The (un)Reality of 60%

Analysis: The day the 60 percent goal almost died

Originally posted on on February 18, 2021

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Over the next year, Idaho Education News will provide in-depth, ongoing coverage of the challenges facing higher education during the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s our latest installment in this project.)

After wrestling the “60 percent goal” for a decade, the State Board of Education wrestled Wednesday with ditching it.

For now, board members kept the ballyhooed yet elusive postsecondary education goal in the State Board’s strategic plan. But they aren’t wild about it.

“It’s been a joke in many ways,” board member Emma Atchley said Wednesday.

Just four years ago, Atchley told lawmakers that the 60 percent goal was not “just a trite campaign slogan,” but an essential target for the state’s economy and for the state’s young adults. Atchley was outnumbered Wednesday, as the board voted 6-2 to leave the 60 percent goal intact. But times and sentiments have changed.

Some State Board members are over the 60 percent goal, because they think they have no control over it. But it’s been a long time getting to this point. Since 2010, Idaho leaders have said they want 60 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds to hold a college degree or a professional certificate. The mission is to train and retain a young and skilled work force.

But instead of measuring what the colleges and universities actually do — such as awarding degrees — a 60 percent threshold only measures demographics, board member Linda Clark said Wednesday. “It depends on who comes into the state, who goes out of the state, what degrees they have, what certificates they have.”

That’s a fair point. But board member Andrew Scoggin pushed back against Clark’s suggestion that the board has no control over the 60 percent goal. Scoggin noted that, after all, the State Board has four four-year schools and four two-year colleges under its jurisdiction.

Now, let’s run the numbers.

In 2019, 44 percent of Idaho’s young adults held a college degree or professional certificate. That represents progress, after Idaho had been stuck at 42 percent for four successive years. When Idaho adopted this postsecondary completion goal in 2010, the state was sitting at a 37 percent rate.

It wouldn’t be fair or accurate to say that Idaho has made no progress.

But a little healthy skepticism is in order. Instead of moving the goalpost, is the State Board just ripping the goalpost right out of the turf?

On Wednesday, Atchley sounded tired of being bludgeoned over Idaho’s failure to approach the 60 percent goal. Other board members have made similar statements in the past. And as she sat in on Wednesday’s virtual board meeting, Lewis-Clark State College President Cynthia Pemberton said the state’s “north star” education goal is oftentimes problematic.

“The lived reality of that, for us on our campuses, is that it’s often used as a P.R. punishment for what we are not able to accomplish,” Pemberton said.

No, the 60 percent goal isn’t easy. It hasn’t been easy anywhere.

The Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation has made a national 60 percent completion goal a priority, tracking mixed results at the state level. Unlike Idaho, Lumina tracks postsecondary completion for all adults, aged 25 to 64, but the numbers are still worth noting. In 2018, 51 percent of the nation’s adults held a degree or certificate. Only the District of Columbia and Massachusetts cleared the 60 percent threshold. Only five states ranked lower than Idaho.

The cold truth is that it takes years and money for education policy to affect a postsecondary completion number. Idaho poured at least $133 million into programs to support the 60 percent goal, according to a 2018 Idaho Education News analysis. The spending hasn’t slowed since then. This year, Idaho is spending $20 million on an advanced opportunities program to cover college-level dual-credit classes, and $19.7 million on the college Opportunity Scholarship.

When they put millions of dollars into dual-credit classes for high school students or scholarships for college students, Idaho’s leaders are hoping those investments pay off years down the road, when today’s students are tomorrow’s employees. That’s the hope, anyway. And as Clark accurately points out, it’s not a sure thing.

Gov. Brad Little, and his State Board appointees, have been subtly distancing themselves from the 60 percent goal for easily a year. What happened Wednesday, in a 20-minute stretch of a 4 1/2-hour meeting, was well foreshadowed. But the board held an up-or-down vote on deleting something that has been, for a decade, Idaho’s centerpiece education goal.

That’s still striking.

As is the fact that the board kept the 60 percent goal intact for now, but only while choosing a new and undetermined metric to replace it.

Before voting to give the 60 percent campaign a reprieve, board member David Hill summed up the reality of the goal succinctly. “It frankly has a life of its own at this point.”

It sure does.

That’s exactly what happens when the state’s political, education and business leaders coalesce behind one goal, and spend years and millions of taxpayer dollars trying to rally people behind it.

“I didn’t say this is mild, timid, weak and modest goal. This is a big hairy audacious goal.”

So said Little, then Idaho’s lieutenant governor, during a 2016 legislative hearing.

Little’s newest State Board members didn’t choose this goal, and nor did recently hired college and university presidents such as Pemberton. But they inherited it, and the scrutiny that comes with it.

And that scrutiny comes because the state is facing two serious and interconnected challenges: convincing high school graduates to continue their education, and aligning young workers’ skills to the labor market.

Changing the goalpost doesn’t change that reality.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.

More in-depth higher education coverage

Aug. 6: A pandemic makes old problems worse for Idaho higher education

Aug. 12: Idaho campuses prepare to reopen, but will students show up?

Aug. 24: Across the state, campuses open for an uncertain new year

Nov. 3: New Boise State program seeks to guide students through gap year

Nov. 12: In a pandemic, colleges struggle even more to attract Idaho graduates

Dec. 3: One semester down, a tougher semester ahead

Jan. 5: Instead of going on, Idaho high school graduates stayed home

Going Virtual in a non-Virtual World

Yesterday, the school went to a soft closure involving half our students. Some of the kids were boarding the bus (to go home for 2 weeks of home learning) with the comment that they have no internet at home.

There are always ways around this if you have transportation to the public library and the public library remains open. This is still a challenge in our rural area since the library does not have regular hours.

In the short term, many of our students will once again bend over backwards to stay up to date on their assignments. Our teachers will be doing their very best to communicate through all these challenges.

In the long term, some of our families could benefit from grants like this:

Schools are doing their best to get the word out. Ironically, those without the internet don’t see the offer for internet help, therefore we’ve tried to send fliers to everyone.

Another issue is that many rural locations just do not have any access to the internet or their access is very limited. We are used to this, but when several kids in a family need internet access to get the most out of their classes, the technology hurdle becomes daunting.

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Moving Forward

Ybarra, Khan Academy founder discuss online learning strategies

Originally posted on on May 6, 2020

Schools chief Sherri Ybarra discussed distance learning strategies with Sal Khan and other education and technology officials Wednesday.

Ybarra didn’t take any action or mandate Idaho school officials follow any particular programs or examples. But she did say it was important to share good ideas and leverage partnerships to improve teaching during the coronavirus pandemic.

“As you know, we’ve had to move to a statewide distance learning model due to Covid-19 and we’ve seen some really great, creativity, innovation and resourcefulness among our parents and our teachers and our schools leaders,” Ybarra said. “But despite all this we’ve also encountered some challenges and some obstacles as we’ve had to make this transition.”

Sal Kahn participated in an Idaho State Department of Education distance learning webinar Wednesday.


Khan is the founder of the non-profit Khan Academy that offers online lessons and reaches 20 million students a month. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Khan said technology will always be secondary to good teachers. But technology can help good teachers reach more students or do more with instruction.

“I’ve always said if I had to pick between an amazing teacher and amazing technology I would pick the amazing teacher every time,” Khan said. “But the ideal is not having to pick and having the amazing technology empower the amazing teacher.”

Ybarra and the State Board of Education are working towards buying a statewide learning management system that could push content and lessons out to students as well as share communication information and resources with families. During meetings this week, Ybarra said she wants the new system to be opt-in instead of mandated.

Ybarra also said Idaho lags behind other states and school districts when it comes to online learning management systems and stressed that it will be important and challenging to ensure all families have devices and Internet connectivity.

Here are snapshots of the online learning experiences:

Lee County, Florida:

Students were on spring break in mid-March when the governor announced they would close schools for two weeks, a closure that ended up being extended through the end of the year.

The district already had a 1:1 device ratio at the secondary level, but not the elementary. The district developed a continuity plan, reached out to families and distributed 15,000 Chromebooks over three days. Then schools allowed students to sign up for free internet offered by a local provider and the district purchased 10,000 internet hotspots, which it distributed to both students and teachers who faced connectivity gaps.

District officials also developed a plan to count attendance once a week based on assignments that are completed, Zoom meetings or other contact with students. Attendance increased to 99 percent over the past two weeks, K-5 curriculum director Bethany Quisenberry said.

“Moving to distance learning was an experience to say the least,” she said.

The district uses the iReady learning management system.

Yuma Union High School District, Arizona:

Yuma has had a 1:1 device ration for about 10 years. But officials did not invest in professional development training for educators that would have to work with the devices and platforms. That was a difficult mistake, Superintendent Gina Thompson said.

“We got the stuff without the adult learning that needed to come with it, and it’s just critical,” she said. “We’ve now such an amazing team as far as teachers for the adults. That has exponentially helped us through this particular time with Covid-19.”

Thompson said Yuma officials count themselves lucky they realized their mistake and got training in place before this year’s disruptions.

“From the time of Covid-19 and the first week of posting assignments… 100 percent of our teachers have their lesson posted,” Thompson said.

Interestingly, Yuma uses Canvas as its districtwide LMS, and does not allow schools to opt-in or opt-out, which Thompson described as the right call. “We have much more robust tracking of data,” Thompson said.

Looking ahead

Ybarra said she and her staff are planning to invite Idaho superintendents to discuss their distance learning strategies during an upcoming webinar.