March 19, 2009
Missing Ingredient in WA Education Reform

An op-ed column in yesterday's Seattle Times made a highly worthwhile comparison between our Evergreen State and Massachusetts:

Washington and Massachusetts are both home to approximately 6.4 million people and are both geographically divided in similar proportion between urban and rural. Boston and Seattle have nearly identical populations as well (about 585,000) and are largely composed of progressive, highly-educated and conscientious citizens. Boston's main industry is higher education and Seattle's is high-tech. Brainy. They're about as similar as states can get.

But Massachusetts students have been outscoring Washington's on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) since the beginning of that test's score reporting in the early 1990s. Badly. They have been outpacing Washington students in all subjects by an average of 8 points per test.

We talked about
the relevancy between the two states on the topic of education recently. While both states passed education at the same time (1993), one has clearly been more successful than the other.


The op-ed cited above spends time praising Massachusetts's use of charter schools. They help, that's for sure, even as the issue is a dead horse locally after thrice being denied by state voters.

More important than charters, however, has been sustained, serious leadership on the issue, in the midst of a highly liberal state where stereotype might dictate that the teachers' union would hold sway. My recently concluded time at the U.S. Department of Education include many a conversation with a colleague who served as a gubernatorial education advisor and Secretary of Education in the Bay State at the very time they were leaping ahead of our own education reform efforts.

The secret?

They got serious about standards and insisted on results. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) is generally regarded as the high mark in rigorous standards in K-12 education. Massachusetts went down the challenging path of aligning its own standards to NAEP, with all the potential for upset that comes with such high expectations and public accountability.

Anyone who has watched education reform debates knows how quick testing opponents, especially those on the left, are quick to bemoan high standards as unfair to kids, too challenging for students from tough backgrounds, an assault on overwhelmed teachers, etc., etc. Massachusetts wouldn't accept such nattering. Through real, sustained leadership, down to the community level, they made it happen.

With standards aligned to NAEP, not only were results expected, local school systems had to follow through - including state audits of curriculum to ensure alignment with those standards.

What are the results, beyond those articulated well in the above op-ed?

Compared to our disastrous implementation of the WASL as a graduation test, including disturbing, persistently low math scores, a March 2008 report [pdf] showed 94% of the Bay State Class of 2008 as having passed a test aligned to Massachusetts's more rigorous standards.

Yes, even with the similarities between the two states, there are important differences. Furthermore, the Massachusetts system is by no means perfect, despite the indisputably strong results shown by their students in aggregate.

The important thing for those of us here in Washington state to remember is that despite the inevitable whining and complaints from the status quo about proposed changes, real reform that sets high standards, believes kids can achieve them, and works diligently to get there can succeed. What's needed to turn that vision into reality is serious, dedicated leadership from a core group of adults and a systemic willingness to improve an education system to ensure standards are high, curriculum matches those standards, and classroom instruction is aligned to both.

That's not ground breaking. It's not even ideological. But, it works. Massachusetts has proved it. And it's an opportunity waiting for real leaders in Washington state to step up and make all our talk about improving public, K-12 education into something truly meaningful.

Posted by Eric Earling at March 19, 2009 01:37 PM | Email This
1. Standards? Pudge just said that there was no policy interest in that. I don't expect you bloggers to all have one voice -- but maybe pudge shouldn't say there's "no interest" in policies like this when two posts later it's illustrated that there is interest in this, from a co-blogger nonetheless.

Posted by: John Jensen on March 19, 2009 01:34 PM
2. Eric, your whole premise is based upon your belief that Washington and Taxachusetts are the same. So, when you spell out one aspect in Taxachusetts is different from Washington's, you conclude it is the defining difference.

I don't think it is so easy.

Posted by: swatter on March 19, 2009 01:46 PM
3. swatter -

I never said it was easy, indeed I alluded to how hard it was and how sustained the effort has to be (which is never easy in politics). Yet, the op-ed writer made the clear and accurate case there are a host of similarities between the two states. Given the starkly different tracks we've taken in getting results on education reform over the exact same timeframe, some lessons learned from their experience (which has made them national leaders) would be more than a little prudent.

Posted by: Eric Earling on March 19, 2009 02:00 PM
4. The biggest travesty is that when WA students don't measure up to the WASL we choose to dumb down the test, rather than smarten up the students and teachers.

So much for accountability, eh?

Posted by: Shanghai Dan on March 19, 2009 02:23 PM
5. I grew up in Massachusetts, and one huge difference between there and here is that Massachusetts is chock full of schools.

Public, parochial, private. Even before charter schools, families had lots of choices.

For years, Boston Latin was the most rigorous academically with stellar college entrance results, and it was a public school. The prominent presence of Harvard, Boston University, Boston College, Tufts, MIT, and on and on, also imparts an atmosphere where educational aspirations are decidedly part of the environment.

Here, a handful of scattered private schools, but otherwise, not much to choose from K-12, and the numbers of higher ed. institutions is tiny by comparison. Massachusetts simply has a different culture, so the numerical similarities, I think, are offset by those differences.

Posted by: Fritz on March 19, 2009 02:36 PM
6. I don't believe that WASL standards are in line with NAEP standards.

I hope people here aren't assuming that 'WASL opponents' are the same as 'testing opponents'. I am tired of people assuming that WASL opponents have lower standards. If you could see the parents and students that refuse WASL you would know that many of us have pulled our kids out of public school (either full time or part time) and have MUCH HIGHER STANDARDS as opposed to the kids being indoctrinated with the "WASL way'.and it is proven by our kids' readiness for college.

My kids are a mix of homeschooled full-time, part-time and a high schooler that refused my offer to homeschool. None of them will take WASL, but they have been tested and assessed more than most kids.

If you were familiar with WASL and the standards and curricula that support it, you would realize that WASL and ex-superintendent Terry Bergeson's standards are part of the problem

Posted by: Agent99 on March 19, 2009 02:46 PM
7. You guys might be surprised with this then...

State SAT scores lead nation for sixth straight year

"Among states with at least half of the eligible students taking the SAT, Washington ranked first in critical reading and math and fourth in writing, behind Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire."

Where's the problem?

Posted by: Smoley on March 19, 2009 02:55 PM
8. Agent 99 @6 -

You're correct. WA standards do not align with NAEP and are much less rigorous (as are most states, in fairness). Moreover, you are correct that someone can be an opponent of the WASL but still a fierce advocate for testing & standards.

Posted by: Eric Earling on March 19, 2009 02:58 PM
9. Smoley - yes, the state does have good SAT scores, as well as solid participation in AP courses and tests. Yet, those are not be all and end all measures...especially since not all students take such assessments (even with WA's high rate of SAT participation).

If you look at WASL scores, high school graduation requirements, number of graduates requiring remedial courses, persistent achievement gaps, etc. you find some troubling statistics about our K-12 system in the aggregate that reveal things are not dandy.

Posted by: Eric Earling on March 19, 2009 03:08 PM
10. MA spends one and a half times as much money per student as WA on education. Might that have anything to do with the difference?

Posted by: Bruce on March 19, 2009 04:03 PM
11. Bruce -

It doesn't hurt. But how you spend the money matters an awful lot. If spending were the formula, the worst school system in the country - Washington, DC - would be one of the best.

More importantly, there always seems to be a debate about education funding, yet at present it's not as if the primary funders of K-12 education (states & localities) are swimming in cash. The debate about how to spend the resources schools have is much more important given current realities.

Posted by: Eric Earling on March 19, 2009 04:17 PM
12. Massachusetts dumped their WASL-esque standards in favor of more traditional standards. The problem with "standard" is WHOSE standards. Bergeson's WASL stood for crap math, crap science, crap reading and crap standards. Dorn STILL has no idea of the "classroom based assessment" which is a WASL but worse for every other subject. I was the ONLY person silly enough to actually look up the paintings in the art test - Picasso's "Woman in a hat"... "with a blouse drawing with nipples showing" and "face of mae west" which was basically lipstick on a garage door. When I complained THEY KILLED IT BECAUSE IT WAS STUPID. And you know, EVERY OTHER TEST IS JUST AS STUPID, such as 5th graders singing sheet music BY SIGHT. It's not high standards, it's high insanity, and every pro-WASL republican/conservative has bought the lie hook, line and sinker.

My kid's "CMP" math textbook to "improve math" does not contain a single explanation of how to do ANYTHING. No Pi r squared. No line up the decimal to add. It's not there. Every method is considered to be an "answer" to be hidden in the teacher's book, yet is there anyone out there who did not memorize pi r squared?

We need more people who can tell what's crap, not more people who just push more of the same old "reform".

Posted by: awarthurhu on March 19, 2009 08:35 PM
13. I grew up in MA too. Lived there from birth through 7th grade. And the schools there have always been superior. Standards have always been important there; it's part of the culture. And yes, private and parochial schools are huge there, too.

It is a very different culture out here.

And no, John Jensen mischaracterized me. I never said there's no interest in standards. Never even implied it. I said there's no valid interest in FEDERAL or STATE standards, as opposed to local standards, as the local voters more than capable of selecting school boards that are more than capable of deciding their own standards.

State standards can work, but they cannot work as well as local standards, unless, of course, your goal is homogeneity, which is not, to me, a reasonable goal.

Posted by: pudge on March 20, 2009 09:42 AM
14. Outcome based education was a FAILURE
Peformance based education was a FAILURE
"Standards" is just another word for "outcome"
Standards in standard english = the way everyone has ever done things.

"Standard" as in "education reform" = take everything you know about education and turn it upside down. Whole language = don't teach how to read. "Standards-based mathematics" = teach anything but the standard methods. "Standards based science" = teach graduate level experiment design, but NO grade level appropriate facts.


New Math died because it was stupid.
Open schools died because it was stupid.
Whole langauge died because it was stupid.
Certificate of Mastery died because it was stupid.
Math WASL requirement died because it was stupid.
Bellevue and Seattle dumped Investigations Math
because it was stupid.
Old Math standards died because they were stupid.
School to Work died because it was stupid.
WASL died because it was stupid.
Do you get the general theme?

Do you have the courage to call for killing ESHB 1209 (1993) state education reform because hopefully you've figured out by now that IT'S STUPID?????

Posted by: awarthurhu on March 20, 2009 04:10 PM
15. What's missing from Washingto education?

The "education" part!

Posted by: Politically Incorrect on March 20, 2009 04:45 PM
16. My wife attended parocial schools in Seattle until her family moved, just prior to her senior year in HS, to an area served only by public schools. She contends public schools were a joke compared to the Catholic schools, particularly in the area of practical application of mathematical concepts. I agree, and will use geometry as an example. Most schools require students to memorize theorems and use them (with simple algebra) to solve geometric equations....without showing them how such calculations could make life easier on the shop floor, when building building a house or when laying out your new sidewalks and garden.

Posted by: Saltherring on March 21, 2009 06:59 AM
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