If Washington isn't racing to the top, where are we going?
Washington state's application for federal Race to the Top grants placed a dismal 32nd out of 36 states. Guest columnist Brad Smith urges Washington state educators and leaders not to resign themselves to the status quo but to keep pushing for meaningful reform.
Special to The Times
In the wake of Washington's elimination from the federal Race to the Top competition, our state leaders face a critical question: Where do we go from here?
The fact that Washington placed 32nd out of 36 states, and received only 290 out of 500 points, in the federal education competition has significant consequences. The immediate impact is that we will not receive $250 million in new education money that would have gone a long way in today's "water-the-soup" budget climate.
The bigger, long-term question is what this result says about where our schools are, and where they need to go to prepare students for the rigors of life in the 21st century.
In developing Washington's application, our state faced a critical decision: either propose bold reforms that might prove controversial, or offer more modest reforms and demonstrate the existence of a strong consensus to support their implementation
Washington chose the latter. While a legitimate strategy, this approach had limitations. It meant that we were giving up crucial points by continuing our state's ban on charter schools and by allowing, but not requiring, student achievement data to be used in teacher evaluations. Forgoing this incremental strategy, other states raced past Washington and pushed bolder reforms that will accelerate student achievement.
There were many in our state who opposed these bold reforms. So our education leaders and legislators were painted into a corner: Putting forth the type of bold vision that the feds were looking for would mean real problems at home.
These same forces will be in play as state leaders consider their response to Washington's Race to the Top rejection. They undoubtedly will hear voices saying, "Look, we took our best shot and didn't make the cut, so let's go back to what we know." Essentially, maintain the status quo.
That's the wrong approach and it won't serve our students, or our state, well. We know that we can't keep doing the same things if we are going to truly prepare them for college and work. Instead, we must rededicate ourselves to doing things differently to help our schools improve.
One such effort is a new statewide initiative to significantly increase student achievement in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Major businesses and foundations are currently working to create the Washington STEM Center to improve instruction and learning in the subjects of science, technology, engineering and math. A strong foundation in these subjects is critical to prepare young people to compete for family-wage jobs and serve as engaged citizens.
The STEM Center will develop and expand effective strategies for improving STEM achievement in our schools; to encourage more students — especially female, minority and low-income students who have historically been underrepresented — to pursue these disciplines; and to advocate for policy changes that position all students for success.
As important as the STEM Center and similar efforts are, state policy will ultimately have the greatest impact on the success of our students. In the 2011 session, state education leaders and the Legislature must continue making strategic reforms.
This means that we must move forward in implementing the state Board of Education's "Core 24" graduation requirements, which would ensure every student graduates with the skills required to succeed in college and work. We must begin to turn around low-performing schools to ensure that those students are not trapped in a cycle of failure. We must attract, prepare and support the next generation of effective teachers and leaders, and make their evaluations a meaningful tool to improve instruction. And we must find new ways to promote the creation of innovative schools that offer learning environments that respond to the diverse needs, interests and abilities of our students.
There is talk of another round of Race to the Top funding in the works. If Washington makes these strides, the outcome of another application could be more positive. But more importantly, these improvements would benefit the lives of the million students that will walk through the doors of schools across our state this fall.Brad Smith is senior vice president and general counsel of Microsoft Corporation and chairman of the Washington Roundtable.
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