Archive for May, 2008

Schools Doing Great Things

Posted by Molly

Sometimes I feel like I spend all of my time thinking about the problems in our education system — kids falling through the cracks of a broken system, teachers struggling to effectively teach a class of nearly 30 students, and school districts making tough budget cuts while navigating the levy/bond gauntlet.  Reform often seems daunting, intimidating, overwhelming, and at times impossible.  However, there are teachers, schools and organizations doing amazing things for our kids.  I want to highlight just a few that I have had the opportunity to see firsthand.

The New School

The New School is a Seattle public school that receives supplemental funding through a private foundation.  With the additional funds, the New School is able to provide a comprehensive curriculum to its students, with a strong emphasis on quality programs and excellent and enthusiastic staff.  During my visit, I was amazed to see kindergarteners counting by tens to 100 and second graders making graphs to illustrate data.  It was inspiring to see these students rising to the challenge of high standards in such a supportive learning community.

Meany Middle School

Located in the heart of Capitol Hill, Meany is dealing with the typical problems that most urban schools in our country face — large populations of free and reduced-price lunch, ELL, and special needs students.   However, the teachers, staff and students of Meany are working hard and doing some really great things.  Due to private financial support from the Nesholm Foundation, Meany has recently undertaken the challenge of integrating the arts into the curriculum and the evidence is apparent when you walk into the building.  Poems, self-portraits and drawings line the hallways and the students’ pride is palpable.  I was lucky enough to be there on a day when students were sharing poems from their poetry portfolios.  Some of the themes of the poems were very mature; it was clear that a lot of these students are grappling with some very serious issues in their lives.  I was touched by the strength, wisdom and empowerment of the students as they were sharing.  This was just one day in one classroom, but it was clear that the students of Meany are flourishing.

The New School and Meany Middle School are combining quality programs, high standards and excellent staff that lead to higher student achievement. Progress does not come without costs however. Private foundation grants provide critical additional funding to allow for smart, strategic investments in programs that work. I was lucky enough to see progress at work in the classroom. With statewide per-student spending lagging far behind (43rd in the nation currently), clearly there is an urgent need to increase smart investments across Washington.

I encourage everyone to look to these great schools and programs for inspiration.

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Second Time’s a Charm in Renton

Posted by Molly

Good news for the Renton School District — it looks like their $150 million construction bond is going to pass. The bond failed to get the required 60 percent supermajority during the first election in March by just 78 votes. As of Thursday, the bond was receiving a 61.56 percent “yes” vote, which is above the 60 percent needed for passage.  Although levies can now pass with a simple majority, bonds still require the 60 percent supermajority.

The election results won’t be certified until June 4, but it is looking really good.

Congratulations Renton School District!

Posted in: Blog, Elections, Funding

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Two Million Minutes: An Essential Wake Up Call

Posted by Bonnie

Last week I attended a film screening of Two Million Minutes, a documentary comparing college preparation in India, China and America. The film was introduced by creator Robert Compton, a venture capitalist who travels to India and China frequently for business and decided it was time for Americans to wake up.

Robert Compton introduced the film by showing some shocking statistics. Alone the statistics wouldn’t bother you. They might seem trivial and even silly. Together they illustrate an intimidating picture of an America that has already fallen behind.

– Tallest building is in Taipei
– Largest publicly traded company is in Beijing
– Biggest refinery is being constructed in India
– Largest passenger airplane is built in Europe
– Biggest movie industry is Bollywood
– Largest casino is in Macao
– Only two of the world’s ten richest people are American.

Only ten years ago America would have topped almost every one of these categories.

Two million minutes is the four-year period that a student will spend in high school. How a student spends their Two Million Minutes—in class, at home studying, playing sports, working, sleeping, socializing—will affect their economic prospects for the rest of their lives. The film follows a male and female high school student in China, India and America and analyzes how each of these students prepares for their next step. Admittedly these students are the cream of the academic crop, however the differences in their preparation is shocking. Case in point, here is a comparison of math and science courses taken by high achieving students in the US and India:

Not required for graduation, but typical of high achieving students. Keep in mind, Washington currently only requires two years of math.
Physics – 1 year
Chemistry – 1 year
Biology – 1 year
Math – 4 years
Computer Science – 1 year

ISCE National Standard that starts in 8th grade and is required for graduation on technology track.
Physics – 5 years
Chemistry – 5 years
Biology – 5 years
Math – 5 years
Computer Science – 5 years

The movie also showed that the students in India and China are not only doing math and science to a higher level—their education is more rigorous across the board including music and language.

Robert’s argument throughout the film is clear: our culture needs to change. High poverty and rare opportunities for achievement in India and China have fostered a culture where ‘cool’ is equated with success. While success is most often equated with engineering or computer science, other fields are pursued. Most importantly, their plans are ambitious. The students in India and China seemed to reach for the highest possible achievement and realized that even if they didn’t make it, plans B, C, & D were still well above average. Apoorva’s father described it best by saying, “I want her to be able to face any situation fearlessly.” For him, her education is about giving her options and opportunity in an increasingly globalized world.

Click here to check out the trailer.

Posted in: Blog, Career and College Ready Diploma

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Talk to the State Board of Education

Posted by Michael

The Washington State Board of Education will hold 3 community engagement meetings in June to hear your thoughts on high school graduation requirements and accountability. It’s important that education advocates weigh in at these meetings.

The State Board will consider your feedback when they convene in July to make key decisions about the number of credits Washington’s students need to graduate from high school. Currently, our state’s minimum high school graduation requirements do not match minimum college admissions requirements.

Luckily, I had a great high school counselor who told me to take 3 years of math, instead of the minimum of 2 to graduate. But we shouldn’t rely on luck to ensure Washington’s students have the opportunity to go to college or enter the workforce with the skills needed to succeed.

Posted in: Blog, Career and College Ready Diploma

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Standing room only

Posted by George

It was standing room only at Tuesday’s meeting of the Basic Education Finance Task Force. As the Task Force bears down on the work of designing a better, more ample funding plan for schools, the room is filling with advocates, educators, print reporters and TVW. Soon we’re going to need a bigger room.

Most school advocates were encouraged by the sense that the Task Force is finally grappling with the rude question of what should be included in the cost of basic education. There were no academic discussions or presentations by visitors from out-of-state, just our own officials wrestling with the situation on the ground here in Washington.

Steve Aos, with the Washington Institute for Public Policy, the state agency that is staffing the Task Force, led off with his conclusions from the institute’s two major lines of research on compensation and class size. The state’s teacher salary schedule, which stretches incremental pay increases over 16 years, does not align well with the research that shows that the biggest gains in teacher effectiveness are in the first six years. A smarter system would aim to reward productivity gains, not simply years of service. On the issue of class size, the evidence is clear that reduced class sizes in grades K-3 matter. Mr. Aos even quantified the return on that investment: 10 to 16 percent over the lifetime of students.

That led to a vigorous discussion among members over the relative value of master degrees and years of experience. Experience won. Chair Dan Grimm was struck by Bremerton Superintendent Bette Hyde’s observation that her teachers all too frequently moved to other districts where they were paid more for the same job. How does that square with the state’s constitutional obligation to provide a “general and uniform” system of public schools?

Next, Rep. Ross Hunter presented his vision for a cost-based model for K-12 funding. He begins with a simple, bold—and unassailable—premise: build the K-12 budget around what kids need to meet the state’s high school graduation requirements. Because the State Board of Education is proposing to raise the minimum requirements so that high school graduates are prepared for college or meaningful employment, he starts there: fully fund 24 core credits, including three years of math and four years of English. At a minimum, this would mean funding six periods of high school instead of five.

Rep. Hunter would have the state build and cost out four model school programs (K-4, 4-5, 6-8 and 9-12) and then write the K-12 budget to fund them. He also proposes the state build and cost out model programs for English Language Learners, free and reduced-price lunch and special education students, programs reasonable people would agree are needed to provide all students with the opportunity to meet the state’s graduation requirements.

Rep. Hunter wants to require the Legislature to make explicit decisions about key cost drivers that are now obscure: class sizes, number of periods per day, and amount of teacher preparation time. He proposed further adjusting the high school model program costs to reflect four kinds of students: typical, struggling, honors and Career and Technical Education. And to avoid descending into the weeds, he imposes on each model school program the one-page rule.

Rep. Hunter wants the state to allocate funding for these model programs as a single block grant, and allow local districts to make actual spending decisions as they think best. To the extent districts choose to spend funds differently than the state allocation model, let them defend those choices to their parents and voters.

Next, Jennifer Priddy, finance guru at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, presented a sobering snapshot of current financing trends in districts. Declining fund balances have become the norm. The bottom line is districts are too reliant on local funds ( levies and I-728 ) that don’t keep up with inflation to support their current staffing levels and salaries. Expect to see more and more districts facing financial insolvency.

Chair Grimm asked, how much of the problem is due to the State’s underfunding of basic education and how much to districts’ own spending decisions? Superintendent Hyde responded that districts are facing a perfect storm. The very year that students must meet the WASL graduation standards, all the superintendents she knows are being forced to make cuts. The responsibility for the problem falls squarely on the State.

Last up was Mary Jean Ryan, chair of the State Board of Education, who made a compelling case for raising graduation standards. Unlike the rest of the modern world, and every previous generation of Americans, today’s students will be less well-educated than their parent’s generation.

Chair Grimm asked, why not let local districts set their own graduation requirements? Ms. Ryan answered, in an increasingly globalized economy where our students need to compete with their peers from all over the world, local standards just don’t work.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson noted that district superintendents are telling her they can’t imagine how to fund 24 core graduation requirements with current resources. But once the State Board adopts these requirements, it’s hard to imagine how the State can evade responsibility for providing the programs students will need to meet them—which is precisely Rep. Hunter’s point.

Next meeting, stakeholder groups and concerned individuals are invited to make presentations. The League of Education Voters plans to be one of them. Our focus will be ample funding and needed structural reforms.

Posted in: Blog, Career and College Ready Diploma, Funding

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How to ensure teacher success?

Yesterday, Rep. Deb Wallace (Vancouver) hosted an online discussion on issues surrounding teachers and their success. Topics ranged from training programs to mentoring to shortage areas to data systems.

While the web dialogues shied away from proposing solutions to many of the issues presented, they provided an engaging forum to talk about many of the issues facing our teachers, schools and, by extension, the students they serve. One of the largest takeaways from the day-long conversations was the need for K-12 and higher education to work together when attempting to tackle many of the issues facing our schools.

We know teachers play a HUGE role in student achievement, and we also know teachers need support to ensure student success. I couldn’t help but silently cheer when strong mentoring and induction programs were highlighted as an area Washington can and should work on to improve teacher practice and reduce teacher attrition. A UW study found that the attrition rate for new Washington teachers in the first five years is 26.5 percent, just over one in four. It would be great if more K-12 districts partnered with institutions of higher education to create mentoring and induction programs.

This dialogue comes at an important time for education in our state. The State Board of Education and OSPI are working on new math and science standards, and the SBE is looking to raise high school graduation requirements, which may include Algebra II. As Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, said at our town hall meeting Monday, raising standards is a good thing and leads to higher success rates among students.

Ready to take action? Join us at and become involved in making our schools No. 1.

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