The limit to good intentions

On education policy, Washington’s push-the-envelope M.O. — forehead slapping at times — throws light on a federal law that needs to be overhauled or given the heave-ho.

Last week, Washington became the first state in the nation to have its conditional waiver of the No Child Left Behind Act denied. The bugaboo is that Olympia won’t hitch teacher evaluations to student testing.

It’s more nuanced than a teachers-union uprising against a culture of standardized testing. The required use of poorly vetted tests to measure student achievement and linking those results to teacher performance is unworkable over the short term, however much it creates the illusion of accountability.

“There is widespread acknowledgment that NCLB isn’t working,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn said. “Congress has failed to change the law at the federal level, so states are forced to come up with workarounds.”

Washington’s inability to finesse workarounds has family-riling consequences: By mid-summer, parents will receive letters declaring that their children attend failing schools (!) just as the state is pouring millions into K-12 education mandated by the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision.

“We need Washington education to lead the nation in innovation and prepare our young people for the future, not be known for the first failures,” Sen. Maria Cantwell told The Herald. “Reauthorization of (NCLB) should be a priority in Congress.”

Because of the waiver denial, $40 million the state receives from the feds will be freighted with restrictions. The Everett School District, for example, will be forced to set aside 20 percent of its Title I budget to bus students in failing schools to non-failing ones and to provide private tutors for struggling students. But transportation is a nonstarter since all of the district’s schools will be classified as failing.

For the 2014-15 school year, Everett will need $550,000 to produce and mail thousands of letters to parents about their school’s performance, and to channel funds to private tutors.

“Where do we go from here? Obviously No Child Left Behind is leaving everyone behind,” said Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett. “It wasn’t renewed in 2007 and waivers were granted for a good reason. It was an overreach with noble intentions and you know what they say about good intentions.”

Washington may go its own way, continuing, as Sells urges, to give time to implement common core standards, fully fund McCleary and elevate K-12 by providing teachers additional tools and training.

The acid test of K-12 policy should be what benefits students and what actually works, not good intentions.

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