choice, education reform

Rethinking education: How innovation and flexibility can improve the system for students

By Dean Allen

We all should agree that the goal of anything and everything we do with our public education system in Washington state is improving student learning and achievement. Our shared objective is success for each student, but unfortunately this objective is not yet being met.

By 2018, two out of three family-wage jobs in our state will require post-secondary education or training. Yet, on average, nearly 30 percent of our students don’t graduate from high school. Of those who do, 50 percent can’t demonstrate proficiency in math, and 50 percent of students who enroll in our community colleges need remedial training, most often in math.

To make matters worse, Washington is one of fewer than 10 states in the country in which achievement gaps between white students and students of color are growing. In 2010, just 20 percent of Hispanic and black students met standards on our state’s 10th grade math exam, compared with 47 percent of white students.

So, the second item on which we can all agree should be that changes are needed if we truly desire success for all kids. At these performance levels, we simply don’t have time to waste; each year, another class of students is left under-prepared for the opportunities that will be available to them in the next phase of their lives.

It is our responsibility — parents, teachers, administrators, politicians, businesses and citizens — to fix this.

It’s tempting to think that nothing can be done right now, given the budget crises hindering our state and local governments, but we can put ourselves on an aggressive path toward improvement by making certain no-cost or low-cost changes in concert with modest public investments and community and business support.

Systems to support great educators

During the past two years, the state has been piloting a teacher and principal evaluation model that will be implemented statewide in the 2013-14 school year. The business community supports this effort and believes the new system is crucial to improving student outcomes. After successful implementation of this new evaluation system, its impact could be enhanced by establishing a performance management system and making changes to certain personnel management practices.

Gov. Chris Gregoire recently defended Washington’s teachers, asserting that “we need to address this concern out there that we have bad teachers.” I agree. In the overwhelming majority of cases, our teachers apply their skill expertly and pour their hearts into helping kids learn under what are often difficult classroom circumstances. Establishing a comprehensive performance management system would ensure that evaluations and feedback are paired with individualized goals and professional development to help all of our educators improve their abilities — top to bottom. Our children and teachers deserve nothing less.

But better feedback and more targeted training do not constitute all that we can do. Schools need to have the personnel that best meet the needs of their student populations, so we need policies that empower principals to hire, place and retain teachers based on performance and skill as well as seniority. Contracts should not be renewed automatically or on a continuing basis but rather on the basis of performance.

Finally, a fair but rigorous dismissal process should be established for teachers and principals who are rated ineffective or fail to improve after receiving targeted, individualized professional development and support.

Options for underserved students

While the traditional K-12 school model works well in many areas of our state, it does not meet the needs of all of our students. In addition to the High School Proficiency Exam (HSPE) data cited above, results from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reaffirm that the achievement gap between white students and students of color persists in this state. In fact, there have been no signs of progress against this deficit since testing began in the mid-1990s.

To better support these kids, we need to better leverage existing funding and look to innovative solutions in use here in Washington and elsewhere in the country. The notion of a statewide “transformation zone,” which would give learning management organizations (e.g. nonprofits, colleges and universities) the authority to implement innovative reforms, should be pursued. Several studies, including one published most recently by Tulane University, show that reforms used in transformation zones elsewhere, such as specific staffing that meets the needs of the students, longer and/or more flexible school days, and technology-based learning, have been effective at improving achievement. Such a zone would use existing state and federal money and include those schools listed in the bottom 5 percent in terms of performance (“persistently low-achieving” schools).

Another option is implementing public charter schools. It is no secret that 41 states across America have adopted this approach as one piece of the puzzle of solutions to the problem of low- and under-performing schools. While some results are mixed, it is now clear that high-performing charter schools are making substantial inroads with respect to boosting achievement in some of the most challenging situations:

•In Los Angeles, middle school students in charter schools outperformed their LA Unified School District counterparts by 34 percent in English-language arts and 40 percent in math in 2011.

In Denver, West Denver Prep’s charter secondary schools ranked as four of the top five public schools in that city.

A common denominator among high-performing public charter schools is that they are viewed as one part of the solution to helping underserved students and those students forced to attend low-achieving schools. We must give all students more options to succeed, and in this time of pressing need, we in Washington should seriously reconsider charter schools as part of a comprehensive program to boost achievement, especially among low-resource students and students of color.

Funding and flexibility for higher education

In the last regular session, the Legislature granted tuition-setting flexibility to our six public, four-year colleges and universities to mitigate the impact of 50 percent cuts to their public funding over the past three years. Businesses, led by Microsoft and Boeing, responded by pledging $50 million for scholarships to help maintain access for low- and middle-income students.

In this session, state leaders and lawmakers must prioritize funding for our public higher education institutions; we cannot accept more cuts. Furthermore, our universities need more latitude with respect to decision-making and protocols for purchasing, investments, human resources and information technology. For these institutions to remain competitive with private institutions and for-profit universities, they require freedom to operate more efficiently. This could not be more critical to the long-term success of our state and its citizens.

Toward a comprehensive program

In this legislative session, the business community is working with a bipartisan group of lawmakers on legislation to:

•Continue efforts to streamline education governance statewide,

Implement a performance management system for educators and revised personnel management practices that will enhance the value of the soon-to-be-completed evaluation system pilot,

Accelerate and prioritize student achievement in math and science by supporting implementation of standards and curriculum and assessment tools,

Establish a statewide transformation zone to improve persistently low-performing schools and a limited number of public charter schools to serve students most in need, and

Give flexibility to our public universities so that they can continue to compete with private institutions and for-profit universities.

This focus on creating flexibility and driving innovation is motivated by the need to make improvements in Washington’s education system. Educators make tremendous efforts each day, and Washington’s businesses and community organizations are heavily invested in supporting these efforts through organizations such as Washington STEM. Nevertheless, our state’s students, especially those most in need, depend on our collective and continued commitment to finding solutions.

The time for placing blame is over. Improving student outcomes — leaving our students better prepared for success — is our shared responsibility, and it is up to all of us to do our part to fulfill this paramount duty.

About the author

Dean Allen is the chief executive officer of McKinstry Co. and chair of the Washington Roundtable, a nonprofit, public policy organization composed of chief executives representing major private sector employers throughout Washington.

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2 thoughts on “Rethinking education: How innovation and flexibility can improve the system for students

  1. I agree, we have what we need to get on with it. The time for blame is over and we must move forward doing what we know works.

    Posted by The Ed Buzz | January 16, 2012, 4:11 pm


  1. Pingback: Educators Alarmed: Minority Teenagers Performing At Academic Levels of 30 Years Ago « - January 18, 2012

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