WASL math fix needs a team effort

George H. W. Bush, the president’s father, joined the Navy on his 18th birthday, the same day that he graduated from Phillips Academy. It was June 1942, six months after Pearl Harbor.

He went to flight school and received both his wings and his commission in September 1943, becoming, at that time, the Navy’s youngest pilot.

Two years after he began his flight training, in September 1944, his plane was shot down by anti-aircraft fire during a bombing run over Chichi Jima, a coral atoll in the Bonin Islands. He survived the crash into the sea and was rescued by a submarine.

Historians have the advantage of being able to see, with the benefit of hindsight, things such as turning points and shifts in fortunes for both sides. And, in the case of the war in the Pacific, one of the deciding factors was the availability of trained naval aviators.

While the aircraft carrier was the dominant element in the strategic thinking of both sides, it took a long time to train a navy combat pilot – about 24 months, on average. This is why the U.S. Navy stationed so many submarines, critical to the war effort in their own right, to rescue downed pilots.

That unbending math, along with a look at the chronology of the war, tells us something that American naval commanders quickly realized: The Japanese military challenge would have to be met by the experienced naval aviators we had available at the beginning.

The ones trained later would make the same kinds of sacrifices and display the same kind of bravery, but the nature of the conflict would change. The initial challenge had been met, and the enemy had been turned back into fighting a defensive, if still bloody, war.

There is a lesson in this for us as we try to address some of today’s issues and problems. Sometimes you have to go with the team you’ve got. In the long run you can change the size and skill level of the team, but to meet today’s challenge, you have to get the best out of the people you have.

One of the challenges we face in our state today is what to do about the WASL results. Test scores for the Washington Assessment of Student Learning were encouraging for reading and writing, but dismaying for mathematics. In the 10th-grade examination, 86 percent passed the reading portion and 84 percent passed the writing part of the test. These numbers are not where we would want them to be, but the educational issues they represent can be addressed.

Mathematics is another matter. Only 54 percent of the 10th-grade students passed the math portion of the test. This is more than an educational challenge. This is an educational disaster from which we must recover.

The reaction to the disastrous math test scores has mostly been tied to two ideas – both unhelpful. The first is that the test is either too hard or is faulty in some other, unspecified way. This is simply not the case. It is, after all, a 10th-grade exam, vetted as such by comparison with other statewide exams across the country, and it is not unreasonable to expect high school graduates to pass it.

The second idea, that we need to spend more money and, specifically, that we need to raise teachers’ pay, is equally unhelpful, but not because it isn’t true, or because we shouldn’t do it. It simply doesn’t help us address the problem we face right now.

The students who failed the math portion of the WASL are part of the class of 2008. If we do not show them how to learn enough math to pass the test (they get at least four more tries), they will not receive their high school diplomas.

Higher teacher pay will not help much, if at all, in this effort. The principal reason to offer higher teacher pay as a way to improve educational performance is to change the composition of the teaching work force, to attract a higher-quality teacher. To have any significant effect, though, that would mean replacing existing teachers with new ones, a process that would take years.

Higher teacher pay is mostly a strategic move that addresses long-term educational quality issues in our state. It won’t help the 46 percent of today’s high school sophomores who failed the math test required to graduate in 2008.

We have to meet the math challenge with the team we’ve got in place: the teachers, the students and the parents that are here right now. If we focus the resources of this team, we can meet the challenge presented by the math test.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes “Business 101” monthly for the Snohomish County Business Journal.

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