What's Wrong with the Governor's Education Proposal?

Yesterday Governor Gregoire announced a proposal to spend $197 million to improve the teaching of math and science in middle and high school classrooms. As the Seattle Times has reported, the proposal flows directly out of the recent Washington Learns report. If we are to believe the Times, the proposal is enjoying support from Republicans and Democrats, the business community, a University of Washington professor, and even the Washington Education Association (WEA). Never mind that on the radio this morning I heard a WEA spokesman qualify his support by stating that all classrooms should be reduced in size. Everyone is happy with the plan!

Everyone, that is, but me. I reserve the same skepticism I had when I wrote my previous diary a few days ago. The Washington Learns report privileges math, science and technology above all other considerations, and the governor's recent proposal reflects that report, as echoed in the Times:

The proposal, which attaches dollar amounts to her Washington Learns report, was welcomed by various legislators, the state teachers union and the Washington Roundtable, a business-oriented advocacy group, although they differed on some of the details.

One of my central theses was that the governor's education policy was designed to be sellable, and the accolades I'm hearing from various quarters only confirm my views. The Seattle P-I makes much of how the proposed spending will address the dismal WASL scores in math and science. In other words, the additional spending is meant to address the greatest need in the public education system, as measured by the WASL.

I see several problems here. I would be more hopeful if I thought the Washington Learns recommendations would lead to serious consideration of all the other pressing needs in K-12 public education. The justification of increased spending on math and science comes, in part, from WASL scores. However, there is a great deal of debate about the legitimacy of those scores. I don't have enough information to assess the math and sciences scores, but I can say a word or two about the writing scores, which are coming out higher.

I recently asked an 11th-grader what the writing test was when he was a 10th-grader. He said that on two successive days they were given a prompt to which they were to respond with a hand-written essay within a limited amount of time. I don't know exactly what criteria was used to score these essays, but about a year ago I took a similar test, the West-B Basic Skills tests. In the interests of full disclosure, I'll tell you how I scored: out of a possible 300, I scored 291 on math; 285 on reading; and 283 on writing. In other words, I did best on my worst subject and worst on my best subject.

This shouldn't be surprising. For almost my entire adult life, I've written or taught writing in one capacity or another. The test that was being used to judge my writing had nothing to do with most of the writing that I've done in the real world. Ask yourself how often you are required to write an essay on, say, the question of whether junk food should be allowed in school. You have to write it by hand, without a dictionary. You have a half-hour to do it, and no one is allowed to give you editorial feedback. Moreover, you have to write it in five paragraphs, because that's what is typically expected, and you must include a thesis sentence as the last sentence of the first paragraph. Your second, third and fourth paragraphs must provide support for your thesis, and you must close with a summary in the fifth paragraph.

I don't know about you, but I only write such essays when I have to take a writing test. Last year, I also took the ETS English Language Literature, Composition and Content Knowledge test, which is a more sophisticated multiple-choice test. I scored 199 out of 200 (what did I miss?). It would be easy for me to conclude the ETS test was a better measure of writing ability. However, I don't really believe that. In my experience, the best way to measure students' writing ability is to give them extended writing projects that simulate the kinds of writing they'll have to do in college and the real world. If you want to impose a writing graduation requirement, then I would have students write a senior thesis, as they do at Northwest School.

To institute a portfolio system for graduation requirements would require a serious restructuring of our public education system. Tony Wagner's book Making the Grade: Reinventing America's Schools is replete with examples of school districts around the country that have successfully implemented a portfolio system, but we won't see that system implemented here in Washington State except, perhaps, as a fallback for students who've failed the WASL twice. The reason it won't be implemented here is because the state legislature is so heavily invested in the WASL, the kind of "high-stakes" test whose effectiveness as a graduation requirement has long been challenged by academic studies.

The second impediment to restructuring our public education system in ways that benefit all students is the education policy set forth in the Washington Learns report. As we now see, the report's recommendations are already being turned into legislative proposals, and the political class in this state is coalescing around a consensus that will be difficult to challenge, in a serious way, for the foreseeable future. When you have the business community, Republican and Democratic legislators, the governor, and even the WEA all embracing the same proposal, you are very much a voice crying in the wilderness if you pipe up and say, "Hey--what about funding for social studies, reading and writing, foreign languages, students with special needs, and the arts?"

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if you were elected in 04 as Gov and the WASL was in place and we had learned what we have along the way from the WASL and other tests, from student performance in first year higher ed, the nature of job demand etc... and here you are with the problem. You have limited funds and decide to take the best step forward that you can at this time. Looking at the proposals in this way, can you honestly say that this is not a step in the right direction? And when it produces results can you see how expanding the ideas to other areas of public education will have the momentum?

by Particle Man on Tue Dec 12, 2006 at 10:51:22 PM PST

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I do own a Ouija board. Here's what I conjured up today:

(Applause) Thank you Dana for that warm welcome. You know--Dana and I go back a few years, and one thing we have always fought for is a vision of schools that takes us beyond merely responding to the crisis of the moment. Dana has asked me here today to speak before the Thundering 36th (hoots, cheers)--she asked me to speak about my vision for schools in the 21st century.

In my experience as a teacher, who comes from a family of teachers, and in my experience as a legislator, I know that our schools need more than just the latest technology--though that's important--and they need more than just smaller classroom sizes--though that's important, too. We--and I mean all of us--we need to see our schools as learning communities within communities. Our children don't grow and learn just within the four walls of the school. They learn within their neighborhood, within their city, within their country, and on the planet. Schools should be refuges where children feel safe enough to discover their own talents, take risks, be creative and learn about the world they live in. These refuges, like a wetland in a forest, belong to the community they're surrounded by.

In our schools, children should learn the practices they'll need for the 21st century. They should be able to set up an experiment like a scientist, write for creative expression and practical clarity, practice an art form, speak an extra language or two, research like a historian, engage as a citizen, and do the math they need for a career or college. The world we're sending our young people into is profoundly multicultural. I say profoundly because the cultures of the globe are not just represented in our neighborhoods; pieces of cultures live within each of us. I'm a white, middle-class city guy. But I also have within me something from African American, Italian, German, Spanish, Jewish, Muslim, Christian and any number of other cultures.

What do I want to see when I enter a school of the future? I want children's voices to be central to the life of the school. Their projects, poems, photos, achievements, biographies, artworks, graphs, charts should on the walls and in the halls. Children should not only work quietly when it's appropriate, they should also work together on projects, exercise every day, do presentations, interview their peers and adults, create magazines, conduct experiments, measure and analyze their world. They should be active, and their teachers should be active. The isolation of the teacher must end--they should have the time and freedom to team-teach, collaborate on projects, inspire each other with new ideas. The members of the community--guest speakers, parents, volunteers--should be present in the school, and the school should be present in the community. We're teaching our students about the world, and so they should learn within it--not only on traditional field trips to museums and mountains, but also on service-learning projects, like advocating bills in Olympia or rebuilding migrant living quarters.

We should all want our children to be good citizens. In the fall, seniors should work on campaigns of their choice. We need a resurgence of civic engagement that starts with our young people. There is simply no way to tackle our deeply-structured societal problems without their help. I can't believe it's 2011, and we've yet to close the achievement gap. Some politicians act like it's a matter of putting a few computers in a few schools. Yes, African American and Hispanic children need computers, but they also need trained teachers to help them use today's technology as part of larger projects, like creating a student publication or analyzing data from a scientific experiment. And as the latest round of class-action suits against the WASL has shown, high-stakes testing doesn't work. Various children have various learning styles, and teachers should adapt their teaching methods to their multicultural classrooms instead of trying to force their multicultural classrooms to adapt to a flawed, resource-sucking test.

Classrooms--and meeting halls--have all kinds of personalities. We are intuitive or analytical or emotional or expressive or contemplative or gregarious or hyper-organized or perceptive or easy-going--you name it. We need not only a range of learning styles in our classrooms, but a range of teaching styles. We need brilliant teachers for gifted students, and we need brilliant teachers for students with learning disabilities and physical handicaps. We must understand the painful world some of our children live in and help them come into themselves. We must have the courage to see as they do and help them discover their own latent gifts.

And that's ultimately what I'm talking about. Our dream--our lofty dream--should be to unleash the full-flowering of human capability. With our troops bogged down on three fronts and our economy in deep recession, I know this sounds impossible. I know we fear the loss of freedoms and the ruin of our civilization. But where we begin is with our youth. Their flowering is our flowering. Their community is our community. And their humanity is our humanity. For in them we will find our hope for a more decent, more humane world. In them, we will find ourselves and our way to the future.

Peace. Thank you. (Applause.)

by DWE on Wed Dec 13, 2006 at 01:12:40 PM PST

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Olympia School Board member Russ Lehman has an interesting guest column in today's Seattle P-I. He argues that the responsibility for settling the question of the state's inequitable system for financing education has fallen to the courts because the legislature and governor have failed to show leadership on that issue.

My view is that the governor's most recent proposal to spend $197 million on math and science education will only exacerbate that spending inequities. This proposal, as I've said, flows directly out of the Washington Learns report, which was supposed to address the question of education financing, as outlined by the legislation that enabled the report. Instead, the governor, as I contend, has delayed final recommendations for education financing until after the 2008 election. Here is what Russ Lehman has to say about the Washington Learns report and related issues:

You can't fool all the people all the time. The use of blue-ribbon committees to stall the inevitable may buy you a little time, but that's it. The unremarkable Washington Learns study group was the last straw for many districts. The group spent $800,000 on an economic study that was then ignored, buried and "peer reviewed" by well-known adversaries of the original authors (also at taxpayers' expense). Then, the committee ran away from its finding that a substantial state investment is essential for our education system. Even the judge in the special education litigation felt compelled, after first holding out hope that significant recommendations would be forthcoming, to reject the state's stall tactics on the grounds that the committee was not likely to yield meaningful results.

Lehman makes an interesting allusion to the "special education litigation." I'm not familiar with this case, but one of my professors recently said that she believes the "special needs" community will also be bringing suit over the WASL. As I understand it, the issue at work is the state's testing of students with learning disabilities and its failure to accommodate more than a percentage of those students. Anti-WASL activists, such as Mothers Against WASL, has long predicted the state will get hit with class-action suits when passing the WASL becomes a graduation requirement.

The general principle at work here is that if the governor and legislature don't make sensible education policy, then the courts will be drawn in to make the decisions the politicians didn't have the courage to make.

by DWE on Thu Dec 14, 2006 at 12:50:29 PM PST

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freedom, and to get a career with freedom you need skills.

(should the world be like this? no.

yawn. )

Tests ... tests... tests.

I hated the fact that the SAT was THE gateway over 30 years ago when I was a teenager ... yawn. What has changed?  ummmm...

thousands of edu-crats have been paid for 30+ years to make things work better,

and, btw, they were paid way better than I was ever paid as a cook / chef for 20 years,

and we are still stuck with SAT and WASL and and

curriculum that doesn't prepare them for the test or competing or thinking.

why are any of those people employed?

BTW, on tests.

life is a test.

stick your tongue in an electric socket & get fried.  wear dark clothes in the middle of I-5 in a rainstorm at night & get run over.  

beat the next guy / gal with the good idea or ... work for them!

Ideally, we wouldn't need a motivator of

"hey mr./ms. screw off freshman ... you are going to be going to night school in 2 years cuz you won't have a junior's worth of credits, AND

you'll be taking 3 math classes to pass WASL cuz you wasted so much freaking time since you were in middle school that you missed whatever was good about our education system."

anyone got any ideas they are gonna PAY for? No?

o.k. professional pontificators - get thee to a school of education, or, work in some headquarters issueing edicts.

I agree with so many of your points DWE, but

I haven't seen ANYONE cost out the implementation of idea x,y,z  

and how the hell are we gonna get the money to implement the great idea if we don't know the details and the costs?

I actually skimmed the Washington Learns report - with the page down key.  

If I did not see any math, I did not stop, so I skimmed in about 1 or 2 minutes.

I'll try again.



by rmdSeaBos on Fri Dec 15, 2006 at 09:49:07 AM PST

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I've been asking myself what I would like included in a fantasy portfolio of writing for a graduating senior. The portfolio would include pieces from all three or four years of high school. Here are some ideas. Other folks may have theirs.

  • One poem in a traditional form (sonnet, villanelle, etc.)
  • One other creative writing piece (short story, short play, creative non-fiction, etc.)
  • One 200-word letter to the editor.
  • One persuasive essay in the form of an Op-Ed.
  • One blog entry, with follow-up comments.
  • One resume.
  • One cover letter for a job application.
  • One email for business purposes.
  • One literature paper.
  • One research paper (senior thesis). To "defend" the thesis, the student must do a presentation that relies on at least one form of media (PowerPoint, podcast, film, etc.)

What am I forgetting?

by DWE on Sat Dec 16, 2006 at 02:03:35 PM PST

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