Callaghan: Washington under pressure again to reform education

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 education reform, Washington state lives by this guiding principle: Anything worth doing is worth doing as sloooooowly as possible.

Even the changes it adopts … slowly … it does because it has to, not because it wants to.

We saw this in action again last week when the U.S. Department of Education announced it was placing Washington and two other states on double-secret probation.

Secret, because it announced it in a phone news conference conducted by officials we weren’t allowed to name. Double, because when Washington was given a waiver last summer from the onerous penalties of the well-intentioned but ill-fitting No Child Left Behind law, that waiver came with conditions. Now, because the state has failed to meet several of those conditions, it is on notice.

The feds call it “at-risk status.” By next May, Washington’s Legislature must yet again toughen its school and teacher accountability program, something we apparently have to do every two years after the federal government points out the weaknesses.

This latest round began in 2010 when the state wanted a shot at hundreds of millions in federal Race To The Top money. That’s real money at any time but was especially attractive in the middle of the Great Recession.

But the bill proposed by then-Gov. Chris Gregoire after closed-door talks with the Washington Education Association propelled the state all the way to 32nd place among the 36 states that applied.

External stimuli changed the plan to stick with the status quo in 2012 when the Obama administration began dangling No Child Left behind waivers in front of the state. Such waivers aren’t just desirable, they’re vital, because the requirements of the federal law are impossible to achieve — that is, 100 percent of students must meet grade-level proficiency standards by next year.

So Gregoire and legislative leaders excluded the teachers union and hammered together a much better plan. The state, not each school district, would craft the evaluation systems. Student growth data — test results that measure how much a kid has gained while under the teacher’s direction — must be a substantial part of evaluations. Factors in addition to seniority, such as subject-matter expertise and teacher evaluations, would be used in layoffs and reassignments.

Pretty good law, but not good enough, says the U.S. Department of Education. Specifically, the feds don’t like that tests other than statewide tests can be used to measure student growth. They want to make sure all teachers and all grade levels have measurements of student growth. And the department wants to make sure teachers in group- or team-teaching settings can be evaluated individually and that the “use of shared attribution of student growth does not mask the high or low performance of individual teachers.”

This is where opponents of education reform will lament the so-called testing culture — as though there were no high-stakes tests in schools before the dawn of the reform movement. The difference between those tests and the current batch is that the emerging assessments grade the adults, not just the kids.

Teachers should prefer the use of student growth over the proficiency standards in No Child Left Behind and do what they can to preserve the waiver. A teacher, for example, who gets a batch of students who are two, three or four years behind grade level has little chance of bringing them to full proficiency in nine months. That same teacher, however, can improve their performance — perhaps bringing a middle school kid from third-grade reading proficiency to fifth or sixth. Such a teacher will get high marks in student growth and a positive evaluation, even though the students still will not meet grade-level proficiency.

These fixes should have been done last session. But without the threat to withdraw the waiver, there wasn’t enough incentive to fight the political headwinds.

Only when the electeds can blame the federal government for actions they should take on their own do we move a few more ever-so-slow steps toward schools that give all kids a fighting chance.