September 20, 1999
It's the time of year when the community's attention naturally turns toward education as students head back to school. Teachers are prepared to start fresh with a new class, parents are ready to offer help, and students themselves face the challenges of working to meet the state's new tough academic standards.
The debate over the appointments to the new Academic Achievement and Accountability Commission (A+ Commission) has not done much to help the real issue at hand: that of improving student achievement. Political squabbles are not going to help students. As legislators, it's time to put aside agendas and start working on behalf of the children, not ourselves.
It might be confusing to many readers just what all the fuss is about to begin with. To clarify the intent of the legislation which created the A+ Commission, Senate Bill 5418, we first have to look back six years.
In 1993, The Education Reform and Restructuring Act, House Bill 1209, started Washington's public schools down the road of a dramatic education improvement effort. The first oversight body to guide schools, legislators, parents, and students through this process was the Commission on Student Learning.
This group had the important task of establishing higher academic standards in reading, writing, math, and communications, followed by new standards in science, social studies, arts, and health and fitness. These standards identify what knowledge we expect students to learn and, more important, to be able to demonstrate and apply. The commission's second task was to develop new tests based on these new standards to measure student achievement.
The committee received input and testimony from parents, members of the business community, and educators, who all helped to develop the final academic standards, spending literally thousands of volunteer hours in a commitment to moving public schools toward dramatic improvement in student learning and achievement. This was by no means an easy task. But it has had outstanding results. It has led to schools changing old ways of doing things, teachers learning new strategies, and students taking greater responsibility for student learning. It has led to a resurgence of excitement about public education, invigorating veteran teachers and encouraging greater parent participation in their children's schools.
Now, six years later, Washington is again a national leader in our efforts to improve academic achievement. It's a distinction to be proud of and our students' test scores are steadily improving.
The creation of the Academic Achievement and Accountability Commission is the third piece of education reform, following the creation of the standards and the assessments. The legislation approved earlier this year established the new nine-member commission to oversee accountability of student learning and achievement.
The commission's task is to keep schools on the path of improvement in meeting the standards in reading, writing, listening, and math; to identify scores students ought to achieve; to adapt criteria for recognizing and rewarding successful schools; and to identify schools in need of assistance and recommend intervention strategies with the Legislature's authorization, so that no child is left behind.
Simply put, a system of accountability is about knowing how each child is progressing, and what steps teachers and staff are taking to improve student performance so that eventually every child can reach the higher academic standards. This new system of accountability will allow for state intervention in a school that consistently fails to help its students achieve.
Unfortunately, some members of the Legislature have misinterpreted the spirit of the law just passed. The battle over the "The List" of potential members for the new commission submitted by each of the four caucuses--State Democrats, Senate Republicans, House Democrats, and House Republicans--has created a roadblock to improving learning for our children.
Since the Republican nominees to the commission have agendas that work against public education rather than improve it, it seems we have little choice but to try a new direction.
As author of the new law, I am advising the Legislature to get out of the way and wait until January to change the law and allow the Governor to appoint all of the members of the commission.
I ask everyone to remember one thing: This is about nothing less than our children's future. And when students head back to school in just a few days, they have the right to a public school system that will help them succeed, led by caring and dedicated teachers and supported by the community--and that includes their state Legislature.