Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Will Legislature make guinea pigs of Idaho kids?

If the Legislature approves the radical changes in public education being pushed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, Idaho should rename its schools: Guinea Pig Elementary, Guinea Pig Middle School and Guinea Pig High.

Luna's plan would turn Idaho students into guinea pigs in the nation's largest experiment in public education.

The primary benefit for Luna's shotgun package of "reforms" is that he says it will save money by ridding the state of about 800 teachers, increasing class sizes, giving every high school student a laptop computer, removing tenure for new teachers to make it easier to fire them under pay-for-performance programs, and requiring students to take some classes online to graduate from high school.

Will Idaho students still get a topnotch education? Luna's name for the plan, "Students Come First," implies they will.

Where's the evidence?

Where are the demonstration programs that show that students won't be shortchanged? Where are the credible studies that show student performance won't suffer? Where are the studies that show that online classes offer high school students quality as good or better than face-to-face instruction?

Perhaps Luna hasn't offered them because they don't exist.

A 2010 analysis of online learning studies sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education found no experimental or controlled quasi-experimental studies that compared online and face-to-face instruction for K-12 students. When the authors looked at the effectiveness of online education, they found studies that focused on adults—not kids.

They concluded that for adults, online learning combined with face-to-face instruction is better than either one alone. As for younger students, no one knows.

Jumping into the unknown isn't like Idaho. The state is cautious and conservative, sticking to the tried and true, refusing to be stampeded by unproven ideas—at least when it comes to its kids. It took decades for Idaho schools to move to smaller class sizes, even after their benefits were demonstrated elsewhere. Some legislators still view kindergarten with suspicion.

Luna admits that he hatched his radical plan outside the public view and without educators. He also admits he didn't breathe a word of it in his campaign for re-election last year.

New revelations about large donations to Luna's re-election campaign from for-profit and online education companies that stand to benefit from the plan should give legislators pause.

The state must balance its budget, but it shouldn't make every student a guinea pig in an experiment whose outcome is far from certain.

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