Education Bills and Background

School bus pictureLots has been happening on the education front this year, though the most important thing is happening in closed rooms as the House and Senate work out their budget proposals. I sat on a school funding panel in front of the Washington State School Directors Association today with Sen. Bruce Dammeier (R- Puyallup), Rep. JT Wilcox (R-Yelm), and Sen. Andy Billig (D-Spokane.)

All of us were willing to make substantial investments in K12 education funding, though we all had weird conditions and our numbers were all over the map, ranging from $900 million for the House Republicans to $1.4 billion from me, the amount specified by the Joint Legislative Task Force on Education Funding this summer. I take this as a hopeful sign – they’ve all figured out that we have to invest in a quality system in order to get the results that we want.

Both Republicans wanted to ensure that there were “changes” to the education system that would make it more effective before they invested the money. I agree that there should be changes, but we should have some humility about our ability to change the system rapidly. There are 1 million children in our K12 system, and about 100,000 adults. This is not a ship that changes direction on a dime. There are a handful of long-term changes we’re engaged in that you will see bills about this year:

Graduation Requirements: We are in the process of upgrading our graduation requirements to something that looks more like Bellevue or Lake Washington’s than like the rest of the state. We’ll require 24 credits, not the 20 required now. Most students will take a course of study that will prepare them for education after high school, either college, community college, or some technical alternative that gets them a credential. Without this preparation it will be very difficult for our young people to make a living, and consequently to move out of our basements, something greatly to be desired. To read about this you can look at the State School Board’s document on it.

It’s important to not change these all the time or families can’t keep track of it, but we are working on phasing in stronger requirements. I unequivocally support this effort.

Testing: We are moving away from writing Washington-specific tests. Two national consortia have developed coordinated sets of tests based around the “Common Core” standards. Led by the National Governor’s Association the states got together and developed these standards. Washington signed on several years ago. We have adopted a set of tests from the “Smarter Balanced” group, one of two groups developing tests for this set of knowledge. Most first-world countries have a national curriculum, and this is a pretty reasonable attempt at it. There is lots of grumbling that we should have state-specific standards, as if algebra is different in Wisconsin than it is in Washington.

Being part of a consortia saves us tons of money (I’m expecting to save about $35 million on test development alone) and builds better tests that get affected less by individual strong personalities and fads sweeping through the education world. We have not worked out exactly what the changes will be, but you should expect to see less time spent testing, and tests that are more aligned with what college requirements are.

The tests will be delivered on computers, allowing faster scoring and tests that adjust to the level of the student. We’ll have work to do to ensure that each district has enough computers to do this, but I don’t expect this to be a big problem.

Teacher and Principal Evaluations: Washington has adopted a program to provide much stronger teacher and principal evaluations that are partly dependent on student learning data. We’re in the first few years of implementing this and should stay the course. There is some blow-back, as you might expect. (Seattle teachers are not administering a pretty routine test solely because (IMHO) it is a component of their evaluations.) We can’t depend totally on student learning data or everyone would want to teach in Medina and nobody in Yakima – that’s why it’s important to look at student growth instead of absolute values. This requires some subtle statistical work, and is one of the reasons we don’t turn teachers into salespeople on commission – the student learning data should be part of the eval, but not all.

There will be lots of push to change this system, but we should let it go through the adoption phase without screwing with it too much. It takes a long time to change the direction of large ships, and this is a really big one. It will require some money to train principals and teachers on how to work with the new system.

Bills in the System

The Senate passed out a block of education bills last week, and the House did about half their bills on Friday. Short list, cribbed liberally from the analysis of Stand for Children, the League of Education Voters, the Washington State PTA, and our internal staff.

SB 5243 – Academic Acceleration, automatically enrolls every student who is qualified into more rigorous advanced classes. The House passed a weaker version. There’s lots of data that shows that students who are in challenging courses do better afterwards, even if they don’t get a passing grade on the AP exam.  Kids that get college credit via running start, AP, IB or other rigorous systems do better in college, and save money for themselves and for the state. This can be critical for a middle-class family, and we want to encourage it as much as possible.

SB 5491 – State Education Goals, establishes statewide goals for students at key milestones, such as 4th grade reading, 8th grade math, and high school graduation. This is boring, but having some agreed-upon goals can really help folks get focused on what really matters.

SB 5329Transforming Persistently Failing Schools, allows the State Superintendent (OSPI) to bring in new leadership, innovation and resources to help persistently struggling schools improve. This is a very controversial bill that creates a requirement that the bottom ten lowest performing schools in the state must be actually changed or something will happen. The process is tortuous, but we don’t really want the state taking over very many schools as we are unlikely to be able to do it at scale. I would tend to agree that at some point if a school remains in the bottom ten state-wide for many years that something needs to be done. This seems like a reasonable process, but it still needs some work.

SB 5237 – 3rd Grade Reading, provides early intervention and support to make sure every student is reading at grade level. Originally this required that 3rd graders who couldn’t read be held back. The new bill has a lot of funding for intervention – required summer school, extra help during the school year, etc. It’s critical that kids learn how to read proficiently in the 3rd or 4th grade. They tend to fall behind catastrophically if they do not. Again, this will be a contentious bill.

SB 5242 – Mutual Consent, ends forced placements by requiring a teacher and a principal to agree before a teacher is assigned to work in a specific school. Again – very controversial. Teachers who aren’t hired go into a temporary position for a year, then can be let go. I do not yet have an opinion on the details of this bill, and the devil will be in the details.

SB 5328Letter Grades for Schools, provides parents with clear information by assigning schools a letter grade A-F for their performance based on the state Achievement Index. I’m not sure about the value of this, but allows parents to have a simpler way to evaluate how well their local school is doing. The key is getting the achievement index right – you don’t want to penalize schools that have a lot of at-risk students show up in the first years, but do great work with them, and conversely, you don’t want to reward schools with lots of well-prepared kids who do nothing to advance them.

SB 5244 – Student Suspensions, limits the length of time a student can be suspended from school and improves data collection on school discipline. There is a growing body of research that says that kids who are expelled don’t do well. This makes sense – they aren’t in school learning.

SB 5587 – State Assessments, establishes a transition schedule to move from existing state exams to the new Common Core college- and career-ready exams as graduation requirements for the class of 2018. The House bill is stuck in committee for reasons I don’t understand.

HB 1723 – Early Start, Helps build an integrated early learning system, including preschool, child care, and services for at-risk infants.  Details of the system would be left up to a taskforce with the overall goal of building a comprehensive system for children zero to 5 years old.

HB 1671 – Child Care. Improves the child care system for low-income children and increases the quality of child care these children receive by improving the Working Connections Child Care program, a program that provides child care to low-income parents who are working or in school.

HB 1872 –  Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Gov. Inslee request bill improving outcomes for STEM. My guess is that this bill will have a lot of changes before we are done.

HB 1692 –  Career and College Ready Graduation Requirements. Rep. Pat Sullivan’s bill to implement the supports necessary for the career and college-ready graduation requirements I referenced above. This is profoundly expensive, adding additional instructional time called for in the bill the McCleary decision calls out as the framework for our constitutional requirements for funding.

HB 1680 – Strategies to Close the Opportunity Gap.  A collection of policies recommended by the educational opportunity gap oversight and accountability committee. This bill points out a fundamental discussion point in how we look at K12 funding. Do we fund specific programs that worked in one district statewide, or do we drive funding out to districts based on an allocation formula and make sure that they have opportunities available to them to select evidence-based programs that will work in their community? As you can tell from the language, I’m in the latter camp. What will work in Yakima may or may not work in Bellevue or Redmond.

HB 1424 – Dropout prevention and Retention. Similar to 1680, this lays out a set of programs that have worked and tries to create funding streams for them. I’m not a fan of all these little funding streams – I think we do better by providing funds to districts and letting them pick the programs that will work.

HB 1177 Accountability. This bill sets up a financial scenario that allows state funding to be used to assist schools that are not meeting their student learning goals, much as SB 5329 does, but it does not provide the intervention strategies needed to transform the schools.

The process of coordinating and reducing the number of bills is likely to take us a while this year. These bills all go through multiple steps and often change substantially before they are finally released. I would expect that we will create additional policy around assessments, around intervention in failing schools, and around early learning, the most powerful investment we can make.

About the Author

I am the Director of the Department of Early Learning for Washington State. I formerly represented the 48th Legislative District in the State House of Representatives, chairing the Appropriations committee and spent many a year at Microsoft.