Inside Opinion

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Tag: education reform


Tests, observers, kids = fair teacher evaluations

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

The timing couldn’t be better.

Just as Washington’s school districts are gearing up to adopt new teacher evaluation systems, along comes an authoritative mega-study that spells out how to get it right.

The project – funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – is an exceptional piece of science.

The goal was to define measures that could consistently identify effective teachers. This is tough. Classes vary widely from year to year, some schools are loaded with disadvantaged students, and teaching itself is complex process.

Some have argued that no system can fairly and reliably sort out the better educators from those who need help. Public school systems have commonly relied on two crude measures, seniority and possession of a master’s degree, both notoriously inaccurate at identifying classroom stars.

The Measures of Effective Teaching study tracked a huge sample of teachers – 3,000 teachers – over three years.

The researchers found that three measures – student test performance, classroom observations and student surveys – accurately predicted which teachers would produce the most successful students.

This wasn’t just a case of the teachers looking good because they had more privileged or smarter classes. They also did well when students were randomly assigned to their classrooms.

The specific findings are important.

• Using two or three different qualified observers proved far more accurate at spotting classroom effectiveness than using just one – say, the principal. This isn’t because principals were biased against their teachers; if anything, they appeared to rate them more generously than do outside observers.

• Weighting the evaluation heavily toward test score improvement helped identify – no surprise – which teachers would best help students improve at standardized state tests. But that was the least reliable metric, and also the least connected to higher-order thinking skills.
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Lawmakers finally take a step toward education reform

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

It rarely pays to get too hopeful about education reform in this state. But the Legislature – the Senate at least – has actually taken a major step toward accountability in Washington’s public schools.

Senate Bill 5895, which cleared that chamber Tuesday, requires the use of objective student-performance measures in the evaluation of teachers. It also requires that feedback from teachers be used in the evaluation of principals.

Teachers and principals can lose their jobs if they keep flunking the new tests. This turns Washington tradition on its head. In this state, it can take a felony to separate a faculty member from his or her job. Only the bravest administrators have dared tackle the convoluted, expensive process required to fire the incompetent.

Let’s not get giddy, though. The Senate’s move to tie “student growth data” looks impressive only in terms of the state’s benighted history. SB 5895 is not radical. It would not make Washington a leader in education reform. It would merely help the state catch up to the middle of the pack.

But the 46-3 vote in the Senate is impressive. Most education reform measures are throttled in committee. Once this one reached a floor vote in open daylight, lawmakers embraced it – if only to avoid shame in some cases.
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A public school accountability bill? Still a chance

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Education reform – serious education reform – remains alive in the Legislature. No thanks to the Legislature’s education chairwomen.

State Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, and Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, have used their peremptory power to squish two measures that would have nudged Washington toward the national mainstream.

One bill would hold educators genuinely accountable for student performance; the other (now dead) would have authorized a limited number of charter public schools.
Both strategies are strongly encouraged by the Obama administration and have been embraced by states trying to shake public schools out of mediocrity. Both are opposed in this state by teacher unions and other stalwarts of the status quo.

As usual, the Legislature’s powers-that-be crouch like defensive NFL linemen, ready to tackle anything that might challenge the failing trade-union model of public education.

This year, though, McAuliffe had to deal with a bipartisan rebellion that effectively shut down her committee last week. A majority of the Senate Education Committee wanted to at least hold a vote on the charter school bill; when she refused, they refused to act on any other education legislation.

Credit is due the Republicans and Democrats who forced this crisis. And some credit is due the Senate leaders who revived the accountability bill – though not the charter bill – by shifting it to the Ways and Means Committee.
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Fix the schools, fix the teaching profession

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Credit Gov. Chris Gregoire with out-of-the-box thinking for her plan to restructure the bureaucracy of education in this state. We just wish she’d thought a lot further out of the box.

Gregoire’s idea is intriguing, as far as it goes. She wants to lend some coherence to the collection of fiefdoms that reputedly oversees education at the state level.

Under her proposal, the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, Board of Education, Higher Education Coordinating Board, State Board for Technical & Community Colleges and other entities would all get folded into a new state Department of Education.

Gregoire is very right about one thing: Public education in Washington ought to be a seamless whole, from preschool through technical or academic higher education. The system is inexcusably fragmented, more to protect turf than to serve students.

The lack of coordination is appallingly evident in the abundance of discouraged college students mired in remedial education, studying what they should have learned in high school, and the abundance of high school students doing college-level work without earning college credits for it.
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Professionalize the teaching profession

The governor’s new combine-the-state-school-agencies plan got us thinking about ed reform again.

Here is a powerful argument for treating teachers as professionals, not union workers. Higher pay, more accountability, like lawyers, engineers, etc. It’s signed by a slew of big-city school chiefs. A couple excerpts:

A 7-year-old girl won’t make it to college someday because her teacher has two decades of experience or a master’s degree – she will make it to college if her teacher is effective and engaging and compels her to reach for success.

By contrast, a poorly performing teacher can hold back hundreds, maybe

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Agreed: Merit pay no quick fix for public education

This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.

Critics of school and teacher accountability are finding a little too much validation in a recent study of merit pay.

The study, conducted by Vanderbilt University’s National Center on Performance Incentives and billed as the first scientifically rigorous test of merit pay, was the result of a three-year experiment in Nashville schools.

About 300 middle school math teachers volunteered for the trial. About half were paid a set stipend for participating. The other half had a crack at bonuses of up to $15,000 if their student’s test scores improved.

The result: On the whole, students in the control group’s classrooms didn’t learn more than the students taught by teachers eligible for the extra money.

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Seattle opens next front in education reform effort

This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.

Seattle Public Schools administrators are fighting a battle for schoolchildren across the state.

The district has decided to go to the mat over teacher performance evaluations. District officials want teachers to be judged based in part on their students’ academic growth.

The union says the proposal is a no-go. With the school year fast approaching, a strike could be in the offing.

The Seattle Education Association would rather stick to a previous compromise: an evaluation system that would put teachers who rate “basic” or “unsatisfactory” at risk of dismissal.

What a radical notion – that teacher performance should dictate a teacher’s career prospects. Such is what qualifies as “historic change” – union officials’ words – in public education.

The district’s proposal is also rather modest contrary to the union’s characterizations.

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Race to the Top: Who needed the money, anyway?

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

It would be giving Washington way too much credit to say the state was an also-ran in Race to the Top.

“Pathetic wannabe” would be more accurate.

Last year, Gov. Chris Gregoire pulled Washington out of the first competition for $4.35 billion in federal education money. The money was put up as a prize for the states most serious about retooling their schools for high performance; Washington could barely budge the needle on the Obama administration’s reform meter.

In round two this year, well, at least Gregoire sent in the entry form. Washington didn’t get far; it washed out Tuesday – on the first cut.

No one who’s been paying attention can claim surprise. Washington’s education establishment – meaning its lawmakers, school districts and teachers unions – is so resistant to reform that not even the prospect of $250 million in the middle of a severe recession could persuade it to accept the necessary painful changes.

The 2010 Legislature took some baby steps toward more rigorous accountability for schools and educators, but nothing close to what the Department of Education and education pioneers have been advocating.

For example, lawmakers flirted with using student performance measures to evaluate teachers and principals, but did not require districts to connect hard data to job evaluations. Other states did, some with the cooperation of more enlightened teachers unions.
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