The following editorial originally appeared in The Seattle Times:
To call Washington’s most recent education results lackluster would be putting it politely. Just 30 percent of 10th-graders tested last spring were at grade level in math. No wonder ever-fewer kids are earning college degrees.
Chris Reykdal, the state superintendent of public instruction, has likened this post-pandemic drop in performance (which wasn’t all that great beforehand) to getting a flat tire on a long drive, a delay that will slow arrival times but doesn’t affect the ultimate destination.
Maybe for some kids. But this is a longstanding problem, and it helps no one to soft-pedal that reality. The best results posted in the past seven years showed fewer than 60 percent of students at grade level in language arts. On math, we haven’t cracked 50 percent since the state started using its current assessment.
Yet recently Reykdal crowed: “Each and every student is learning year over year.”
Not exactly. In 2020-21, one-third of eighth-graders were at grade level in math. Two years later, when that group of students was in 10th grade, 29.9 percent met the benchmark.
It may be tempting to lambaste Reykdal for these outcomes. But, in fairness, the job of Washington’s top education official has never been to lead districts toward educational excellence. The Office of Public Instruction is primarily a grant-distribution and data-collection agency.
What if that mission were expanded? What if Reykdal, a person of considerable smarts and energy, used those traits to rally teachers and parents, rather than mollifying legislators as more kids leave public education for private and home schooling? What if Reykdal saw his role as Chief Inspirer, rather than being the guy who high-fives kids plodding along in the slow lane and assures everyone that all is well?
That go-along-to-get-along attitude is the opposite of the one animating tech culture. Like ’em or hate ’em, successful technology companies — currently pumping $138.7 billion into Washington’s economy — model the results of a relentless focus on improving outcomes. OSPI, on the other hand, appears to be aimed primarily at cheerleading mediocrity.
One reason for this complacency is that Reykdal has no one holding his feet to the fire, no one demanding accountability for the results of our schools. The agency he leads — which manages more than 40 percent of the state’s operating budget — is not part of the governor’s cabinet. In that sense, Reykdal, who is running for reelection next year, has no one looking over his shoulder.
Except, of course, voters. It is time for the people of Washington to decide what kind of commitment to education they want to see. Whether or not the superintendent of Public Instruction becomes a cabinet position, whoever replaces Jay Inslee as governor could make history by bringing new vision and energy to Washington’s schools.