Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Dino Rossi Speaks Out on Education

Hot diggity damn. I wrote before that I wanted to hear more about Dino’s education platform, and he goes out and makes it the first item in his own state of the state address at DinoRossi.com. It’s good to hear him get some of his ideas out there. I don’t agree with a lot of them, but there is food for thought.

(An aside to the Rossi campaign: transcripts are a good thing, especially for bloggers!)

The italicized sections below are all from the education portion of Rossi’s speech. The commentary is mine. As always, I'll be endorsing John Kiester for Governor, so I don’t have a horse in the race.

2/3rds of our tenth graders are not passing all parts of the WASL.

While true, it also has to be noted that better than 80% of our kids are passing the WASL sections required for graduation. The big stumbling block is science, even more so than math: only 36% of 10th graders passed the science WASL

16,000 students dropped out of high school in 2005.

A startling number indeed, but in 2005 Washington State was singled out by the Department of Education for being one of the few states honest about how many of their kids drop out. If you believe OSPI stats, that year was also dramatically better than the years that proceded it, which is a sign of progress. I'm also worried about Mr. Rossi's call for stiffer standards; in California that made the dropout problem worse.

Education Week just ranked Washington’s education system 34th in the nation. We shouldn’t settle for being in the bottom half.

I believe that he's referring to the Quality Counts 2008 report that made the big splash last week. If you follow this link there is indeed a state-by-state ranking where Washington is 34th.

Dig a little deeper into the numbers, though. The absolute lowest score they gave the state was in the School Finance: Spending subcatagory, where we're 43rd in the nation in per pupil expenditure (PPE), 41st in spending on education, and 42nd and 44th on two comparisons of PPE to national averages. The quickest way to raise this number, and thus the overall score, would be to put more money into the system. Is that a plank that Dino really wants to push?

And, Quality Counts isn't a universally accepted measure.

(Speaking of Washington Learns) They spent 18 months and $1.7 million in taxpayer dollars, only to decide they need to study the problem further.

This one sticks. Anyone looking for tangible change that came out of Washington Learns is going to be left wanting, and while I have a lot of faith in Dan Grimm I'm getting a nagging sense of pessimism towards the Basic Education Financing Taskforce he's running. The left is tiptoeing around an income tax without wanting to actually say it out loud; the right tends to get so focused on teacher's unions and charter schools that they forget 1000 other areas that could be improved.

(That's why I love ya, JL. Big picture!)

I have one simple test when it comes to education: what’s in the best interest of our students?


First, we must reward success and take action when we see consistent failure. When teachers and principals succeed on a regular basis, I want them to be paid more. But when I see consistent failure, from our teachers, schools, and school districts, I want to make it easier for principals and parents to step in and take necessary action.

I'm not anti merit pay. I'm against how they're thinking about doing it in Idaho, while Houston sounds like it's getting good teacher buy-in.

That said, Rossi's getting trumped by No Child Left Behind on this one. You'll find no tougher measure than closing a school and firing a staff, and while those sanctions don't start until year 5 they're still there, and I can't imagine moving them up so they happened any faster.

For the three levels where he indicates failure could occur, he'd need a different legislative action for each:

  • Teachers: More money for the Office of Professional Practices at OSPI, a revision of the existing WACs to extend the provisional time teachers spend, and money to support districts that actually begin the process of firing bad teachers.

  • Schools: The authority to override local control and take control of a school, the ability to step outside of that district's CBA and make staffing decisions, and the political will to deal with the blowback from the community.

  • Districts: Frankly, I don't think it can be done. What would you do? Dissolve the school board? Force more state intervention, and the money that would have to come along with it?
He has a lot of faith in principals to identify bad teachers and know how to turn things around--I wonder what he's basing that on.

Second, we need to prepare students to succeed in math and science. The first step is to focus the money where the need is the greatest. We need more college graduates with math and science degrees to join the teaching profession. Our current system doesn’t give school districts a flexibility to pay math and science teachers more salary.

That just irritates me, because there is absolutely nothing to stop local districts from giving their math and science teachers more money, as long as its collectively bargained beforehand. And if you tell me that the union would never allow that to happen, consider this: many teacher contracts have provisions that allow for extra money for special ed teachers vis-a-vis extended year contracts. Who's to say that couldn't be done for math and science teachers as well?

In his speech there’s a piece here on the math standards report that came out last summer and how he hopes this back to basics approach will be good change. He might be going after the coveted “Where’s the Math?” endorsement.


Third, I want to make it easier to bring talented people into the classroom. We are surrounded by people in our state with tremendous skills in math, science, and computer science, many of whom would love to teach in our schools. Unfortunately, that is not allowed under the current state regulations. Bill Gates would face a lot of state regulations if he wanted to teach computer science for a day or two a week in our public high schools. We need to change the rules on alternative certification to bring new talent into the classroom. This is what’s in the best interest of our children.

The theme that Rossi is putting forward here is similar to what Nicholas Kristof proposed in 2006, which made big waves in the blogosphere (see The Stopped Clock and (one of my favorite posts ever) NYC Educator.)

The trouble with the idea is this notion that there are hundreds of capable and enthusiastic people out there who would swarm the schools if only it wasn't for the onerous requirements in the way. There's also a difference between having the knowledge and being able to communicate it; think of some of the most technically inclined people you've known in your life who are amazing with the machine but lacking in people skills.

Dino does have an opportunity here. Make the certification requirements for existing teachers easier, and it'll be just like giving them a raise. As is I need 10 credits or 100 clock hours every few years to even keep my license, and that costs money. The Professional Certificate is putting our newest teachers through a grinder right when they should be most focused on the classroom; eliminating it would make everyone who's graduated since 2001 happy.

It's on!

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