Our state can, and must, do better in education

September 16, 2009 | John Burbank

Reprinted from the Everett Herald:

Last week the deputy mayor of Helsinki, Finland, was a guest at our home. As soon as he and his wife arrived, we hopped in the car and went to the opening high school cross country meet in Seattle. They didn’t have a choice — I am an assistant coach for my kids’ old high school in Ballard.

My friends from Finland were amazed as they watched this three-mile race, with 400 kids taking part. It is not something that happens in Finnish high schools. Those schools are just for academics.

Here cross country is part of the experience of being a high school student. Add to that the art, theater, football, soccer, tennis, and all the other sports, the high school bands, orchestras, and jazz bands, and pile those on top of a strong base of academics, and we have a combination in our state that can work for our students and our democracy. Our high schools enable our kids to gain a true “liberal arts” education, a fundamental base for higher education, work and citizenship.

In Snohomish County, more than 110,000 kids were enrolled in public K-12 schools last year. That’s 95 percent of all children. This year enrollment will go up some more, with population growth and the recession convincing some parents that, yes indeed, their kids can do quite well in public school and they don’t need to pay thousands of dollars in tuition to a private school.

To put this in context, roughly one out of every six Snohomish County residents is a public K-12 student. With government in general taking a pounding in the media, it is important to remember that our children are going to government-funded and administered public schools, with government employees — teachers, teaching aides, coaches — teaching our children, and government standards are used to measure how our children and our schools are doing.

Nineteen out of 20 kids in Snohomish County are learning in public — yes, government — schools.

Fifteen hundred high school students are reveling in the new Lynnwood High School, thanks to a voter-approved bond issue that enabled the Edmonds School District to replace the decrepit old building with a state-of-the-art school that is the pride of the community. The new school has biotechnology and computer-assisted design (CAD) labs, a computer-graphics classroom and an industrial-size kitchen for culinary arts. This is the technology and infrastructure we need to prepare our kids for the 21st century economy.

How are our students doing? The answer is pretty good. Statewide, both fourth graders and eighth graders are exceeding national averages in the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. Our SAT scores for college admission are the highest in the nation among those states in which more than half of students took these tests. In the Everett School District, the proportion of 10th graders meeting the WASL reading standards jumped from 44 percent to 85 percent in the past 10 years. The proportion of 10th graders meeting the math standards increased from less than one-third to slightly more than half. The proportion of 10th graders meeting the writing standards has more than doubled, to almost 90 percent.

More than a decade ago, the Legislature raised the bar for our kids’ education. To have done otherwise would have been a disservice to our kids, allowing mediocrity to be acceptable. That just won’t work in the global economy. Europe and China are preparing their next generation of engineers, inventors, thinkers and leaders, and we have to keep up.

Now we need to raise the bar again. It’s great that our 10th graders are making the grade in reading and writing. But it is unacceptable when only half are fluent in mathematics, and that more than a fifth of all students starting out in ninth grade will drop out of high school.

Have we gotten that message? In the face of the recession, the Legislature could have and should have found some new revenue for education simply by closing some corporate tax loopholes. But instead the Legislature actually cut funding for K-12 education by $1.8 billion. That translates to a drop of about $850 per student per year. So don’t be surprised if class sizes are larger this year, your child can’t find a counselor when she needs their advice, or if you have to pay for “extra-curricular” activities. So we are doing OK. But we could be doing a lot better. And in the future, we can’t afford not to.

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Posted in Early Learning, Education, Full-Day Kindergarten, Higher Education

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