A road map for education

By Shannon Campion, Jana Carlisle and Chris Korsmo

Just across Puget Sound, there was a time when only 4 percent of kids in Bremerton entered kindergarten knowing the alphabet. That’s not a typo — just 4 percent of kids knew their letters in 2001. But after the school district launched a preschool education initiative, that number grew to 65 percent.

Now, 90 percent of students in Bremerton are reading at grade level by the end of kindergarten. That’s a stunning success, and one of many education improvements that could be implemented statewide.

Our schools are in trouble, and when we look at the status quo, change seems hard. What happened in Bremerton is proof that we can — with the will of the public, our schools and our students — make positive change to help our kids.

So what can we do? Or, most important, what can you do?

The Excellent Schools Now coalition, a diverse alliance of parents, teachers, students, advocates and business and community leaders, recently unveiled a common-sense plan that will help us meet Washington’s education challenges. It’s called “A+ Washington: A Way Forward for All Students,” and it’s designed to create a school system that truly prepares students to succeed in work and life.

A+ Washington starts with quality early learning and continues through high school and beyond. It recognizes that it takes all of us, working together, to help our students succeed. It supports great teachers and school leaders, and promotes flexibility and accountability in our schools. Lawmakers already approved one element of A+ Washington when they passed Senate Bill 5895, which created an educator performance system that will support quality teachers, provide flexibility in personnel decisions for school leaders and tie student performance to teacher evaluations. The bill, signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire on March 8, is a critical part of improving the education system in Washington.

Much remains to be done to make the core ideals of A+ Washington a reality. Those ideals are:

•Quality pre-kindergarten for every child.

•Supporting excellent teachers for all students.

•Preparing all students for work and college.

•Flexibility to transform schools.

•Accurate measurements and data so schools and teachers can be held accountable for their students’ performance.

The need for A+ Washington is real and urgent.

•There are more than 1 million public school students in Washington.

•Nearly 30 percent of Washington high school students don’t graduate on time.

•Fifty percent of low-income students and students of color don’t graduate on time.

•Even among those earning a diploma, 50 percent of community college students still need remedial courses because high school didn’t adequately prepare them.

Let’s break those numbers down into smaller denominators to make them seem a little more real:

•1 in 4 students starting ninth grade don’t make it to their graduation ceremony.

•1 out of every 2 low-income students or students of color either don’t graduate or need extra time to do so.

•1 in 2 students who do graduate must retake basic classes in community college, further setting back their education.

It’s not a stretch to say each one of you knows a few kids who are struggling in school and won’t make it to graduation. What happens to those kids after they fall through the cracks is a recipe for long-term unemployment, poverty and despair.

In Washington, we have the largest concentration of high-tech jobs in the nation, and we have employers willing and wanting to fill those positions with homegrown talent. By 2018, nearly 70 percent jobs in our state will require education or training after high school. But we’re not training our kids to take those jobs.

We need to change that, and that’s why we introduced A+ Washington.

A common criticism of education reform is that it’s just a bunch of wild ideas cooked up in a think-tank somewhere, without proof that the proposed changes will work. All the ideas in A+ Washington have been begun by working on the ground, at innovative schools right here in Washington. These A+ ideas are working even faster in other states that have moved quickly to adopt positive change.

For example, look to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in North Carolina, where administrators take a comprehensive approach to hiring teachers, developing their skills and assigning them duties. The district studies student achievement data to identify its most effective teachers and then offers them incentives to tackle challenging assignments. As a result, the district’s improvement has surpassed those of 74 similar high-poverty school districts across the country.

Education reform is also too often cast as a struggle between education advocates and hard-working teachers. One goal of A+ Washington is to get past the divisiveness so that we can all work together for the sake of our students. A+ Washington supports our teachers. We know a quality teacher in the classroom is the single biggest factor in improving student performance.

The ideas in A+ Washington are overwhelmingly supported by educators and the public, as evidenced by a recent poll of voters and public school teachers. The survey, conducted in January for Excellent Schools Now by the nonpartisan firm DHM Research, found impressive agreement on proposals to improve education for all our kids:

•Ninety-three percent of voters and 74 percent of teachers think principals should be able to hire teachers based on performance and skills, not seniority.

•Eighty-six percent of voters and 71 percent of teachers agree that teachers who consistently fail to provide their students a quality education — even after intensive coaching and professional development — should be removed from the classroom.

•Eighty-one percent of voters think too many kids are falling through the cracks of our school system.

These are numbers that our state lawmakers and leaders should closely examine and act upon.

Excellent Schools Now is nonpartisan and does not endorse candidates, but we were pleased to see A+ Washington become an issue in the governor’s race. Republican gubernatorial candidate, Attorney General Rob McKenna, has already adopted A+ Washington as part of his education platform. Many prominent Democrats have also praised it, and the coalition will soon be meeting with Jay Inslee, the leading Democratic gubernatorial candidate, to brief him on A+ Washington.

During the next few months, we will be conducting extensive outreach across the state to inform and inspire parents, teachers and communities about A+ Washington. Events are planned in all 49 legislative districts. If you’d like to hear A+ Washington, please contact us.

We invite you to come to the events planned in your districts. We also urge you to take action by partnering with us on an event in your community, by contacting your legislator, and by visiting www.apluswashington.org for more information on A+ Washington and to download a copy of the plan.

A+ Washington has broad support throughout the state, but it’s up to people like you to make sure that support turns into action. We can’t wait. We have to start working together right now to ensure that every Washington student has an equal opportunity at a quality education. Once we look beyond the numbers and focus on common-sense solutions that can be enacted now, we can create positive change for our state.

About the authors

Shannon Campion is executive Director of Stand for Children Washington (stand.org/Washington).

Jana Carlisle is executive director of the Partnership for Learning (www.partnership4learning.org).

Chris Korsmo is CEO of the League of Education Voters (www.educationvoters.org).

Excellent Schools Now members

The Excellent Schools Now coalition is a diverse alliance of parents, teachers, students, advocates and business and community leaders. Visit www.apluswashington.org for more information.

A full list of members:

• Alliance for Education

• America’s Edge

• ArtsEd Washington

• Black Collective

• Black Education Strategy Roundtable

• Coalition for Equal Education Rights

• College &Work Ready Agenda

• College Spark

• College Success Foundation

• Democrats for Education Reform (Washington Chapter)

• Executive Council for a Greater Tacoma

• Invest in Youth

• King County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

• League of Education Voters

• New Futures

• Pacific Science Center

• Partnership for Learning

• Powerful Schools

• Rainier Scholars

• Seattle Biomedical Research Institute

• Seattle Breakfast Group

• Schools Out Washington

• Social Venture Partners

• Spokane Library Ladies

• Stand for Children

• Students for Education Reform — Whitworth Chapter

• Tabor 100

• Teachers United

• Technology Access Foundation

• Technology Alliance

• Washington Alliance of Black School Educators

• Washington Biotechnology &Biomedical Association

• Washington Coalition for School Libraries and Information Technology

• Washington Global Health Alliance

• Washington Roundtable

• Washington Technology Industry Association