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Feb. 24, 2024

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Five seismic changes to education in Washington over the past decade

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There’s no bigger responsibility for Washington’s leaders than providing for the education of its youngest residents, and to do so in a way that elevates all people, regardless of their background.

That’s not just the opinion of some parents, teachers or school district administrators. It’s a key passage in the state constitution.

“It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.”

And yet it is glaringly obvious that our education system isn’t delivering an equitable education. That students who are well-off or white see better outcomes than others. That where you live results in varying degrees of opportunities. And that the very nature of teaching is changing — and at times under attack.

It is in reaction to these challenges, and in full knowledge of the state’s responsibility to educate all, that The Seattle Times embarked on an experiment in reporting 10 years ago.

It created Education Lab, a team of reporters who sought to report on equity in education and to seek out solutions that would improve outcomes for all students. Education Lab was the first of a number of community-funded reporting projects at The Seattle Times, which has been an industry leader in innovative funding models for journalism, and has become a model for similar projects nationwide.

Since that time, there have been major changes in the education system in this state. Education Lab’s anniversary marks a good time to take stock of how Washington is living up to the promise embedded in its constitution.

Here are five forces that shaped education in the past decade.

Funding

In the past 10 years, Washington state’s spending on K-12 schools doubled, from $15 billion in the 2013-2015 state budget to more than $30 billion in the current biennium. State spending per student ranked third in the nation in 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That transformation was fueled, in large part, by the “paramount duty” sentence in the state’s constitution.

In 2012, dozens of school districts had won a case against the state — known as McCleary v. Washington — for failing to adhere to that clause. It forced lawmakers to come up with a way for the state to pay for basic education costs, injecting billions more.

It took six more years for state lawmakers to fully satisfy the state Supreme Court’s order. When they did, most of that money went toward salaries for school employees, especially teachers. During the 2017-18 school year, the average base salary for an employee with an education certification was just over $60,000. Last year, it had risen to $92,037, a 52% increase.

At the same time, lawmakers took aim at the taxation system that many believe is responsible for enormous disparities in education between rich and poor areas, by limiting how much school districts could raise in local taxes.

That solution satisfied the court. But did it make educational opportunities equal across the state?

Many don’t feel that way.

While the changes after McCleary were undoubtedly an improvement, “the court order doesn’t reflect the real world reality of kids,” said former state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, who worked on the tax solution to satisfy the court order. “As I reflect, I would’ve hoped that we as a state would have had the courage to embrace the work of building a 21st century education system and not just do our best with duct tape.”

Among the inequities that remain: The state still does not fully fund costs for students with disabilities, forcing districts to dip into local revenues reserved for nonessential expenses. In addition, the McCleary case did not address state funding for the cost to build and repair school buildings. Those projects are still overwhelmingly funded at the local level, leaving small, property-poor districts struggling with upkeep to their aging buildings.

Pandemic

It was here, in early March 2020, that a seismic shift in the U.S. education system arrived. When the Northshore School District became the first in the country to shutter a school due to the coronavirus, the region became a harbinger of what was to come.

First came the concerns that remote learning would disadvantage kids with disabilities. Then there was the logistical nightmare of getting kids hooked up to the internet. Districts’ lack of investment in technology came back to haunt them as schools scrambled to equip all students with computers or laptops. And all the while, a near-constant fear circulated that the hardships of the pandemic were robbing kids of essential help — from learning how to read to filling out financial aid forms for college.

That lack of educational access was a big lesson from the pandemic, said Erin Okuno, director of Washington State Governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds. Schools should have backup plans for students who are unable to connect because of their disability, language, proximity to internet access or financial hardship “so we don’t lose them in the next disaster.”

The Seattle area was one of the last places in the country to reopen schools full time, in fall 2021. Some attribute the tumble in student test scores to that delay. But many point out the gaps were there all along, and that poverty rates were more predictive of academic setbacks than out-of-school time.

Students came back stressed — if they came back at all.

“One of the lasting impacts is who we lost,” said Okuno. “A lot of students may have dropped out of school, and we need to work hard and find them and get them back into the fold.”

Today, standardized test scores still lag when compared to pre-pandemic times. Schools are struggling with chronic absenteeism and a drop in both K-12 enrollment and college attendance. Some students simply disappeared from school and never came back. Falling enrollment has districts stretching every dollar now, and some, including Seattle, are warning of school closures — or, like Bellevue, have already done so.

More changes could still be ahead for the school system. Next fall, the last of the government’s historic pandemic aid money for schools will expire. It’s been hard to get a window into whether — and how — schools are using this money to catch kids up.

Discipline

Over the past decade, a mountain of research was forming about how punitive discipline that removes kids from the classroom leads to lower graduation rates. What was particularly troubling, and still is 10 years later, is that students of color are disproportionately impacted.

In the 2013-14 school year, out of 69,754 suspensions and expulsions, 78% of those disciplined this way were kids from low-income families. Most were students of color.

Schools nationwide came to realize that a “zero tolerance” discipline policy wasn’t working. Suspensions don’t improve students’ behavior, but instead make them feel worse.

They began exploring restorative justice programs that focus on creating strong relationships between students and teachers, while also holding students accountable for the harm they caused.

In 2015, the UCLA Center for Civil Rights Remedies researchers found more than 548,000 elementary-school children in the U.S. were suspended in a single year. And Seattle ranked high in suspending elementary students with special needs.

In 2016, Washington legislators passed a state law that limited the amount of time a school district could exclude students from school, in an effort to make removing a student from the classroom a last resort.

In 2017, OSPI proposed new student discipline rules, and starting in the fall of 2018, schools began rolling out the new practices, which included requiring administrators to document student warnings before suspensions, notifying parents of student discipline issues and providing students with educational services if they are suspended.

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Then a year a half later, the pandemic hit. Kids weren’t in school, so there were almost no student discipline incidents to be recorded. It was hard for a district to make progress on the new practices, said Briana Kelly, assistant director of restorative practices and student discipline at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

And once kids came back into school, many were masked and 6 feet apart, so discipline incidents remained low.

That all changed in the 2021-22 school year, the first full normal year after the pandemic began.

Students had lost years of knowing how to socialize with each other and how to regulate themselves in classroom settings, which caused an uptick in incidents, said Stacy Lappin, the director of program at Belong Partners, an education equity nonprofit that puts on trauma-informed restorative workshops in schools.

Despite the state law changes and the increased accountability from OSPI and their data collection efforts, Lappin thinks students of color are still being disciplined at higher rates than white students.

The data reinforces her concerns. Statewide discipline data is not yet available for 2022-23, but in 2021-22, 5.9% of all Black students were excluded from school in some form, compared to only 2.5% of all white students. And in Seattle schools, 4.6% of all Black students were excluded, compared to only 0.8% of all white students.

“We unearthed the problem, and we are sitting in the problem,” Lappin said. “It’s a systemic issue and it’s going to take a long time to have an impact.”

She acknowledged that many school districts are trying very hard to combat the issue. “There’s definitely a different openness to learning, to changing and to acknowledging a problem.”

OSPI noted that the current school year has already had a slight decline in discipline incidents. Anecdotally, Lappin says that rings true, but noted that there is often a decline in incidents during the first two months of school.

Teacher diversity

Washington state’s public schools grow more diverse with every year that passes. In 2022, that growth reached a historic milestone: Students of color officially became the majority.

The same cannot be said for their teachers. Around 86% of classroom instructors identified as white last school year. That’s almost exactly the same percentage as five years ago, when The Seattle Times investigated the lack of teacher diversity in the state.

Research shows that students of all backgrounds benefit from interacting with racially diverse school staff. That benefit is especially pronounced among students of color. A 2017 study of more than 100,000 Black students in North Carolina found that low-income boys who had at least one Black teacher in elementary school were almost 40% less likely to drop out of high school and had a stronger interest in attending college.

It’s not entirely a recruitment issue. People of color make up at least a quarter of newly certified teachers, said Jisu Ryu, director of research, evaluation and data at the state Professional Educator Standards Board (PESB).

Retention is the main reason for the low numbers, as was the case when the Times reported on the issue in 2018. Many teachers report a lack of support at their districts, and leave their postings — or education — entirely.

“It doesn’t matter how much you bring in if they’re not gonna be retained,” said Fernanda Diaz, PESB’s director of the Washington Teacher Academies.

Districts and teacher prep programs are actively trying to recruit more diverse candidates.

Sophath Keith is an ambassador for such programs. He teaches at his alma mater, Chief Sealth International High School in Seattle, and proudly talks with students in his social studies classes about his Cambodian heritage. Keith graduated from the University of Washington in 2022 with a master’s degree in special education, specializing in working with students who have emotional behavioral disorders, through the district’s Academy for Rising Educators. He’s also part of the UW’s My Brother’s Teacher program, which trains and supports men of color entering the profession, and EduDesign, a learning community for early career Black, Indigenous and people of color educators.

Keith noted how historical segregation affected the teaching profession. It wasn’t so long ago that, unless you were white, “if you wanted to be a teacher you couldn’t teach in a white school. We’re still in the transition of an outdated system,” he said.

State grants help keep some recruitment alive, including programs that give high school students a taste of the teaching field. But districts don’t communicate much with each other about how to make these programs more enticing and effective, said Diaz, a dynamic she and her colleagues would like to address in the coming years.

Reading

For decades, students’ reading scores on national tests have stagnated in Washington and across the nation. Only about a third of Washington fourth graders were proficient readers in 2022, according to the National Assessment of Student Progress — no better than in 1998 and very much average when compared to the rest of the country.

In recent years, many educators have come to believe those numbers could change if kids received a crucial type of instruction that could help them decode the meanings of words on a page. The approach is often called structured literacy.

Instead of expecting children to learn how to read and write through exposure to books and context clues — an approach sometimes called “whole language” — structured literacy is centered on brain science and teaching the fundamental structures of English, including phonics. Students start out learning one sound at a time, eventually reaching a point where they can identify patterns to deconstruct words into their smallest parts.

Skipping or downplaying phonics, phonemic awareness and related skills makes learning to read especially difficult for kids with learning disabilities, including dyslexia.

A new Washington law that rolled out in 2022 requires school districts to screen children in grades K-2 for foundational literacy skills. Students who need extra help receive evidence-based, multisensory structured literacy by a highly trained teacher.

Some advocates think the state needs to go a step further, including legislation to define effective reading practices, provide professional learning for teachers and administrators, and address the needs of struggling readers in grades 3 and above.

All of those ideas are likely to come up during the 2024 legislative session.

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