an evaluation) has to pay attention to student achievement,” Hanushek said, agreeing with Bennett.

Bennett said he wished he’d done a better job at messaging. “Convince and don’t convict educators,” he warned.

Bennett advised Idahoans that the one most important investment is in third-grade reading. “Invest in the fact that a child should not move on to fourth grade if they can’t read at that level. Third-grade reading will have massive impact on the future success.”