Tuesday, October 28, 2008

How to Turn Out World Class High School Graduates - A Customer's Perspective

As I ponder the big question of how to improve the sorry state of education in the State of Washington, my mind conjures up images of the familiar ancient story about five blind men and an elephant. Every person has an opinion about what the problems are, and how to solve them. If you are an educator, you get one version of the problem and proposed solutions. Administrators have their own view, so do the superintendents and the school board members. But all the people above are part of the system. Their view often reflects the immediate problems they see in connection with their jobs. What about the “customer”? We rarely read or hear about the people who are paying for the education that their kids are getting, namely, the taxpayer. In most cases, this person also doubles as the parent of a public school kid. I am a long standing tax payer with hundreds of hours of volunteer hours in public schools, and I have a few views of my own. As a customer of a system that spends $7500 per child on K-12 education (which, by the way, is higher than the per capita GDP of about 65% of this world’s nations), in this election year, I want my voice to be heard too. So, here goes.

As a customer, I want the schools to turn out quality graduates. What I mean by quality is that the graduates meet all the skill and knowledge requirements expected out of a world class graduate. One measure of the quality of graduates, at least in case of those who go on to college, is remediation rates. The goal, of course, is zero remediation rates. Another measure of quality is for graduates to enter a trade or occupation of their choice with very little on-the-job training. Unfortunately, this is not the case today. Remediation rates in our community colleges, especially in the gatekeeper skills like math, are running over 50%. Even our most selective college, University of Washington, has over 10% remediation rate, and the math, science and engineering faculty have come out with an open letter saying they have seen a decline in core math skills. The WASL scores bear out an even sadder fact – 65% of our graduates cannot pass an 8th grade level science test either. This is not what I expect out of a quality organization that charges the taxpayer $7500 per student.

Quality of graduates is a direct measure of how well a school system does. There are some indirect measures, ones that lead up to the final goal of turning out quality graduates. These are by no means new - they have been talked about for decades. But I feel, as a customer, it is my job to keep repeating the message until action is taken to remedy the defects in the system. After researching what works worldwide, I have discounted the familiar arguments about more money and smaller class sizes. There are many more zero cost (or, sometimes, cost saving) alternatives we can explore before we blow more money on something that is not working well. But good teachers DO make a difference, so do well designed curricula. So I have decided to focus on these three problem areas – Quality graduates, Good Teachers, Good Curricula. Below each, I have listed several possible solutions, with my take on what the cost would be – both monetary and political.

Problem #1: How to increase the quality of our K-12 graduates

o Solution: Increase the content and rigor of state standards for every subject matter at every grade level, starting with math and science. Today's standards for math, even the revised ones, trail the world class by a year or two. Since math is the language of science, the science standards and performance suffer accordingly. The standards should be made devoid of pedagogical methods, and focused on performance expected out of students. This is the job of OSPI, and they have failed miserably in their primary mission. The legislature must drive OSPI to make Washington standards the unquestioned leader in the world. The opponents of this have been, and will be, the entire establishment, because they are afraid they won't be able to deliver. This is nonsense, because setting standards should not have anything to do with whether we can deliver, and everything to do with setting world class expectations of our graduates. This is a low investment, high return area. The legislature has already done some expectation setting to OSPI on this, but OSPI has been an unwilling participant so far.

o Solution: Measure our graduates with the same ruler as the rest of the nation. WASL test is a custom made test that only OSPI loves and understands. It has wasted over a billion dollars, while providing little information to teachers on how to improve their instruction, and students on how to improve their learning. Lower grade WASL must be replaced with a nationally normed and standardized test such as SAT10 (Stanford Achievement Test, v.10) and the high school exit exams replaced with ACT. The overall cost may be a wash, compared to the cost of administering the WASL. But the students and teachers will gain immensely because of the feedback.

o Solution: Hold schools accountable for competency by raising the bar at every grade level, and do away with social promotions. Social promotions are a product of the self esteem movement which has permeated all aspects of our teaching establishment. But it has taken all accountability away from students, parents, and teachers. If students do not meet minimum grade level performance requirements, they should spend time in summer school until they do. If not, they should repeat the grade, since they were probably not prepared to take it anyway. This will take some investment, and political will to implement, but will pay off handsomely in high school and college, when students actually come in prepared to take higher level classes.

o Solution: Fund full day kindergarten and head start. This will make sure that both low income and high income kids have the same baseline when they enter first grade. Study after study has shown that head start funding and prison funding are inversely correlated. With the US having the highest incarceration rate, at over $25,000 per annum per inmate, we can spend a fraction of that on headstart and avoid most of it. The return justifies the investment.

o Solution: Cut back on big sports expenditures, and fund intellectual curricular and co-curricular activities in math, science, geography, spelling, chess, and lego robotics. Our schools, especially at the high school level, have become like sports camps. Curricular achievement often takes a back seat to sports achievement. There is nothing wrong with pursuing sports, as many of us were involved in them ourselves. But having the two funded from the same bucket of money tends to confound the funding issues. I propose dividing educational districts into two categories - academic districts and athletic districts. This allows the funding to be distributed according to availability, and have the schools focus on what they should - academics. This could actually be a money saver, since it will make obvious the eye popping amount of money we spend on athletics in the name of academics.

Problem #2 - How to get good teachers into classrooms:

o Solution: Pass an emergency teacher certification bill that grants full teaching certificates to retired and unemployed engineers and technicians. This is very low cost, high return area, but you will have to fight the teacher's unions to get it through. But it takes advantage of a large number of retired professionals or those being laid off, and are eager to teach.

o Solution: Mandate that the schools of education raise their admissions standards to at least those earning a basic arts/science degree, increase credit hours required to graduate, increase the credit hours and rigor of advanced math courses for teachers, and tighten the graduation criteria. In the short term, it will decrease the number of graduating teachers, but if you act on the previous solution first, it should compensate for the shortfall. Again, this is a low cost, high return proposal, but you will have to fight the bureaucracy in colleges.

o Solution: Mandate that every teacher get evaluated on the increase in standardized test scores in their classes, and on a 360 degree evaluation by students/parents, peers, and the principal. The good ones should get higher raises, the really bad ones put on probation. If no improvement is seen after probationary period, they need to be let go. Tenure has blurred the difference between stellar performers and poor performers, and has provided a reason for good teachers to leave the profession. Without a periodic review system of review, over time, the entire system degenerates into mediocrity. As we speak, Michelle Rhee is overhauling the Washington DC school system, partly by challenging the teachers to step up or leave. I think this change is one of the most significant we can implement. This is a medium cost area (takes yearly testing to track progress), but can be automated with technology. This is how all professionals get evaluated in most of the world. I expect strong resistance from the unions, but they will be fighting a losing battle in the face of increasing job losses in the economy. This is also a low dollar item, since you are giving the total money you would have normally given for salary increases, and distributing it by performance.

Problem #3 - How to get good curricula into schools

o Solution: Seek out what works worldwide, and implement it in schools. The public schools in the US in general, and in the state of Washington in particular, have been victims of faddish trends in education. Without going into gory details, my research has uncovered that a large portion of poor student performance can be traced to poor curricular choice based on faddish philosophies promoted by the schools of education. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the area of math education. The K-8 public school math curricula based on these philosophies has dumbed down an entire generation of school kids. Increasing expectations is only part of the story. Without rigorous teaching materials, the goal of turning out world class graduates will still be a dream. My recommendation is to follow the list published by What Works Clearinghouse, and implement only those that have proven to produce results (as in higher test scores). Math keeps coming up as a subject that needs particular attention. Saxon Math and Singapore Math have been proven to work in the K-8 curricula, and I feel they are a great choice for any school district as primary math curricula.


concerned said...

Rigorous teaching materials:


Sudhakar said...

I have followed NYCHold, Wheresthemath, and the various California math sites for a while. My kids were in California schools until 2002, and we were just getting out of the fuzzy math mess when we left. Now we are back in the same boat in Washington. At least we can recognize a lame curriculum when we see it. We simply home school in math and science, using California text books and other supplemental materials.

concerned said...

I enjoy your blog posts!

You have a unique perspective and I appreciate your willingness to share openly. It's clear, through your analysis, that you have many years experience with these issues.

"It's Action Time" pretty much sums it up!

Thank you for caring about our children and sharing your insights.

concerned said...

New blog entitled

"New Jersey Coalition For World Class Math Standards" at:


Citizens engage!

worldmomma said...

Great post. Thanks.