Task force urges bold reforms for basic education in Washington

Sound Off is a public forum. Articles are selected from letters to the editor or may be written specifically for this feature. Today, Liv Finne, director of Center for Education at the Washington Policy Center, reports on the findings of a new study recommending changes to the state’s public education system.

One of the outcomes of the “Washington Learns” report is the work of the Basic Education Task Force, chaired by Dan Grimm, former treasurer of the state of Washington.

This Task Force is considering a number of proposals for changing the definition of basic education provided by the state. The Task Force will soon begin deliberating these proposals, with the goal of producing a final report for the January 2009 legislative session.

Grimm has just submitted his proposal to the Task Force, and the key structural reforms suggested by the Grimm report include:

1. Redefine “basic education” to require “accountability for student outcomes,” which introduces to the “basic education” definition a new idea: that public education must be accountable for student performance.

However, the report does state that there is a limit to what the state can do as academic achievement must “ultimately be the responsibility of students and their families.”

2. Fund two additional hours of instruction, which would require substantial new funding from the state.

3. Transfer from 295 school districts to the state the responsibility over collective bargaining with the teachers union, which Grimm believes would increase the likelihood of establishing different pay for different labor markets, different pay for teachers with different duties and qualifications such as math and science, and incentive compensation based on student academic achievement and retention in high school.

4. Eliminate the state teacher salary schedule, which rewards teachers on the basis of degrees attained and years worked. Research shows that this “time and credits” grid is not correlated to student achievement.

5. Repeal Initiatives 732 (teacher COLA increases) and 728 (smaller class size and other reforms)

6. Repeal continuing contract protections for principals, and making continuing contract protections for teachers subject to collective bargaining

7. Repeal teacher certification laws, and allow prospective teachers to be tested instead for academic and subject matter competency.

Grimm’s report also suggests that all certification standards based on peer review be eliminated (such as the National Board Professional Teaching Standard certification funded by the Legislature to provide bonuses to teachers), and that the state should not be involved in the accreditation and management of teacher preparation programs.

This proposal is in line with research which shows that student achievement is correlated to the academic achievement of teachers, and not to the certification status of the teacher.

8. Create two new high school diplomas to provide students with the incentive to stay in school. Students who meet the requirements of a new, rigorous diploma, the Certificate of Academic Mastery, would be guaranteed admission to one of the state’s six four-year state colleges and universities.

9. Repeal of Time, Responsibility and Incentive pay by the local districts.

10. Giving the governor authority to target assistance to promote innovation and address diverse district needs.

11. More transparency and accountability over expenditure data and student data reporting.

12. Limit use of levy funds, repeal of levy lids and levy equalization.

The combined total of state, local and federal funds spent on public education in Washington exceeds $9 billion a year, an increase of 28% over the past four years.

Taxpayers therefore provide approximately $9500 per student to the public school system. This translates to over $180,000 per classroom. Unfortunately, however, less than 59 cents of every dollar actually reaches the classroom.

Grimm states that improving student performance will require increased funding. Grimm also says that improving student performance will also require structural reforms, “in the absence of which any infusion of new funding will leave in place the deficiencies of the current system and create another cycle of inequitable and inadequate education opportunities inimical to improved student performance.”

Structural reforms should precede funding increases.

Research shows that placing an effective teacher in every classroom is more important than any other factor in improving student learning, including smaller class sizes. Principals have little ability in Washington state to place effective teachers in every classroom, or to act as instructional leaders, as most do not hire staff or have control over their budgets.

Instead of allowing our principals to lead, laws and other restrictions reduce our potential leaders to building and conflict managers.

Grimm’s proposal offers several bold steps which would give local school principals additional tools to attract and place effective teachers in every classroom.

One idea to give local principals yet another tool would be to allow funding to follow the child to the school of his or her choice, as this “weighted-student formula” method of funding (now implemented in Hawaii, Nevada and New Jersey) requires schools to compete for students and to fund their budgets by successfully attracting students and their families.

Accountability under this system is built in — schools that do not attract sufficient numbers of students are subject to staff changes by the district.

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