Kira Millage of our sister paper, The Bellingham Herald, filed this report from the state school superintendent debate at the AWB summit.
BLAINE, Whatcom County – Regardless of whether Terry Bergeson or Randy Dorn wins the campaign for state superintendent of public instruction, education reform will continue to be a top priority.
The two candidates agreed on that much – but little else – during a debate Thursday at the Association of Washington Business policy summit.
Bergeson said in her 11 years as state superintendent she’s improved education in Washington by taking a fragmented school system and creating universal standards so kids in all parts of the state receive the same education.
Dorn, who is a former teacher and principal from Eatonville and was a state lawmaker when the education reform bill was passed in 1993, criticized Bergeson’s record. He pointed to the fractured implementation of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning and the amount of time it has taken her to improve career and technical education opportunities.
Here are their answers to key questions in Thursday’s debate (questions condensed for clarity):
What do you think of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning?
Bergeson: She maintains her support for the WASL.
"We’ve changed the culture of learning in our state and we’re on a journey that’s not over," she said. "It’s well worth the time it’s taken to do it."
She acknowledged that the math WASL needs to be changed, which is why it’s been postponed as a graduation requirement until 2013. State leaders are still debating changes to math standards and are discussing replacing the math WASL with assessment tests at the end of each math course.
"I accept responsibility for the struggle," she said, "but I also accept responsibility that we have fixed it."
Dorn: He is highly critical of the WASL and said leaders should be looking to states with better tests, especially in math.
He said students should be tested on calculations and being able to crunch numbers, not "fuzzy" math, which is what he believes the WASL promotes.
He’d like to implement an assessment that allows teachers and students to see results more quickly.
"There are too many standards to teach to in a 180-day schedule," he said. "So let’s get it concise so that people understand."
He supports the idea of having a test as a graduation requirement but doesn’t think it should be the same for everyone because not every student takes the same path.
What is your opinion of the federal No Child Left Behind Act? How many of the problems with state education reform can be tied to the federal law?
Bergeson: "I believe very much in the goal of No Child Left Behind," Bergeson said, adding that she hoped the flaws would have been fixed by now. She said that the accountability model, which requires schools to pass in 37 categories in order to be considered at standard, is poorly designed and that the U.S. Department of Education has been "unwilling" to look at it.
She thinks it would be better if each school had its own "baseline" and could show continuous improvement, rather than having to meet mandated benchmarks.
"I really look forward to a new president and (education) department to take some of the complexity out and put more control back into local hands," she said.
Dorn: After reading the No Child Left Behind Act, Dorn said, he thought it would fail.
But he said Washington had already been working on education reform for years when the federal law took effect, so the state should have been ahead of the curve.
Instead, he said state officials got too focused on one piece of reform and ignored other aspects, such as improving career and technical education.
What is your opinion of differentiated pay for science and math teachers, or teachers who work at struggling schools, in an effort to recruit them and keep them in schools?
Bergeson: She supports some type of differentiated compensation for math and science teachers because otherwise they’ll take their skills to higher-paying jobs.
Her ideas include paying for math and science certifications for teachers who want to switch specialties and improving recruitment for those subjects.
In an effort to recruit quality teachers, the state now offers a $5,000 bonus for those who pass the National Board Certification test, plus a $5,000 bonus to those with the certification who teach at struggling schools.
Dorn: He supports better recruitment incentives for math and science teachers but doesn’t think they should necessarily be paid more.
Dorn said he supports quality pay, not differentiated pay. He wants to figure out some way for school officials and teacher unions to determine who the best teachers are, regardless of position, and give them raises or bonuses.
He said the National Board Certification shouldn’t be the only thing that determines who is a quality teacher.
Do you believe the state is amply funding education, as required under state law? If not, how do you plan to change that?
Bergeson: "I do not believe the state is doing its duty to amply fund basic education," she said, noting that the Legislature didn’t include funding when it voted to start reforming education in 1993.
She said the funding system hides the fact that there aren’t enough resources to monitor student achievement.
Bergeson said she will be work with lawmakers, education leaders and communities to make sure school funding is changed.
"Now we know exactly how to do it and we’re going to do it next term," she said.
Dorn: The state is not funding basic education as it’s understood in the 21st century, he said. Technology is not covered under the funding system, and there aren’t enough resources to help struggling students.
Dorn said the last time Washington was at the national average of per-pupil funding was in 1993, when he was a member of the state House of Representatives. He said it’s up to the Legislature to vote on the budget and how much education funding there is, but he said he could use his position "to make it happen."
"It can be done if that’s your number one priority," he said.