Still time to do good things – and bad – for education

Staff WriterApril 11, 2013 

Legislators got to legislate, governors got to govern.

It’s not just in their titles, it’s in their blood.

When the topic is education, which consumes half the state budget and is always a hit on the campaign trail, the compulsion to be active – or at least look that way – is especially potent.

There are times, however, when a little-known saying should be rolled out and followed: Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There. Rather than do something this session about graduation requirements, the politicians would be better off standing there. Rather than tinker with the way public schools are measured, they should stand there too.

Because in both cases, the State Board of Education is at the end of a long process of crafting complex plans called Core 24 for high school graduation requirements and the Achievement Index for grading schools. In both cases, they are following the direction of previous Legislatures that set the policy goals and wisely turned the technical details over to the board.

So why are there bills to alter graduation requirements and to change the parameters of the Achievement Index? Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There, please. Because in both cases, doing something threatens to undo work already done.

It starts innocently enough. Someone fears that students who want to pursue a vocational-technical track in high school are instead forced to try – and perhaps fail – a pre-college path. So they introduce bills to let kids substitute academic requirements for career courses.

But Core 24 takes such students into consideration, providing flexibility for career and technical classes in a way that doesn’t lessen the need for basic knowledge of science and language.

Someone else decides that the Achievement Index should use easily understood letter grades rather than obtuse labels like “exemplary” and “very good.” Letters might be a good idea, both for clarity and to disrupt a Lake Wobegonesque world where “good” is the middle, “fair” is second from the bottom and failing schools are called “struggling.”

But adding letters apparently isn’t enough. Proponents have to tell the state board to add additional measures that it either already is measuring or has decided aren’t good ideas. If the bill passes, it will make it difficult for the board to meet a June deadline for submitting its revised index to the federal Department of Education.

Why do the feds get to play? Because the state asked for and received a waiver from the onerous rules and penalties of No Child Left Behind. But the waiver was conditional on the state beefing up the index, especially by adding “student growth data” – otherwise known as test scores – to the index.

Gov. Jay Inslee tried Tuesday to unravel some of the confusion that has resulted from – take your pick – his 1) inconsistent position on issues like A-F grading or 2) his failure to adequately communicate his position. Inslee, who campaigned on support for A-F, recently told Senate education leaders he didn’t support their bill, leading to allegations of flip-flopping.

On Tuesday, Inslee said he supports A-F.

“A letter grade is something we understand,” Inslee said. “We’ve gone through it ourselves as students. It’s used in a variety of contexts.” But he doesn’t support the current version that passed the Senate and laid out a long list of criteria including adding measures and calling for grades for each area measured. Like lawmakers, though, he is calling for things that are already in the index and showed an unfortunate lack of knowledge of what the SBE has been doing for the last four years.

Lawmakers should steer clear of changing high school graduation requirements. And if they and Inslee think letter grades are a good idea, they can do it with a two-paragraph bill that simply directs the state board to use them for the five levels once it completes the index.

There are plenty of other issues regarding school reform to keep lawmakers busy, not the least of which is meeting the funding demands of the state Supreme Court in the McCleary ruling. What to do with persistently failing schools is another.

Despite the late date of the session, Inslee now seems more engaged in the issue.

“There’s still time here to do good things,” Inslee said.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657
peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com

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