Callaghan: State takes hard way to reach education reform

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoPeter Callaghan covers the state Legislature for The News Tribune in Tacoma. Blog: thenewstribune.com/politics; or Twitter: @CallaghanPeter. Reach him at peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com.

When it comes to its relationship with the federal government over education policy, Washington state responds better to sticks than carrots. Two years ago, when they were crafting education reform legislation so as to compete for hundreds of millions of dollars in Race to the Top funding, Gov. Chris Gregoire and education policy leaders fell short. The rather timid law wasn’t close to proving to the Obama administration that the state was toughening teacher evaluation methods or prepared to fix its poorest-performing schools.

It finished 32nd of the 36 states that applied, missing out on the money not only by its stubborn resistance to allow charter schools, but by weak teacher-evaluation and school-intervention plans.

Gregoire now takes solace in the fact that many of the Race winners have failed to deliver on the promises they made. To her, that is evidence that they overpromised and failed to bring teachers unions along. But longer-than-predicted recessionary effects on state budgets and the unions’ newfound success in resisting change by demonizing those calling for reform are as much to blame for the slow pace in Race states.

Gregoire helped broker a deal last week that vastly improves her own baby-steps approach -- an approach exhibited not just by that 2010 bill, but by her first reform proposal this year.

Reformers in the Legislature forced her to the table by threatening to block action on that weaker version. They won by exploiting two external factors.

First, Gregoire needs business support for an expected statewide vote on a temporary tax hike later this year. Executives at Microsoft and Boeing, among others, have said they would be willing to help a tax-hike effort only if additional education reforms were passed.

Goals achievable

Second, the state wants to apply for waivers from requirements under the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law. To escape federal sanctions for failing to improve student performance, the state must show that it is working to -- among other things -- make sure each classroom has a competent teacher, especially in struggling schools.

Without the improved version of Senate Bill 5895 that easily passed the Senate on Feb. 14, neither business support for a tax hike nor federal approval of a waiver would have been possible. If it now passes the House as expected, both goals are achievable.

The 2010 law already required districts to adopt four-tier evaluation systems that replace the current practice of having pass-fail systems. With the new bill, teachers and principals who are rated in the bottom two categories must go through improvement procedures and can lose their jobs if they don’t get better.

Student performance measures (a euphemism for test scores) must be a “substantial” factor in measuring teacher and principal performance. Student input must be used in teacher evaluations; teacher input must be used in principal evaluations.

Rather than allow each district to craft its own evaluation system, including coming up with its own labels for the four levels, the bill designates three systems from among those now being piloted around the state. It also names the levels -- unsatisfactory, basic, proficient and distinguished. And for the first time, evaluations -- not just seniority -- must be a factor in making staffing decisions such as layoffs, rehires and school assignments. Had such a requirement been in the 2010 law, the trigger issue in the Tacoma teacher strike would have been off the table.

As pleased as Gregoire and legislators of both parties are with last week’s deal, there is nothing in the bill that wasn’t urged on them in 2010. Even this new system won’t be fully implemented until the 2015-16 school year.

Washington continues to be last to the starting line when it comes to putting accountability into its public school system. Every advance has come mostly in response to outside pressures. Whatever the motivation, however, SB 5895 is a relatively strong reform.