History, funding have shaped our school system

My kids are smarter than your kids. After all, my kids were educated in a public school in Massachusetts. Yours were educated in a public school in Washington. Enough said?

Of course not. The kernel of truth in my statement lies in the fact that Massachusetts ranks eighth in the country in per capita school spending, spending $14,142 per pupil on elementary and secondary education. Washington ranks 30th, spending only $9,637, well below the national average of $10,608. (By the way, the national dunce cap goes to Utah, which spends only $6,206 per year on its grade-school students.)

It’s tough to compare achievement test scores from different places because the tests are voluntary so differences in scores may come from differences in who takes the test. Yet on the 2013 SAT test, Massachusetts students scored higher than Washington students (an average combined score of 1,556 vs. 1,519) despite the fact that fully 84 percent of Massachusetts juniors took the SAT in 2013. That’s one of the highest SAT participation rates in the nation, much higher than Washington, at 63 percent. You’d expect the average score to go down when more of the population decides to take the test.

Test scores aside, my daughter does not agree with me. She says she’s not the smartest kid in town, just one of a group of excellent students in her grade. Plus, a good portion of her smarts come from spending the past four years at Olympia High School.

I believe the foundation for my daughter’s academic success was laid at a school she attended in Cambridge, Massachusetts from Kindergarten through eighth grade called the Martin Luther King Jr. Open School. King Open was a special school in a special school district. Cambridge is home to two of the top universities in the world, Harvard and MIT. Thanks to high property values, Cambridge has a tax base to die for, despite having an highly diverse population, both economically and ethnically. Support from the state government, underpinned by a 5.15 percent state income tax, is also critical.

The bedrock underlying King Open’s success was a cadre of well-trained, highly experienced teachers. Class sizes were small, even by Massachusetts’ standards. In the lower grades, my kids’ classes typically had 20 students served by both a senior teacher and a well-qualified, full-time teacher’s assistant.

Any comparison I attempt between schools in Olympia and Cambridge would be hopelessly subjective. I will say that many of my son’s teachers in Olympia were clearly still learning their craft. And there were far too many students in each class. But there was something more, something I can’t quite put my finger on about the culture of learning and teaching.

Maybe this intangible difference goes back to the history of the two states. For the Puritans in Massachusetts in the 17th century, the opportunity to read the Bible in English was a cherished and hard-won freedom. For centuries before, Bibles had been published only in Latin, and lay people relied on clergy to convey its message. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Puritans required even small towns to provide primary and secondary education from 1647. By the 18th century, though still primarily an agricultural society, New England had one of the highest literacy rates in the world. The southern states, where military honor ranked higher than formal education, lagged far behind.

Some of my roots are in the Puget Sound area. My mother is rightly proud of her B.A. in nursing from the University of Washington. She inherited a love of learning from my German-speaking grandmother who herself had earned a teaching degree in Montana during the first World War. My mom grew up on San Juan Island, at that time a working community where the main occupations of fishing and farming did not require much formal education. Perhaps the different mix of immigrants and industries in the two states plays out today in attitudes toward education. Recently, though, Washington voters have shown a strong desire to commit more resources to their public schools. Elementary school and middle school experiences are like investments that earn interest and then earn interest on the interest.

The impact of excellent teaching in grade school reverberates throughout a child’s life and can still be felt very powerfully as our children advance into adulthood. So don’t put up with newcomers dissing your schools. Make your schools strong so you can be proud of your students and of the community that provided them their education.