The Student Empowerment and Accountability Bill

I started in October substitute teaching in the Emmett School District.  This has been an interesting experience. Most of my assignments have been in the sixth grade.  The experience reinforced my experience as a Spanish teacher – the biggest source of teacher stress comes from students that do not want to be in school. They see no value in learning the subject being taught and, therefore, entertain themselves by causing classroom management issues. 

What could be done to increase the number of engaged students which would reduce teacher stress and improve learning while being cost neutral?

Goal:  Make a simple structural change in the funding formula that would reduce teacher stress, improves student learning, and incentivizes students to learn.

Problem:  Large institutions, such as public education, over time, become inflexible and resist innovation. The main impediment to innovation in public education is the funding system. Schools have been and are funded for attendance; not learning.  

Public school districts receive funding from the state of Idaho for attendance. The seat-time method of funding was devised because of a false assumption that if a set amount of time elapses, a set amount of learning will take place by all students. The reality is a student who is engaged will learn a concept, subject, or skill faster than a student that does not want to learn. Seat-time funding ignores that fact that students have different abilities and motivations, yet the current funding system forces all students to spend the same amount of time in class.   

 The Proposal

I propose a structural change that allows schools to receive enrollment-based funding for engaged students. Schools would still receive funds for disengaged students based upon the old seat-time (attendance) model. 

Basically, there would be two funding mechanisms, one for engaged students and one for disengaged students. The proposal would be cost neutral and would create an environment of tremendous innovation. If students are learning, does it matter how long they are in school? Focusing on learning and engagement would:

  1. Allow significant innovation and create partnerships with parents in unique ways.
  2. A student could earn flexible attendance – a parent could send their elementary child to school two days a week and homeschool the other days.
  3. A charter school could start a learning pod with 20 or more students where the school sends a teacher to a remote location for face-to-face instruction two days a week and the parents teach the school curriculum the other days of the week.
  4. The student could go home at noon every day.
  5. After completing his or her assignments, the student could spend more time studying math or a longer recess, or high school students could go to work in the afternoon.
  6. A student may come to school at 9 a.m. rather than 7:30 a.m.
  7. The possibilities are endless.

Of course, there would have to be coordination between the teacher, the school, the parents, and the student. I would recommend a written agreement of schedules, expectations, and consequences. In this manner, there would be stability in expectations and scheduling. In my opinion, parents that have a child doing well in school have demonstrated responsible behavior and the right to innovative options. 

This small structural change in funding could have a multitude of benefits. One of the main benefits is that it empowers teachers, students, and parents to work together to create the incentive package or individual education plan (IEP) for each student based upon the student’s needs, the parents’ resources, and the school district’s ability for flexibility.  There must be a coordinated effort and understanding between the school, the teacher, the parents, and the student. 

Important Point:  Rigor would be maintained and would be increased unlike some states, like Oregon, that are lowering high school graduation requirements.[i]   Under this proposal, high standards, rigor, and excellence would increase and work ethic would be rewarded. 

Four Questions

People usually have four questions about this proposal.

  1. Who decides if a student is engaged and making progress?
  2. How is student engagement defined and measured?
  3. Why use student engagement rather than test scores?
  4. What accountability is in place, so schools don’t exaggerate their numbers? 

 Who decides if learning takes place?  The obvious answer is the teacher/s of the student. Who else would know? It is not the Legislature. Legislators don’t know individual students. The State Department of Education doesn’t know the students either. If SDE decided, it would become a bureaucratic mess and burden. No, this system must be flexible and nimble. Only the teacher and parents can make this decision. The teacher is with his or her students every school day. 

How is engagement measured?  In grades k-5, it is more about mastery of basic concepts and skills, doing assignments and learning the basics of reading, writing, and math facts and math concepts. In grades k-5, students that are struggling may need to be in school longer especially during the summer to avoid learning loss. 

 In grades 6-12, students need to have education and career goals as well as do assignments and make educational progress. If a student wants to be deemed “engaged”, the student needs to able to answer these questions.

  • Why are you in school? 
  • What do you wish to accomplish in school and life? 
  • Are they interested in trades, education, or professional careers? 
  • How can the school resources be used to help you reach your goals?   
  • What are your academic weaknesses and how can you strengthen them?
  • What are your academic strengths?

 Why use student engagement rather than test scores?  Student engagement is used because engagement is the precursor of learning. Teachers can easily tell if a student is engaged (turn in assignments etc.). The experiment in statewide assessments to measure student learning and secondarily as a tool for teacher accountability has been a failure. Students that see no value in the test simply fill in the blanks without even reading the questions.  Statewide assessments cannot be used for any individual student measure in this proposal. Current statewide assessments are too inflexible for this proposal other than another general and measure of long-term disengagement.

 What is the accountability system in place so that students are not mislabeled?

Statewide tests would not be used to “prove” individual student engagement or learning. Our current ISAT test is clumsy, old, in need of update, and cannot measure student engagement. It measures frustration tolerance.  

Statewide exams and tests would be used to hold school districts accountable to make sure average IRI, ISAT, and SAT scores correlate with the number of students the school district identifies as engaged. Engaged student scores would be separated from non-engaged student scores. The scores of engaged students should be higher than non-engaged students. If there is a disparity, the State Department of Education would make inquiries as to why and future legislation may be necessary.

This is a very simple plan. Variations are already being used in a variety of settings. Homeschool and sports are two examples. Athletes must have passing grades to compete on a team.

 Civic Virtue

This proposal increases Civic Virtue. The key element of civic virtue is to help everyone be successful and reach their full potential without long-term reliance on government handout programs. Education is the greatest tool we have to help a child accomplish their goals. For a more complete discussion on Civic Virtue please go to:

Steven Thayn

Steven Thayn

Sen. Steven Thayn represents District 8. He served three terms in the House of Representatives (2006-2012) until his election to the Idaho Senate. Sen. Thayn is a graduate of Emmett High School, Treasure Valley Community College and Boise State University (B.S. Political Science). He and his wife Sheryll have eight children.

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