Idaho’s Voice for Parents in Education

Published September 1, 1997

Dr. Anne C. Fox was elected the state of Idaho’s Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1994. Her goals for Idaho public schools include accountability, raising education standards, teaching reading with phonics, upgrading technology, improving vocational education, and providing better pre-service teacher training. She is opposed to federally mandated outcomes-based education.

A former school teacher, school principal, superintendent, and Associate Professor at Gonzaga University, Dr. Fox is also the founder of a Children’s Village for abused children. Recently, she was interviewed by School Reform News‘ managing editor George Clowes.

Clowes: What led you to run for State Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1994?

Fox: I was a professor at that time, and I had reviewed so much research and watched such a tremendous decline in student performance, nationwide and within our state. I saw it in the test scores, in the review of the literature, and in the decline in the ability of students coming to get masters degrees: their writing ability, and their general knowledge.

Also, people in the business community told me that they were receiving students without basic skills, unable to compute mathematic facts in their heads, unable to fill out job applications. And parents were complaining that there seemed to be less academic rigor in what the students were learning in school.

I felt also that there had been a major shift in basic reading instruction. My professional expertise is in reading, and I was aghast at the changes that I saw in school districts and how they were teaching reading.

Clowes: Over what time period had you seen those changes?

Fox: The instruction changed in the early ’80s. I had been a school principal and a school superintendent in the ’70s and ’80s and saw a major change in the textbook industry. In fact, I wrote two books analyzing all the textbooks in the market in the field of reading instruction from 1970 to 1986. I analyzed every story and every reader on the market for that time period. I saw a tremendous decline in the quality of the reading instruction for classroom teachers in the textbooks themselves.

Clowes: What kinds of changes did you see?

Fox: There was a movement away from teaching reading with phonics. The number of reading series that had good phonics instruction fell, and there was this movement for whole language. The classroom teacher was no longer required to be guided by a textbook for reading instruction. They would just get what we called “literature books.” For early reading instruction of K-3 students, that’s inappropriate.

I also saw a major change at the university level, where professors were promoting the dumbing-down of instruction. Professors were telling their students: “You don’t have to worry about teaching accuracy in English, you don’t have to correct spelling problems in writing, and you don’t have to use drill and practice in mathematics because that’s ‘drill and drudgery.'”

Those philosophies became paramount in our country and, the classroom teachers dropped the rigor. They started to use calculators, they didn’t focus as much time on mental mathematics, on mental drill and practice for building reading vocabulary, and they didn’t focus on giving a strong phonics base to decode the English language.

Clowes: Didn’t the whole language movement begin much earlier, even as far back as the late ’30s?

Fox: Yes, whole language was in the system back then, but it was used pretty much for remediation, as a way to teach kids who just didn’t have enough skills or mental ability to crack the code very well. If you use the child’s language, teach a child a word he or she is familiar with, there’d be a better chance of remembering it. That’s true of all of our children. But it’s a much slower approach to teaching language acquisition and reading decoding skills.

If you wanted your child to learn how to drive a car, you would not hand the child the car keys and say “Go out and experiment and come back and figure out how to drive.” You’ve got to show the child how to put the key in the ignition. The same is true with reading instruction. If you sit there and wait for a child to ask you “What is this word in the book?” you might be there all day. The whole language method is a much slower approach to reading and it wastes a lot of time.

Clowes: When you took office, what reforms were already underway, and what was different about the reforms you implemented?

Many good-intentioned people started reforms, but they had been influenced by the very people who had created the problem. When I came into office, I called attention to how the reformers were dumbing down the system, with things like outcomes based education. In fact, when I got into office, we had literally an uprising of parents in three different places in our state over OBE. One group of parents, in Idaho Falls, got rid of the superintendent and stopped the OBE movement totally.

I halted everything in the state department that pushed those kinds of reforms. We did away with the reform committee. We no longer promoted the curriculum booklets, which the reform committee had developed, that had philosophies in them that would have appalled a normal person. We went to the legislature for help for accountability. We got money for testing grades 3-11 so that we could get a handle on how elementary school children were doing. And we asked all the superintendents to focus on basic skills.

Clowes: What results have you seen from the changes you implemented?

Fox: The test scores are going up. We have a profile book on all the school districts in the state, and the majority of those school districts are now focusing on basic skills.

We were able to get money for training K-3 teachers for reading with phonics. We believe in local control, and so the local school districts can hire whomever they want for that training. Also, we put an ombudsman in the state department. He received over 400 phone calls within our first couple of months in office from parents all over the state who at last felt that the state department was listening.

Clowes: How have parents reacted to your reforms?

Fox: The parents love it. Wherever I go–convenience stores, places like that–people will hug me and tell me they’re behind me no matter how much criticism I get, and to hang in there. We now have parents who actively help throughout the state in areas such as textbook adoption. We couldn’t believe some of the philosophies that were being taught in some of the textbooks. Now we have very conservative parents screening those books thoroughly. They read every story very carefully and ask “What is this really teaching our students?”

Clowes: What kinds of philosophies had you found in the textbooks that would appall parents?

Fox: In mathematics, there was the idea that children did not have to get the right answer–that you could just focus on the problem-solving. It’s crazy in mathematics to think that a student can problem-solve the right answer if they can’t calculate properly when they are using calculators for all of their math.

There was a lack of teaching of mental math. There was a lack of promotion of competition. In fact, there was one school where the students did cooperative learning all day long. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use cooperative learning, but not all day long, and not when students get grades. Students need to do their own work and earn their own grades. It’s part of learning the work ethic.

Clowes: And that philosophy was embedded in the textbooks and in the curriculum booklets that you mentioned earlier?

Fox: Right. We also found in the textbooks a total push for environmental education, with no balance between business and industry and the environment. We’re a heavily agricultural and logging state, and we have been one of the leaders in the country in environmental management practices and good logging practices. Here in Idaho we have reforestation, yet the textbooks were showing pictures with homeless little squirrels because the forests had been cut down. The textbooks were demeaning many parents’ jobs.

Clowes: What was the reaction to your work by other groups, like the press and local school boards?

Fox: The press raised holy Cain with me. For example, we reorganized and changed personnel to get rid of some of the old philosophies. I got tremendous criticism from the press for that. And, of course, the teachers’ union did not want me in this position.

I haven’t been afraid of the media. After they beat me up, I bounce back like a punching bag. I say the things the parents want said. I get on the airwaves as much as I can with talk radio. That works really well.

Clowes: Did this direct approach help you get your message across?

Fox: The newspaper reporters are starting to see what it is I’m trying to do. I’ll give you an example of one issue that I took a stance on: gun safety instruction. I really promoted that and shooting sports in schools. Idaho is a heavily rural state where a lot of people shoot deer for food. Others just like shooting sports. It’s something that is not harmful–these people are not going out killing other people. So I recommended that we allow shooting sports in the high school activities association.

I also took a strong stance on an abstinence-only approach to sex education in high school. So much of how we dealt with the high school students was assuming that they engaged in sexual activity. By approaching them that way, I think we encourage them to engage in sexual activity. Many parents wanted abstinence-only, and so I tried to carry the parents’ voice forward–to teach kids refusal skills.

Clowes: What one message would you like most to communicate to state policy makers, journalists, and our readers about education issues?

Fox: I’ve got two. One message is that you’ve got to have phonics with reading in basic instruction. And, two, that parents must be involved. There has to be a push for parents’ involvement in their children’s lives and in decision-making in the public schools.