Staying the Course on Education Reform
by Dr. Terry Bergeson
Washington's public schools are in the midst of a sweeping transformation.
We are raising the bar for students, teachers and administrators, demanding more achievement and accountability from everyone involved in public education. And we're in it for the long haul.
This is a journey the state embarked on in 1993 when the Commission on Student Learning was created. As a result of their work, the state Legislature adopted four student learning goals deemed critical to students' success in the 21st century. Every student must be able to:
€ Read with comprehension, write with skill and communicate effectively.
€ Know and apply the core concepts and principles of mathematics, social, physical and life sciences; civics and history; geography; arts, health and fitness.
€ Think analytically, logically and creatively.
€ Understand the link between education and the work world.
For the most part, the public has supported these new rigorous standards. Still, change is difficult and concerns have surfaced from some quarters. Much of the controversy surrounding education reform centers on the WASL standardized tests given to fourth, seventh and tenth graders. Some teachers fear the tests will distort the classroom learning experience, that they will have to "teach to the test." Parents may worry that their child will not pass the tests, will suffer undue stress or fail to graduate on schedule.
These are legitimate concerns, but it's important to remember that the WASL is not an end in itself, but rather one means of measuring progress towards our goal of ensuring that all children graduate with a diploma that truly prepares them for the 21st century.
And students are making progress. In the most recent WASL results released in September 1999, reading and math scores rose for all grades and all race and gender groups, with one exception ‹ 7th grade girls whose reading scores dropped slightly.
The number of students achieving at the highest levels rose, while the number of students at the lowest levels declined. Students are also scoring higher on the SAT and ACT tests, as well as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.
But we still have a way to go in helping all students meet the new learning goals. While test scores are improving among all racial and ethnic groups, significant achievement gaps persist among minority groups. We need to close those gaps.
We've done a good job concentrating on the elementary school grades in the last few years and we've seen student achievement rise as a result. Now we must also focus on middle schools so that these students can make similar strides.
No matter what the grade level, ultimately the success of education reform hinges on the quality of classroom instruction. We must do a better job of recruiting and developing the highest quality teachers. If we are to hold teachers and principals accountable for results, they need intensive support to better understand how to use assessment results to improve teaching and learning.
My budget proposal for the 2001-03 biennium addresses these issues by focusing on programs that will transform the teaching profession, help struggling schools and provide equitable access to technology for all school districts.
We recognize that the Legislature has difficult choices to make this session. But the people of Washington clearly voiced their priorities last November when they approved two education initiatives ‹ one providing more money to improve local schools and the other establishing cost-of-living raises for teachers. Voters did not want the Legislature to use this new funding as an excuse to cut the education budget in other places. In fact, Initiative 728 expressly stated: "It is the intent of the people that existing state funding for education, including all sources of funding, shall not be reduced, supplanted, or otherwise adversely impacted by appropriations or expenditures from the student achievement fund created in the RCW or the education construction fund."
We need to keep moving forward with education reform, despite the fact that it may not always be easy. Our kids deserve no less.
Dr. Bergeson is the state's school superintendent.