The education system is like a massive aircraft carrier: difficult to turn around. But for those who have called for smarter policies, the current course is encouraging.
Despite scarce revenue in rocky economic times, thoughtful reformers have made significant gains, but they can’t afford to lose momentum. A glance back at all of the toppled barriers ought to be energizing.
A+ Washington is a comprehensive plan cobbled together by the diverse interests that form the Excellent Schools Now coalition. Many aspects of this long-term vision used to be much more controversial. Some examples: beefing up teacher and principal evaluations; continuing teacher contracts based on performance, rather than seniority; deciding compensation based on skills and performance, rather than credentials and years served; and expanding access to kindergarten and pre-kindergarten.
All of these changes garner solid majorities among voters and teachers, according to a recent Excellent Schools Now survey. The Legislature has responded by passing key bills that have kept reform moving in the right direction.
As the elections approach, education reform will be a key issue. Gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna, a Republican, has essentially adopted A+ Washington as his own model. Democratic candidate Jay Inslee was leery of some of the changes affecting teachers, but he recently told a Seattle gathering that he is encouraged by some of the pilot projects, and is now on board. Considering the huge campaign sums he has received from teachers unions over the course of his career, this is a significant change of heart.
So where do we go from here? A+ Washington provides a useful road map:
First, expand access to high quality pre-kindergarten classes. The data on the value of this couldn’t be clearer. It boosts student achievement and narrows the gap in learning between underprivileged children and the rest. Society benefits, too, when we educate instead of incarcerate.
Second, state educators and the Legislature need to follow through on their promises to teachers. Tightening evaluations without giving teachers the tools they need to improve is merely punishment. The state needs to show it’s committed to helping good teachers become great.
Third, align college and secondary school curriculums, so that high school graduates are ready to take on a post-secondary education. This includes adopting the Core 24 curriculum, which beefs up graduation requirements.
Fourth, support nontraditional opportunities for students who learn differently or don’t want to attend a four-year college.
Fifth, collect meaningful data to measure outcomes, so that educators and state leaders can be held accountable.
A+ Washington presents a realistic vision for near-term changes in pursuit of long term goals. Plus, it might be the only document that represents the wishes of business leaders, educators and parents.
The changes won’t be easy, but it’s comforting to have a thoughtful guide.