The troubling lack of public will for reform of Washington schools

Community leaders are taking a closer look at the crisis-ridden Seattle and Washington public schools, where the achievement gap is widening. A key problem is the lack of sufficient pressure from parents and citizens to demand better schools.

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Seattle School Board

Community leaders are taking a closer look at the crisis-ridden Seattle and Washington public schools, where the achievement gap is widening. A key problem is the lack of sufficient pressure from parents and citizens to demand better schools.

With Seattle Schools Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson’s ouster over a financial scandal in February, community leaders are taking a second look at the structural challenges facing a beleaguered school district. Some of the leaders have begun to conclude that the district cannot make the needed changes without considerable pressure from a public demanding better schools.

The reassessment has taken on a new urgency as School Board elections approach and interim Seattle Schools Superintendent Susan Enfield tries to help an untested new school administration regain its footing. Long-simmering issues such as governance, teacher evaluation, student test scores, and teacher-union demands have received new attention from community leaders.

Even before the crisis atmosphere created by the sudden departure of a superintendent in the state's most populous school district, the facts documented cause for concern in Seattle and Washington. According to a 2010 report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, over the past decade the achievement gap between low-income and non-low income Washington students has widened.

“On state tests, only one third of our state’s minority students are meeting standards in math and science,” the report states. Only 68 percent of the state’s students graduate from high school, a figure below the national average, the report continues. The numbers for minority students are even lower — 40 percent for Native Americans, 50 percent for African Americans, and 55 percent for Hispanics.

The challenges facing Seattle Public Schools reveal a troubling lack of political will at the statewide level for educational reform. Washington was ranked 32nd out of 36 states competing for Race to the Top federal grant funding.

Lisa Macfarlane, senior advisor at the League of Education Voters, a statewide reform coalition, faults the state’s historically weak record on educational reform. “We finished poorly in the competition for several reasons, including the lack of an actionable plan to address our growing achievement gaps,” Macfarlane said. “Most states are closing their gaps. Ours are widening.”

“While we made some important policy moves at the state level to make us more competitive, we did not put forth a compelling plan on how we take our schools from where they are today to where they need to be,” she said.

In far too many instances, the state’s commitment to strategic reform was lacking in long-term vision, added Sara Morris, president and CEO of the Alliance for Education, a Seattle support group for education and education reform. “We desperately need to consider huge changes to a system that has existed as is for over 100 years. That’s scary, and it takes real courage among policy makers and relentless drive from parents and community leaders,” she said.

League of Education Voters executive director Chris Korsmo sees the problem of closing the achievement gap as systemic. “Frankly, it hasn’t been a priority. People talk a good game, but there is not a statewide plan to close the gap,” she said. “We need a plan that makes it a priority to close the achievement gap, and then we need to align resources to it.“

Korsmo and Macfarlane believe that lack of public support is a major part of the state and city’s inability to align those resources  more effectively. “If we can get more people to understand the fierce urgency of changing outcomes for kids, we can create pressure for change,” Korsmo said.

“That is the most difficult part — creating public will and the urgency. Right now, we are creating a pipeline to poverty, or worse, to prison, for nearly half our children of color in Seattle,” she added. “We can and must do better, and the community has to get engaged to get it done. “

The $231 million 2011 Families and Education Levy that Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and City Councilmember Tim Burgess have proposed, in Korsmo’s opinion, is a key part of the solution. “The levy is a good example of how to support closing gaps and getting more kids ready for college.”

Beyond targeted resources, there are a host of other issues that worry community leaders. School district governance, for some, is another structural impediment to beneficial change that has drawn the ire of education reformers and continues to generate heated controversy.

Ex-Microsoft executive and philanthropist Scott Oki is convinced that centralized decision-making is part of the problem. “Forty-three cents on the dollar is spent supporting a central bureaucracy,” he said. Oki decries the waste and inefficiency of school bureaucracies statewide.

“Washington state has 295 school districts. Sixty-two have less than 200 students, and each district has a superintendent.” Oki proposes a decentralized business model, where principals would manage their schools, reporting to their own board of directors, each appointed by the governor. “The boards would become a catalyst for substantive debate on issues of public education,” he said.

Oki’s proposals echo those of an earlier proponent of decentralized, school-based management, the late Seattle Schools Superintendent John Stanford. Arguing that principals should be CEOs of their schools, Stanford, during his tenure in the mid-1990s, challenged conventional wisdom by advocating “market-based schools” that compete for customers through excellence, and developing systems in schools, such as parent involvement, to support academic achievement.

Some local education observers question the assumptions about governance, however. “Structural changes in governance will not increase classroom effectiveness,” said former Seattle School Board member Dick Lilly. “Governance is not the problem, though I tend to favor more autonomy and power for principals within a clear and rigorous curriculum.”

For Morris, striking the right balance between centralization and decentralization is the core issue facing the Seattle Public Schools, noting that there are examples of success with both models nationally. “I’d say we need a blend of consistency [i.e. of standards, assessment tools, and accountability metrics] and flexibility [i.e. school-based staffing authority, and enhancements to core curriculum],” Morris said.

Paul Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, concurs that while some decentralization is good, it is not sufficient in the long run. “We also need experimentation, new schools, performance-based accountability, experimentation with technology, new providers, and new sources of teachers,” Hill said.

On one point, Macfarlane and Oki are in agreement, namely that community ownership of schools has been faltering and needs to be bolstered. “When communities insist — really insist — on quality schools, they get them,” she said. “One size does not fit all, and building leaders who model and insist upon high expectations want and need flexibility to innovate.”

Raising the bar of expectation for all students by staffing schools with the most talented teachers is a key ingredient, Macfarlane said. In her opinion, one school district has implemented such a strategic staffing initiative and become a national model: the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Schools in Charlotte, North Carolina. The initiative, launched in 2009, provides a mix of financial and hiring incentives for principals and the staff they bring with them to a new assignment. The strategic staffing initiative’s aim is to put new leadership in struggling schools as part of a district-wide goal to improve academic achievement.

“In our poorer neighborhoods, there is a cycle of poor performance that is hard to break,” McFarlane continued. “The poor performance leads to declining expectations on the part of everyone — educators, students, and families — and that leaves teachers and families with fewer options. And that leads to the remaining students falling further behind and a mismatch between resources and needs, so that leaders and teachers have less capacity to collaborate and improve instructional practices. So you end up with the same low academic achievement.”

Lilly sees inherent flaws in the ideological debates about structural reforms. “We have been watching ‘strategic education reform’ for 25 years, and it’s important to note that the emphasis has changed over time. An emphasis on student test scores accompanied the ‘standards movement’ beginning in the mid-'90s here in Washington,” he said.

“Such testing and the standards movement itself are flawed because of its focus on averages rather than insuring that each individual student reaches certain goals such as reading at grade level. With No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, increasing emphasis has been placed on teacher performance based on student test scores,” Lilly added.

“This is destined to largely collapse as a method since value-added data is only really available for limited subject matter, typically elementary reading and math,” he said. “In these, it’s easy to measure where a student starts from, and therefore, where they are at the end of the year. There are no such starting benchmarks for history, literature, chemistry, physics, and the like.”

Another challenge facing Seattle Public Schools comes from the demands of the teachers unions. Oki is particularly critical. “There are too many constraints imposed by collective bargaining agreements to make mid-course corrections,” he said.

Lilly said, “Union seniority and other rules have a tremendous effect on how K-12 schools are organized and managed. There is no doubt that teachers unions do what unions should do: represent their members’ employment and job security interests.”

“There is also no doubt that through collective bargaining and their political activities, the teachers unions have the power to defend those interests. While protecting bad teachers is only part of the influence teachers unions have on how K-12 schools operate, public anger about this may become enough of a force that the unions will be compelled into more flexibility on this issue,” he said.

Hill at the Center on Reinventing Public Education said, “Getting rid of bad teachers can make some difference, but the real point is that we must attract and keep the best. That means making teaching an attractive job and offering opportunities for high paid and rapid advancement of professional responsibility for the very best.”

Community leaders are optimistic, however, about the opportunities for more collaborative approaches. Under the Seattle Educational Association’s new contract approved last September, principals can push to recruit their own staff. The contract has drawn national attention and praise.

“Community organizations like the Our Schools Coalition and the Alliance for Education tracked the negotiations and helped draw attention to the critical need to overhaul our principal and teacher evaluation systems,” Macfarlane said.

Morris of the Alliance for Education is equally optimistic: “The collective bargaining agreement ratified last year by SEA and the Seattle Public Schools was a true breakthrough, and both parties should get tremendous credit for moving the ball as far as they did. That said, there’s still a long way to go, and we absolutely must move all the way to a real, professional personnel system in education that mirrors the rest of the world.”

At the end of the day, a growing chorus of educational leaders agrees that public support is vital to improving public schools. “Education is a bureaucracy, and bureaucracies don’t tend to change themselves. Change requires outside pressure,” Korsmo said.

This story originally appeared in a slightly longer version in the International Examiner and is reprinted with permission under a partnership with Crosscut. The International Examiner is a non-profit biweekly newspaper covering Asian Pacific American communities in the Northwest; information about donations and subscriptions is here.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Collin Tong

Collin Tong

Collin Tong is a correspondent for Crosscut and University Outlook magazine. He served as guest lecturer at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. His new book, "Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s," will be published in January 2014.