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What teachers wish our legislators knew

Too many Idaho legislators know a lot about political strategies and party message but too little about the motivations and needs of Idahoans.

I don’t know if requiring every legislator to teach in a public school for two years would help or not. Perhaps some would live in a bubble and not learn what is going on around them, but I think it’s safe to say most who work with many families learn a lot.

Some things are nice to know. Kids do take up challenges that make them responsible beyond their years, and they often bolster one another up.

But the image Americans once had of teaching being work suitable for sheltered old maids was far from the truth. Teachers see kids and families in pain.

And, more than anyone, we know that what helps one day may not work again–ever.

So let me share some things we wish legislators knew.

One, the family's socio-economic level has a profound effect on a student’s learning. When mothers come home from work exhausted, or when earnings barely cover rent and food, their children are at a disadvantage. Being talked to and supported, taking trips, camping, learning to swim or dance or cook can make a real difference in a child’s skills and confidence.

So it’s not just unwise, but cruel, to fund schools with higher achieving students better than others. The shortage of paper, the leaking roof, the inexperienced teacher, all tell these kids they are not valued. Allotting half the funds for kindergarten programs on the basis of good test scores is a slap in the face to everyone working to help kids who struggle most.

Two, parental expectations are a great influence on whether a student graduates or goes on. Expectations are affected by how their child feels about school and what others say about the quality and importance of education. When parents feel their child is valued and that education can make a difference, the go-on rate will improve.

Three, competition between schools is destructive. The quickest way for a school to increase test scores is to force low-achieving students out. Encouraging that hurts not only the child, but all of us.

Four, we should never pay parents not to send a child to school. Two types of parents may abuse such a program–those that need extra money a great deal and those who will always be greedy for more. It hurts to see a kid pulled out to ‘homeschool’ as soon as they turn 12 and can legally babysit younger kids at home.

Five, paying families to take advantage of museums and concerts is a great boon to the middle class, but it doesn’t help poor kids. Transportation and parental participation requires time and money. And some parents can’t pay upfront and wait for the state to reimburse them.

Six, having students take tests for any reason other than measuring their own progress is cruel. When we judge kids by whether they meet grade level rather than by how much they’ve improved, we guarantee that some kids will always be failures and others, always successes. Slow maturing children may achieve a lot over time if we don’t destroy their sense of self-worth.

And, finally, you will not find a fast, cheap route to improving student achievement. As Marilyn Howard, one of Idaho’s great superintendents of public instruction, put it, “If it were easy, we would have done it already.”

We must quit attacking our schools, start appreciating the difficulty of their task, and work at improving conditions for Idaho’s poorest.

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