For state’s school chief, ‘failure’ is not an option

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn doesn’t want to use the word “failing” when talking about Washington’s public schools.

So he’s figured out how school district leaders in Washington can exclude it from letters they must send parents at schools deemed as failing to make the grade on a federal curve known as adequate yearly progress.

At the same time, Dorn is trying to convince the U.S. Department of Education to drop its demand that such letters be sent as required under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That’s because the rules are such that letters will wind up going to parents of children at pretty much every school in Washington.

Avoiding an “F” requires students to perform at grade level in math and reading. So when standardized test time rolls around, if a student doesn’t pass in grades 3-8 and 10, their school likely won’t show enough progress to quash the need to notify parents.

It’s a dilemma faced in just about every state. But Washington is the only state facing the letter requirement because the others snagged waivers from the U.S. Department of Education.

This state had such a waiver, but lost it this year following a legislative deadlock on including student test scores in the evaluation of teacher performance.

Dorn last month asked federal education officials to again waive the requirement to send letters. He also pledged to make sure parents are well aware of their school’s progress, and their options, which include transferring their child to another campus or receive tutoring.

His chances of succeeding are far south of slim. It relies on the feds giving up what is arguably their most punitive tool against states which fall off the NCLB waiver wagon, as Washington did.

The letters publicly shame individual schools and entire districts. Many parents will be quick studies on what’s really going on behind the scenes. Dorn is worried about consequences in the community if these bureaucratic badges of dishonor are sent out.

“The letters’ misrepresentation that our schools are failing will erode public support for local funding — and, we think, will needlessly and dangerously distract Washington’s voters and lawmakers at a time when transparent, truthful information about our schools is most critical,” Dorn wrote to Assistant Secretary of Education Deborah Delisle.

In the meantime, Dorn drafted a model letter for districts that doesn’t specifically say schools are failing.

Rather, it explains in some detail the process of how the school did not meet one or more measurements for progress and are considered to be in “Step 1 of Improvement” — a term ripped from the federal law itself.

And it closes by pointing out the fault is not with the school, but with the federal law.

“Please keep in mind the only reason you are receiving this letter this year is because Washington state lost its waiver from NCLB requirements,” he wrote.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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