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Activist of the Month: Betsy Cohen

At the League of Education Voters (LEV), we recognize all of the hard work that you do toward improving public education across Washington state. We are pleased to announce our Activist of the Month for February: Betsy Cohen. Read more about Betsy’s experience as an education activist.

Betsy CohenBetsy Cohen testified in Olympia for the first time two weeks ago in favor of the college and career ready diploma (HB 2181). That might come as a surprise to those who know her, since Betsy has been involved in education advocacy for years—since moving to Washington state when her children were young.

Betsy joined her children’s elementary school PTA and, with her background as a law professor, was quickly appointed as their legislative representative. Over the years, she has organized dozens of trips to Olympia and helped others testify (but she never had the opportunity to testify herself). (more…)

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Olympia’s education efforts: Mid-course correction needed

This post was written by League of Education Voters CEO Chris Korsmo and originally posted on Crosscut on December 3, 2013.

Chris Korsmo, CEO, League of Education VotersThe National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2013 test results were heralded recently by many in our state for the increases in fourth and eighth grade math and reading scores.

The results are promising and the progress deserves to be recognized.

Yet when the results were announced, there was little to no mention of the widening achievement gaps among some groups of Washington students.

Specifically, during the past 10 years, the gaps between black/white, Latino/white, and low-income/higher income students widened at all grades and subjects tested.

Clearly, what we are doing for these students is not working. (more…)

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A motivated, caring, innovative, knowledgeable, effective teacher in every classroom

This blog post is written by Connie Gerlitz, one of LEV’s key activists and longtime education reform leader and activist, in response to the Seattle School Board meeting on Wednesday.

We cannot confuse our love and respect for good teachers with the fact that their efforts are not universally replicated in our classrooms, and our children are suffering the consequences as evidenced by their inability to pass required standardized tests, graduate from high school, or take a college-level course.

Teachers and school communities need our help and support – collaboration time, clean and safe classrooms, continued monetary incentives, mentorships, remediation plans, praise and heart-felt thanks.

But students need so much more and one of those things (please notice that I said “one of those things”) is a motivated, caring, innovative, knowledgeable, and effective teacher in every one of their classrooms. We can’t fix ineffective parents. We can’t fix severe disabilities. We can’t fix poverty. We can, however, move toward providing them with teachers that prove that they have the ability to educate them. One of the ways (please note that I said “one of the ways”) is to measure student progress and use that progress as a means (please note that I said “a means”) of determining whether a teacher is effective or not.

I for one have really had it with the rhetoric that says that unless we are in a classroom we don’t understand what good teaching is. It is like saying that unless we are the chef in a restaurant we don’t understand what good food is or that unless we can wield the scalpel ourselves that we don’t know whether our appendix was removed successfully or not. Our food is nutritious and tasty. We no longer are the owners of an infected appendix. Our kids can read.

I have also have had it with the rhetoric that says that a teacher can not be held accountable for results if the student is hungry or doesn’t have a pencil or has a learning disability or is unruly. Get the kid some food – there are all kinds of agencies that will help. Get the kid a pencil – there are all kinds of agencies (PTA for one) that will help. Learn how to deal with the disability or find someone who will. Find out what it takes to get the unruly one under control or find someone who will. And, please don’t tell me that I don’t understand how impossible that is.

Here is a quick story: My mother taught school for 40 years and one of her first students was a blind child (also a neighbor). Blind children were not allowed at the time to be in normal public classrooms in the Franklin Pierce School District, but the parents really wanted him to be in my mom’s classroom. First she learned how to Braille. Then she went to the school board and petitioned to allow his entry into her class. When that was allowed, she brailled all of his needed reading material for 10 years. She opened the classroom doors in that district for blind children. He is, to this day, a highly respected and productive member of our community. That was not a part of her contract, by the way. I could go for days with the countless students our daughter has mentored in and out of foster homes, out of gangs, out of drugs, out of lethargy, out of anger management problems. Her kids move along and she would not have a problem with a test that proves it. She would welcome any help she could get if the test showed she was making no progress.

When I complained once to my mom about not liking to teach students who didn’t care about learning, she took me by the shoulders and said, “Honey, get out of teaching. They are the ones that need your help. The others will do it on their own.”

We need teachers that find a way to reach the ones that really need their help – the others will do it on their own. We don’t really need school at all for those bright, enthusiastic, healthy/wealthy, self-motivators – they will do it on their own.

And, I have had it with the rhetoric that says that a teacher’s effectiveness should not be judged on the actual educational progress of her students. What is it we don’t understand about a test that tells us what a child knows at the beginning of the year and what a child knows at the end of the year? Do teachers not give students tests to figure out if they learned a subject? Is there not a test that can tell us, in part, (please note that I said “in part””) if a teacher is successfully imparting the substance of a subject to his/her students?

I love and admire good teachers and I want to pay them and help them and honor them in every way possible and have spent almost 40 years working to improve the lot of teachers so they could properly educate our kids. The system is not working. Our kids are failing. We need change and we need it now but not the change that says that we will install an accountability system that has no teeth. Why, please tell me why, the union is not in favor of finding a way to reward effective teachers and get rid of the also-rans with a system that has some teeth – a test is just one tooth but it is one of the front ones and is noticeable and harmful when missing.

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PreK Now. It’s Basic!

Today LEV Foundation board member Janet Levinger testified in support of HB 2731 – including preschool for at-risk 3- and 4-year olds in basic education. I have pasted it below. Janet was joined by 20 parents, providers, sheriffs (yes, there were two!) and child advocates who also testified in support of including preschool in basic education. At least 15 people also signed in to support 2731 without testifying.

Thank you Janet for standing up for Washington’s youngest learners.

Good afternoon. For the record, my name is Janet Levinger. I am here today as a community volunteer and child advocate. I currently serve on the boards of United Way of King County, Social Venture Partners, the League of Education Voters, Child Care Resources, and the Bellevue Schools Foundation. I am also on the advancement and communications committees of Thrive by Five Washington.

I am here today to speak in support of HB 2731 and applaud your vision to include PreK in basic education. I also like the mention of infant toddler programs in HB 2867.

Ever since I joined to Child Care Resources board – 13 years ago this month – my husband and I have focused our philanthropy and volunteer time on improving outcomes for all children by ensuring they have a strong state in life. Here’s why:

Imagine yourself as a 5-year-old. It’s your first day at school. You have a new lunch box and a new backpack and you’re all excited. But when you get to school, you have a hard time. You have trouble sitting still to listen to a story. You fight with other kids over a toy. You get in trouble with the teacher because you can’t wait until the end of circle time to play with the blocks. Other kids laugh at you when you don’t know how to write your name and have trouble holding onto a pencil. By the end of the week, the teacher now that you are one of the kids who is not ready for school and she can guess that you are one of the kids who will not graduate from high school.

Imagine yourself as a 5-year old – and you are already projected to fail.

My husband and I invest in quality early education because is shows that it makes a huge difference for kids.

Kids in quality programs enter kindergarten with a solid foundation of social skills and learning skills. They are less likely to repeat a grade, to be placed in special education, to commit a crime, or to become pregnant as a teen.

My husband and I invest in quality early education because it is a good investment for our community.

Research from prominent economists has shows that for every dollar invested in high quality PreK saves taxpayers up to $7 later. Not only are there savings from remedial and juvenile justice programs, but over the long-term, these kids are more likely to graduate from high school, gain stable employment, and contribute positively to our community.

Protecting PreK under basic education would ensure that the program could not be cut and that all eligible children would be served.

I grew up in Iowa and when I was 10-years old, my family moved to a new house. We were one of the first in a new development. My mother planted all sorts of trees – but they were scrawny twigs when she put them in no bigger than I was. I asked her what she was doing and she told me she was planting trees so we would have shade from the sun, apples to pick in the summer, and privacy from our neighbors. I remember looking around from our prairie hilltop and noticing that we did not have any neighbors and I thought she was crazy. But of course she was right. Over time, the small plants she carefully watered and pruned sheltered us from the sun, gave us fruit, and offered us privacy from the neighbors who did move in.

I know it’s hard to think 5, 12, or 20 years ahead. But I hope you will be like my mother and have the foresight to know that caring for our children now will bring many benefits in the future. Imagine that 5-year old – we can offer her a hopeful future instead of failure.

Including a program of early learning in Basic Education will guarantee that our limited resources are focused where the can make the most difference in the life of every child, and to our community.

Thank you.

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My trip to History (better late than never)

I’ve never been part of history before. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen cool things and bad things, but saying I’ve witnessed History (capital H) would be a stretch.  As I prepared for my trip I imagined what it would be like and, I have to say, I was wrong. My idea of History didn’t compare with what I experienced.

Last week I took a very short trip to a very large event, the inauguration of President Barack Obama. I left on the red eye last Sunday and arrived in Baltimore on Monday morning at 9 am. I made my way to to the south end of the Capitol Building where so many of us would be fixated the following morning. As I turned the corner, it became closer to real. The barricades, porta potty lined walkways, and people everywhere – I mean everywhere. I stood in front of the Capitol. It was dressed up with American flags – flags that I have never been so proud to see. The choir was practicing – children were everywhere, their parents lift them up pointing and explaining what was about to happen to their world.

My trip built upon that moment. Every minute added another layer of power and depth. I spent the day walking the National Mall. Occasionally, I’d stop and talk to people, and they’d talk back. “Aren’t you excited?” “It’s really happening!” “This is my country.” Everyone was smiling. Everyone was helping one another whether by offering to snap a photo (I traveled alone), a piece of gum, a snack… anything. I slept only a few hours to board the metro just before 6 am and experience the start of a new day. The metro was PACKED, but no one pushed or argued or sniped. Instead people cheered, God Bless America broke out along with a short Happy Birthday to one girl who turned 21 (pictured at left).

It took me an hour  to find the end of my long line and I stood there for hours. I got to know the people I was standing by.  Black, white, young, old, rich, poor – none of that mattered on this special day. After I got through security, I literally sprinted to the Capitol and stood directly behind the reflecting pond. It was an incredible sight. The electricity and positive energy is something that I’ll never ever forget. It was a spiritual reminder that humans are all so similar, we want to be the best, we want to help, we want to understand each other. As I stood and listened to President Obama speak, I took a moment to turn around and take it in.  He was saying these words:

“Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.”

It hit me. It was not Barack Obama who blew me away that day. It was us. All of us. We had come together and already accomplished something truly historical. Yes we did! But this accomplishment seemed almost minor compared to the energy, hope, and team work it took to accomplish it. Hope won – and here I was standing next to three African American women my age crying, hugging, and cheering together.inaug

I spent the rest of the day dancing on the iced-over reflecting pond, calling all of my family and friends, and having a long lunch with four people who I had never met before from all different walks of life. It was one of the best lunches I’ve had – mixed with elation and deep discussion on ‘what now?’.

On my flight home I struggled to answer this question – almost to the point of frustration. What more can I do? How can I create real change? I need to do more.  Yesterday I finally got a chance to read President Obama’s letter to his daughters. The most poignant line to me reads, ‘it is only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential.’ It was a great reminder to me that I’m doing some very cool work here at LEV helping ensure that all children are ready for life. Sometimes changing the world feels difficult (okay really difficult), but  last week reminded me that it is possible. That’s enough to keep me going. It takes team work and diligently chipping away at a common goal. More than that, it is what needs to be done.

I want all our children to go to schools worthy of their potential—schools that challenge them, inspire them, and instill in them a sense of wonder about the world around them. I want them to have the chance to go to college—even if their parents aren’t rich. And I want them to get good jobs: jobs that pay well and give them benefits like health care, jobs that let them spend time with their own kids and retire with dignity.  – Barack Obama, ‘What I Want for You – and Every Child in America.’

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Katarina’s trip to Vancouver

Boarding a bus at seven in the morning to attend a State Board of Education meeting was not at the top of my summer to-do list. Honestly, I would have never guessed that attending a State Board of Education meeting would ever be on my calendar.

With my eyes a little puffy and my stomach empty, my excitement meter was running on the low side as I headed to the office two hours earlier than normal. As I slowly dragged my body out of my dad’s car, I was instantly greeted with smiles and eager faces ready to show the State Board what we’re all about.

As the bus arrived at the meeting, our show-stopping swag captured the eyes of many in the room. Our message was even stronger than our fierce red shirts – every student should have the opportunity to succeed. We all brought our own stories, each one as powerful and unique as the next.

It was not until this summer that I realized how fortunate I was. Hearing some of the testimonies really helped me see how difficult it may be without the guidance, mentoring and encouragement I received through family, school and Rainier Scholars. Every student is not offered a chance to know success but I believe everyone should be able to know what it feels like to succeed. Through Core 24, every student will have the opportunity to make decisions that will directly affect their future. It offers a solid academic foundation with flexibility to alter courses in order to accommodate post high school graduation plans.

I can now say I have attended a State Board of Education meeting, learned a lot and had fun at the same time. Not only did we show everyone at the meeting how Core 24 would be beneficial to all students, but we also showed them how important student voices really are. We are the future and the time for change is now.

Katarina is our summer intern and also a Rainier Scholar.

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Simran’s testimony, Western Washington Student

Just shy of spending two weeks as an intern here, I attended the State Board of Education meeting in Vancouver yesterday to testify in support of CORE 24. As I watched the number of miles decrease on the exit signs, my thoughts were about how the Board would react to the proposal, if much of the public would attend, if they would be in support of CORE 24, and if the students’ testimonies would be enough to sway the Board.

Upon arriving, I was ushered into a crowded room. I was intimidated by the formality of the meeting, yet comforted by the red shirts scattered throughout the sea of people. As I began listening to one woman testifying against CORE 24, I was taken aback by her opinion of students struggles in education. I can’t get over how people use technical issues like finances as an excuse for not supporting issues like CORE 24 and how easily people forget why Washington State made a board that makes decisions on public education. For the students, of course!

When my turn came, I hope to channel the importance of this decision, and how the Board is responsible for an uncharted number of children who would go through our state’s school system. I wanted to convey how we could set the students up for failure if we weren’t decisive. As another testifier said, “…..not making this decision would be criminal”. I was pleased that the Board seemed eager to listen to the students, and that my words proved to be meaningful.

It was a tangible experience and I found it empowering that people can make a difference despite the obstacles. My goal is to help other students realize that it isn’t difficult to speak out, but it takes having someone to listen that makes it count.

Here is an excerpt from my testimony:

My name is Simran and I’m a public school graduate heading into my third year at Western Washington University. I was fortunate to have parents and an older brother who were familiar with high school four-year plans, and knew how to prepare for success in enrollment in college. By taking AP courses and being highly involved in my high school, I had gained enough experience to ensure my position at a four-year university. I was lucky. We need to make sure that every student is just as lucky . . .

Despite the obvious technical issues that lie ahead with Core 24, it is important for you as a member of the State Board of Education to understand the fundamental theme behind this proposal. This is for the betterment of all students and will give them an opportunity to excel. They are the future of society and I believe that all of you have their best interests in mind. Thank you for continuing to do what you do for all students.

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Sea of Red

Posted by Heather

The State Board of Education are meeting today and tomorrow in Vancouver to vote on the proposed Algebra II requirement and have further discussion on CORE 24 (proposed new high school graduation requirements).

To show support for CORE 24, a busload of 50 students, parents and advocates rode down with us to the meeting. Wearing red “Change our world, change our schools” t-shirts, we were literally a sea of red in the room. Even more amazing than our visual presence was the student perspective offered by 10 members of our group.

Public testimony on CORE 24 was heard for more than an hour, and our group took up about a third of that time. After hearing from some of the usual suspects — most of whom support CORE 24 despite their concerns over funding and implementation — our speakers offered some perspective a bit closer to the ground.

Student speakers Roxana, DeAngela, Sebastian and Simran gave great testimony about how CORE 24 will help prepare ALL of our kids for success after high school. They all spoke to how raising expectations will benefit students, not hurt them, and creating a post-secondary plan will help students visualize their futures. All four asked the SBE to not wait to raise graduation requirements for fear of leaving more of their peers behind.

Let’s hope their testimony leaves SBE members seeing red over our current low expectations for students and voting to continue with CORE 24 as a framework.

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