Federal education policies, not Whatcom schools, failing students

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 2, 2014 

Attention parents! Your child's school is now "failing," according to the federal government. That because just last week the Obama administration rescinded our state's No Child Left Behind waiver. As a consequence, public schools in Washington are no longer exempt from the 2002 law, which requires 100 percent proficiency levels on state tests.

President Obama called for common sense changes to No Child Left Behind when he first ran for office in 2008. However, momentum to reauthorize the law stalled in Congress over the issue of teacher evaluations. Rather than risk a watered-down law, the Obama administration began offering waivers to states. These federal exemptions protected schools from the harsh penalties associated with "failure."

Forty-three states and the District of Columbia were eventually granted waivers but, in order to keep them, states were expected to play ball. Legislators in Washington enacted most of the Department of Education's required reforms, all except one that is. The Washington State Teacher/Principal Evaluation Project does not require the use of statewide test scores in teacher evaluations.

While teachers in Washington are required to demonstrate student growth, assessments are determined at the local level. The Obama administration wasn't satisfied and Washington was placed on "high risk." Lawmakers were warned that the No Child Left Behind waiver would be revoked, if the state didn't require the use of statewide test scores.

When the state legislature didn't pass a compromise bill this past session, it was only a matter of time. Some had hoped that Sen. Patty Murray would be able to persuade the Obama administration to reconsider, but that turned out to be wishful thinking. Instead, Washington will serve as an example for other "high risk" states.

Under No Child Left Behind, practically every school in the state will fail to make "adequate yearly progress." Even schools with 99 percent proficiency rates will be labeled failing under this poorly designed law. But, fortunately for stakeholders, there are more reliable indicators that show how Washington schools are really performing.

One such measure is the National Assessment of Education Performance. Since 2003, Washington students have annually exceeded national averages in reading and math. In October 2013, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan even congratulated our state for its "remarkable progress" calling Washington one of the "fastest improving" states in the nation.

Furthermore, a recent study conducted by the Department of Education's very own National Center for Education Statistics, proposed Washington students exceed international averages in math and science. Their analysis suggests eighth-graders here even score higher in math than their counterparts in Finland, which is frequently hailed as one of the world's academic powerhouses.

Yet another gauge of student achievement is the Scholastic Aptitude Test, taken by millions of high school students annually. In 2012, Washington tied Vermont with the highest SAT scores in the entire nation. Last year Washington's 12th graders earned a combined average score of 1526, which was fourth-highest among states with 50 percent of eligible students taking the test.

If that weren't evidence enough, 12 Whatcom County schools just received awards for academic performance. Three elementary schools were recognized for overall excellence, meaning they are among the top 5 percent in the entire state. Three area high schools were recognized for high progress, which puts them in the top 10 percent of schools making the most progress over three years.

Despite these success stories, parents will be receiving failure notices from Whatcom County schools. Worse yet, districts will be required to set aside 20 percent of their federal Title I funds that are intended to serve the most vulnerable students. They may also be required to pay for individual tutoring from private vendors, such as Kumon, if parents request these funds.

The idea that our public schools are failing couldn't be any more absurd, really. Certainly there are improvements that need to be made, like closing opportunity gaps and increasing graduation rates. In reality, Washington schools are producing above average results, despite getting only failed educational policies and continued gridlock from officials in Washington, D.C.

Rep. Chris Reykdal, D.-Tumwater, may have summed it up best when he said, "I challenge the federal government to turn a corner on education reform, fix the deeply-flawed and failed No Child Left Behind Act, and get back to empowering the states instead of coercing them." As a teacher, parent and voter from the great state of Washington, I completely agree.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Todd Hausman is a public school teacher in Bellingham and is on the board of directors of Teachers United, a non-profit organization in Seattle.

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