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Education Lab Blog

Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

Category: Guest opinion
April 22, 2014 at 11:11 AM

Guest: Let’s call a truce on teacher evaluations

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Todd Hausman

Common sense is hardly commonplace in education policy today. Alliances are formed in Olympia, yet nobody is playing to let anyone else win. As a result of this mutual distrust, no improvements were made to our evaluation system during the recent legislative session.

Teacher evaluations have really become the crisis du jour in public education. Washington is at risk of losing its waiver from No Child Left Behind requirements and thus its control over approximately $40 million for low-income students. However, the debate in Olympia has largely been about preserving the quantity of federal funds, not the quality and strength of our teacher-evaluation system. So, while legislators were busy quarreling over whether to make student growth on statewide tests part of evaluations, they missed other opportunities to make actual improvements.

Done well, teaching is a highly complex art, and an evaluation of that art should not be simplistic. Evaluations should also be reliable enough to inspire trust among educators. The Washington State Teacher/Principal Evaluation Pilot (TPEP), first introduced in 2010, was definitely a step in the right direction. Teachers and principals are more focused on what students are learning than ever before, and they are looking at evidence of student growth. Yet, teacher evaluations haven’t exactly achieved a state of nirvana. In fact, there are several concrete ways in which they could still be improved.

With TPEP, a single observer still largely determines teacher evaluations. Usually, this is a school administrator. Even if that person is a dynamic instructional leader, and some are not, evaluation based on a single observer is bad science all the way around. So we still have a system that is devoid of checks and balances. That’s why we should consider multiple measures of a teacher’s effectiveness, such as student perception surveys and peer reviews, to increase reliability and fairness.

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0 Comments | More in Guest opinion, Opinion | Topics: No Child Left Behind, teacher evaluations, Todd Hausman

April 12, 2014 at 7:20 PM

Guest: Give counselors the opportunity to develop skills, network together

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Jenée Myers Twitchell

High-school guidance counselors are often misunderstood, unappreciated, and not treated as educational leaders. Like teachers, principals and central office leaders, they ought to be held to high expectations and provided professional development that attends to their ever-changing roles.

Guidance counselors take on all the following challenges: supporting socio-emotional growth, teaching healthy living, parent-teacher-student mediation, discipline enforcement, and college and career readiness, among other duties.

But even in the best master’s degree programs, they rarely get a single day covering the last topic, college and career readiness. As one of my counselor colleagues says: “The sky might fall if there were actually an entire course devoted to college readiness support.”

Yet, by 2020, 70 percent of the jobs in Washington state will require a college degree or career credential. Meanwhile, the number of low-income students, whose first language is not English, or who are ethnic minorities, is rising. These students possess amazing assets. They also face significant challenges. Filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) — or the new Washington Application for State Financial Aid (WASFA), which is state financial aid for students who can’t file a FAFSA due to immigration status — can be worse than filing taxes.

In these students’ schools, who figures out whether they need to take Spanish if they already speak Amharic fluently? Who makes sure they file the FAFSA so that they can afford to pay for the new Bachelor’s of Applied Science degree at South Seattle College? Increasingly, this is expected of the high-school guidance counselor.

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0 Comments | More in Guest opinion, Opinion | Topics: college counseling, Dream Project, Jenee Myers Twitchell

April 12, 2014 at 7:00 PM

Guest: Use other resources to free up counselors’ time

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Bruce Band

Today’s young people need sophisticated skills to tackle life after high-school graduation, whether that includes college or a technical career. So what can counselors and other educators do to help them make this transition?

Some of the answer may lie in freeing counselors to mentor lagging students at all levels of school, including high school. Additional funding from the state Supreme Court’s mandate will be critical, but some creative repurposing of new and existing funds could also play a useful role.

High school counselors do help students with the college application process, but a myriad other duties limits the amount of time and energy they can put into this task. Oftentimes, this college advisement amounts to little more than impersonal classroom presentations.

Students whose families have already channeled them to higher education are the ones who get direction out of such presentations, while those who profoundly need the information tune out because they lack the framework of expectation and personal infrastructure upon which to hang what they are being told.

Outside of the family, the only really effective way to steer students toward post-secondary education is by building personal relationships with kids at each level of schooling. Unfortunately, our focus on testing has diverted considerable time from such informal tutelage, and budget cuts have further undercut that traditional role.

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0 Comments | More in Guest opinion, Opinion | Topics: Bruce Brand, college counseling

April 1, 2014 at 4:24 PM

Guest: Double-majoring helps students balance passion and practicality

Imana Gunawan

Imana Gunawan

We’ve heard it before: Studying the arts in college doesn’t provide financial stability and is a waste of time. Even President Obama hinted at that sentiment in his State of the Union address when he made a comment about the earnings of art history majors.

For many students, the arts are an identity. Some may have taken ballet classes or sketch self-portraits for fun. But as these students venture into higher education, many end up not pursuing the arts because of practical, personal or financial reasons.

Students who can afford it have a clear solution: double-majoring. In Washington’s state schools, pursuing two majors generally costs the same as one, if students can pack their coursework into four years. Many students who study two majors must enroll in a costly fifth year of classes, however.

School administrators and state legislators would do well to provide financial and institutional support for students pursuing two majors. Interdepartmental scholarships from the school or even state-provided financial aid can go a long way in helping undergraduates get the most out of their education.

Jordan Rohrs is a University of Washington senior majoring in business with minors in music and dance. He wanted to double-major in business and dance and minor in music, but the cost stopped him. Rohrs said he would have to pay an additional $12,000 tuition and stay an extra year to complete the two majors and minor.

Yet even now in pursuing his dance minor, Rohrs’ biggest challenge is balancing classes to maintain skills in both fields. Both the dance department and the business school only offer certain required courses at select times, he said.

“To try and bring yourself to an adequate level by doing both (business and dance) is difficult,” Rohrs said.

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0 Comments | More in Guest opinion, Opinion | Topics: arts, double major, higher ed

March 28, 2014 at 2:07 PM

Guest: High-school internships offer strong path to STEM careers

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Julie Burr

If you’re raised in a family with a mom who’s a computer programmer and dad who’s an aerospace engineer, chances are you’ll take the right high school classes and consider pursuing a bright future in a STEM career.

If you come from a different background, the fields of science, technology, engineering and math — collectively known as STEM — might seem uninviting. Upon graduation from high school, you won’t suddenly develop an interest in a STEM career. If you do, you likely won’t be admitted or succeed as a STEM major in college if you have a lack of high school preparation. With the huge shortage of skilled workers in STEM fields, this seems a travesty.

Highline Public Schools’ new Raisbeck Aviation High School serves as a model for how schools can help fill the local skills gap and give hope to students with limited opportunities. The school’s internship program, in particular, enables students to start exploring STEM careers early on in their high-school careers while gaining important real-world experience.

Raisbeck students are surrounded by caring professionals from aerospace careers on a daily basis. A scaffold approach to STEM career exploration begins with the freshman-level Career Choices class, where a constant stream of STEM professionals come to inform and inspire. Students become comfortable networking with professionals, and many doors are opened, such as tours to commercial space flight company Blue Origin or Planetary Resources, the asteroid mining company.

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0 Comments | More in Guest opinion, Math and science, Opinion | Topics: Highline School District, Raisbeck Aviation High School, STEM

March 24, 2014 at 3:21 PM

Guest: It’s time for voters to get serious about school funding

Bill Keim

Bill Keim

On Jan. 9, in its latest order related to the McCleary decision, our state Supreme Court required the Legislature to submit a plan on April 30 indicating how it will fully fund our schools by 2018. Many legislators responded that the court overstepped its bounds by issuing that order. This impasse between two governmental branches has the makings of a constitutional crisis. Given the lack of significant progress in the recently completed legislative session, it is likely that the court will become even more adamant in its subsequent orders.

The resolution of this conflict will likely require new revenue. With the power Washington’s citizens have through the referendum and initiative process, they could ultimately decide whether the state provides that revenue. Given that fact, it is critical that voters become informed about this issue.

Any review of how we got to this point would include the passage of House Bill 1209 in 1993. It was intended to improve both the funding and performance of our schools. Two decades after that bill passed, there has been a remarkable increase in student achievement. Washington is now among the top 10 states on the National Assessment of Student Progress (NAEP), but the funding hasn’t followed.

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0 Comments | More in Guest opinion, Opinion | Topics: Bill Keim, guest opinion, McCleary

March 18, 2014 at 2:28 PM

Guest: Playing by the rules of the SAT game

Dennis McDuffie

Dennis McDuffie

On the surface, the SAT makes sense. In an era where standardized testing has become the focal point of American education, requiring tests for college admission seems logical. But what does this exam really measure?

Some universities argue that SAT scores directly correlate with success in college, but far too many students are exceptions to this generalization. The test material measures how well students can follow the rules of a game, which is not relevant to success beyond the testing room.

Unlike college, the test requires little critical thinking and primarily assesses students’ ability to withstand six hours of purposefully deceiving questions. Those who can readily detect deceptive responses are not necessarily any smarter than those who fall for the occasional trick. I can testify to this statement from my own experience.

After three SAT tests and three SAT subject tests, I have both lost and won in this game. I took the SAT last May and again in June, and my cumulative score increased an insignificant 10 points the second time. My scores were well above average, but I did not attain the level necessary for the highly selective colleges on my list.

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0 Comments | More in Guest opinion, Opinion | Topics: guest opinion, higher ed, SAT

March 11, 2014 at 2:45 PM

Guest: Applied bachelor’s degrees help local employers fill skills gap

Marty Brown

Marty Brown

Consider this scenario: A radiology technician with an associate degree does top-notch work, but can’t get promoted without a bachelor’s degree. Starting over at a four-year institution doesn’t make sense. She’s working at a hospital, has practical experience, and can’t start over as a traditional four-year college student. The hospital, meanwhile, is eager to hire a manager with a bachelor’s degree. The employee faces a glass ceiling; the employer faces a void.

This scenario plays out across Washington in high-demand fields with a shortage of bachelor’s degree graduates. And it is the very reason community and technical colleges offer bachelor of applied science degrees.

Applied bachelor’s degrees are practical, career-oriented degrees that meet employers’ needs in high-demand fields. They add junior and senior levels to two-year professional-technical degrees that would otherwise not transfer and count toward bachelor’s degrees at universities. The degrees vary from a two-year management track on top of a two-year technical education, or a continuation of a technical degree.

These degrees offer the best of both worlds: hands-on training in a career embedded within a four-year degree. Employers seek graduates because they have technical expertise combined with communication, computation, critical thinking, and people-management skills. A report from the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges found 82 percent of applied bachelor’s graduates in 2010 and 2011 were employed seven quarters after graduating. Students’ earnings increased by an average of 26 percent after graduation.

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0 Comments | More in Guest opinion, Opinion | Topics: applied bachelor's, Community colleges, guest opinion

March 1, 2014 at 5:05 PM

Guest: New teaching approach makes A.P. more accessible to wider range of students

Jerry Neufeld-Kaiser

Jerry Neufeld-Kaiser

For the past four years, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching an Advanced Placement government class based completely on project-based learning, a new approach that emphasizes simulations such as mock trial over memorization and lecture. It’s also a key way to get more students involved in advanced coursework and help close the achievement gap.

Here’s what’s fulfilling about teaching this way: Student engagement and enthusiasm are much higher with this approach. The kids are excited for class because they want the bill they wrote to pass or because they are hoping to get endorsed by the Sierra Club so they can lock up the party nomination. And they have fun playing a character. For example, conservative students have a great time playing bleeding heart liberals. Because it’s fun to be part of, it doesn’t feel like school work for the students.

It’s rewarding to bring in outside experts, or to look in on actual politics, and see how much our simulations mirror what happens in the real world. The students are struck that government really happens just like we see in class. In our Congress simulation, the Democrats were frustrated that they felt steam-rolled by the Republican majority on every vote in the floor session. And in our presidential debate, the short-staffed Green Party candidate was mad when he learned he was being barred from the debate. Then he held a press conference to say how he would have answered the questions, just as Green Party candidate Jill Stein did in 2012.

Here’s what makes project-based A.P. instruction difficult for teachers: Each student needs a role they can succeed in that challenges them. Some can rise to the challenge of playing a candidate in a public forum, but others will wither. Getting that wrong can be painful. Also, the more intricate projects where each student plays a different role depend on high attendance. If the Tea Party Republican candidate gets suspended and can’t be at the debate, then not only is the debate less fun and inclusive, but it’s also less effective for learning.

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0 Comments | More in Guest opinion | Topics: Advanced Placement, AP, Garfield High School

March 1, 2014 at 5:00 PM

Guest: Why we need to get more students enrolled in A.P.

Philip Ballinger

Philip Ballinger

One goal of my work at the University of Washington is to see students gain access to higher education and succeed in earning their degrees. One decade ago, our nation led the world in college graduation, but today we rank a disappointing 13th. There are many students throughout the U.S. who have the potential to enroll and complete their degrees, but too many lack access to the rigorous coursework that prepares them for success in college.

Advanced Placement courses and other rigorous curricula-based programs offer high school students the opportunity to develop the knowledge and skills they’ll need to succeed in college. On average, only half of all students nationally earn their bachelor’s degrees within five or six years, which is a great financial burden on students and their families. But students who earn qualifying scores on their A.P. exams more typically graduate within four years. These students are able to make the most of their time on campus — by pursuing a double-major or studying abroad without risking their ability to graduate on time.

Washington has made great strides to expand A.P. access to more students. In 2003, only 16 percent of the state’s public high school graduates took A.P., while 34 percent of graduates took A.P. last year. The percentage of graduates who earned A.P. exam scores of 3 or higher (scores typically required for college credit) rose from 10.4 percent a decade ago to nearly 21 percent in 2013.

Although we have made progress, the overall state-level picture still concerns me. Forty-seven percent of Washington’s public high school graduates in the class of 2013 either never took an A.P. course in a subject for which they had demonstrated the potential to succeed, or they attended a school that did not offer a course in the subject. This pattern is particularly prevalent in lower-resourced schools.

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0 Comments | More in Guest opinion, Opinion | Topics: Advanced Placement, AP, higher ed

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