The New Plymouth School District has all the reasons for having low reading scores, with a high poverty rate and limited resources.
About 15 years ago, test scores were reflective of the economic conditions; only about 40 percent of kids in kindergarten through third grade were reading at grade level.
But according to Rep. Ryan Kerby, who recently retired after 21 years as school superintendent there, the district was fortunate to have educators with big ideas. The district adopted an aggressive reading program, set measurable goals and provided “fun” financial incentives for teachers. Today, New Plymouth is among the top schools in the state for reading.
“We’ve been in the 90 percent range every year for about the last eight years,” Kerby said.
So, how did they do it?
“You don’t go from 40 percent to 95 percent in one year,” Kerby said. “Each year, we set goals for every grade – 62 percent, then 70, then 75. Now, we’re in the 90s every year.”
The New Plymouth story served as an inspiration for the Legislature’s passage of the Continuous Improvement Plan, which requires all school districts to establish measurable reading goals every year. The simple exercise of setting measurable goals is an example of what can be done in Idaho to improve education, without raising taxes and spending a lot of money.
“If all 115 school districts and charter schools do that, our reading skills, math skills would improve. SAT scores would go up, reading scores would go up and the go-on rate would go up,” said Rod Gramer, director of Idaho Business for Education.
Of course, efforts need to go beyond goal-setting, Gramer says. Idaho still needs more money for education and higher teaching salaries. Early childhood education and maintaining core standards also are part of the mix. Part of Gramer’s job is to keep the conversation going about improving education, while working closely with the governor’s education task force and state education leaders.
“If there’s a silver bullet, it’s reading,” he said. “If the kids can read (at grade level, or above) by the fourth grade, then they have a fighting chance to be successful.”
Gramer, a former Idaho journalist who took the IBE job two years ago, says Idaho’s economic future depends on a stronger education system. More than 100 businesses have signed on with IBE.
“The reason we exist is to strengthen the education system to create the workforce we need for the 21st century,” he said. “Between 60 to 70 percent of the jobs will require some post-secondary education. We need a more highly skilled work force to power our economy.”
At the moment, he said, only 40 percent hold the credentials needed for the future. “This is about the future of Idaho and the quality of life in Idaho, not just for the companies, but for the individual Idahoans.”
Gramer sees a Magic Valley that could become a “Silicon Valley” for the food processing industry. Eastern Idaho, which already has the Idaho National Laboratory, could prosper even more with energy production. North Idaho is gaining a foothold in aviation and the Treasure Valley stands to grow with high tech. All fields pay well, which can go a long way in keeping the best and brightest in the state. The challenge is fielding a workforce that can meet those higher demands.
Idaho has much to lose if it can’t satisfy the business needs, Gramer says. Existing businesses will not be able to grow, putting Idaho at risk for losing some companies; it will be more difficult to recruit new businesses; and will continue with the dubious distinction of being at, or near, the bottom in percentage of minimum wage workers.
Though finances are short, Gramer sees a lot of positives with Idaho’s education system. “We have highly dedicated professionals who really care about the students. In some ways, we’re overachieving.”
Idaho will not have a first-rate education system overnight, but Gramer is confident that the Gem State will get there. Kerby says goal-setting needs to go beyond superintendents and teachers.
“The state of Idaho needs some goals,” he said. “The Legislature needs to set goals. Where are we at now, and where do we want to be in 10 years?
“It isn’t about money. We’re a poor state, but we can have the best reading scores in America. Let’s go. And we can have the best math scores in America. Come on, let’s go.”
Kerby might consider adding motivational speaking to his resume. His “can-do” attitude has worked marvelously in New Plymouth, and other educators statewide can learn from this small school district’s approach.