Let’s not squander the chance to reimagine education in Washington state

Our state is long overdue for an injection of creative thinking to solve our education woes.

an empty classroom

The walls of history teacher Alison McCartan’s classroom at River Ridge High School in Lacey, Wash., Nov. 12, 2020, features maps, reference posters, and a timeline of significant events in Native history that students were mid-way through when the coronavirus pandemic closed in-person learning at the high school. (Jovelle Tamayo for Crosscut)

A few years ago, when arguments over school funding convulsed in Olympia, legislators often described Washington state’s public education system as a body on the operating table.

A court-ordered debate about better ways to allocate money for schools, they argued, was the perfect moment to open up the whole sprawling organism and simultaneously fix an array of other problems because, as with a patient undergoing heart surgery, every weakness was tied to another: Crowded classrooms to tight budgets; budgets to staff salaries; salaries to union negotiations; negotiations to school board elections; and on and on.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the major operation never happened. When the dust settled at the conclusion of the McCleary funding talks, lawmakers had stitched up our wheezing school system with a few financial improvements, but no substantive changes.

Claudia Rowe's column runs every other week in Crosscut Opinion. Read more from her here.

Have we learned our lesson yet? It’s no wonder a significant number of parents are underwhelmed by the idea of sending their kids back to class next month — into a system where 45% of third graders cannot read, 60% of high school sophomores can’t do 10th grade math and only 35% of juniors are on grade level in science.

Those lackluster results haven’t shaken us out of complacency. But maybe the biggest health crisis in living memory will. The pandemic has shattered assumptions about how, where and when learning can happen. For all of its social deficits, remote schooling proved that education needn’t mean clocking in for six hours a day at a big, blocky building. Yet here we sit, about to return to routine and once again squander an opportunity to reimagine our school system.

That’s particularly exasperating when the state’s chief education official, its teachers union and the president of the board of its largest school district are in rare agreement. They all say we need greater flexibility — more pathways for high school students to earn a diploma, including through work experience or apprenticeships; more dual-language programs for nonnative English speakers; and more avenues for rural kids to connect virtually with advanced learning.

Sounds great. It’s the kind of thinking that led to a work group examining ways for students to meet course requirements by proving their mastery of a subject, rather than by sitting in a classroom for a prescribed number of hours. But that group has been talking since 2019. When can we expect some action? Dec. 31, 2022, according to the current proposal.

I’ve written recently about alarmingly high rates of failure among ninth graders after a year of remote learning. Now comes word that, despite those dismal indicators, a statistically representative sample of 50,000 students will be rounded up for assessment testing. The state says this is essential for identifying exactly who the disruptions hit hardest, particularly on third grade reading. But aren’t there better ways to figure this out than asking 8-year-olds to spend more time clicking on a computer screen?

“It has been incredibly frustrating to watch people in our systems dig in their heels and hold on by their fingernails to inertia,” said Chandra Hampson, president of the Seattle School Board, who wishes the state would spend its energy surveying kids about what they missed most, and what they gained — rather than slouching back to our tired status quo of annual testing.

State Sen. Brad Hawkins, R-East Wenatchee, had similar feelings as he watched the tug of war between teachers, parents and the state over heading back to class. What if we just flipped spring and summer vacations? he thought. That way, teachers would have enough time to get vaccinated and create thoughtful plans for reconnecting with kids. Then, in June, when it’s warm enough to learn outside, away from any microbe-polluted air circulating through poorly ventilated classrooms, students could return to school full-time.

That thinking evolved into a bill to rearrange the school-year calendar. Hawkins’ proposal would help 20 pilot districts spread classes across 11 months, with short breaks throughout, instead of cramming all 180 days into 9½ months, as we do now. This shift would of course nix our beloved two-month summer idyll — during which thousands of students forget what they’ve learned, requiring weeks of review when school starts again in the fall. An inefficient use of time, to put it mildly.

But the traditional calendar has become “so accepted it goes largely unquestioned,” said Hawkins, who is convinced that if we were designing a school system today, no one would choose the current schedule.

It’s hard to disagree with his logic. Hawkins’s proposal missed a March 9 deadline to get passed out of the Senate. But it’s not necessarily dead. And it has generated widespread support.

“Reimagining schools is exactly what we should be doing, given that we are in the 21st century, using a 19th and early 20th century mode of education,” said David Beard, policy director of the advocacy group School’s Out Washington, testifying in favor of the bill this past January. 

Naturally, a torrent of “no ways” greeted Hawkins’ legislation: Family vacation plans would be dashed. How about kids who work summer jobs? And what teacher would give up summer break?

None, actually, because Hawkins’ plan includes a six-week summer vacation. Sure, there are caveats. But it’s not such a radical move. Japan and South Korea, both of which have better academic results than ours, run their schools on 11-month calendars. A handful of districts in Illinois, California and Texas have done the same, including places where summer sports are sacred, like “football crazy” Bardstown, Kentucky. After Bardstown made the switch to an extended calendar, in 1995, it saw better graduation rates, higher test scores and fewer dropouts.

I don’t care if it’s year-round education, subject mastery, more classes meeting virtually or something else. What our schools need are an injection of creative thinking and a willingness on the part of teachers, administrators and state officials to honestly consider new models.

The truth is public education was never intended to be a hothouse for fresh ideas. It was designed to funnel millions of kids through a system that would give them just enough knowledge to become compliant workers, an assembly-line mentality to mint assembly-line citizens, neither of which are well-suited to today.

After three decades of writing about public education, one observation I can make with assurance is that inertia rules. The state Supreme Court recognized our need for transformation years ago. And you know what they say about insanity: It’s doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results. The time for major surgery was yesterday.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Claudia Rowe

Claudia Rowe

Claudia Rowe is a journalist and author of two books: The Spider and the Fly, which won the 2018 Washington State Book Award for Memoir, and Time Out, which looks at juvenile justice through the case of a seventh grader in Seattle. She is working on a new book about foster care. She is also the Editor at Clyde Hill Publishing. Her writing for Crosscut focuses on juvenile justice, foster care, and public education.