Stand for Children & Coalition present ‘People’s Plan’ for Washington Education

Excellent Schools? We all want them–and many excellent schools already exist in our state.  Excellent Schools NOW?  It’s not going to happen now, it’s going to take time and hard work.   A coalition that names itself Excellent Schools Now therefore deserves some extra attention as to their members, motives, and funding.   Who’s in this coalition?  Stand for Children, Teachers United, Partnership for Learning, Washington Business Roundtable, League of Education Voters, Washington Technology Industry Association, and many others.

The other day I had the opportunity to attend an event to provide feedback to the Excellent Schools Now (ESN) coalition on their legislative agenda for next year.  It was named the People’s Plan.  We met in a well-appointed hotel conference room with wine and fancy chocolate. There were about 15 teachers and perhaps about 12 community members present.  We had all been given a draft of the ESN’s “People’s Plan for Education” so we could read it beforehand.

An open question, well articulated by another teacher present:  Did the ESN coalition actually want teacher input into their legislative plan, or did they just want to say they had consulted teachers in formulating this plan?  The lack of transparency in the creation and feedback process of their plan (Where was this plan coming from? What was going to happen next?) and the vague doublespeak of much of the language in the plan led many present to believe that perhaps this group just wanted to state that they had consulted teachers.

The agenda for the evening involved two rounds of small group discussion.  During the first round, I found myself seated at a table with about with about six teachers. The policy director of Stand for Children sat with us and listened in to the conversation; the leader of Teachers United acted as moderator and scribe.

Who are these people, and who wrote this plan?

This whole thing was called the ‘Peoples’ Plan.’  The title begs the question: So who are these people, and who wrote this plan?   The plan was developed by Education First Consulting. A political firm named Strategies 360  also seemed to play a role—one of their senior officers was emceeing the teacher input forum I attended.  Designating their legislative agenda as the “People’s Plan” did not seem to fit this coalition–even some of the organizers were saying this by the end of the evening forum.

Many of the points in the plan were versions of policy proposals we’ve been hearing from around the country in the past year.  Excellent Schools Now advocates for larger class sizes in their plan, just as Bill Gates did in a speech to the National Governor’s Association.

Who is funding these groups?  Well, in Washington state, Bill Gates is one of the major donors. The organizations in Excellent Schools Now do not just work on a state level: the Tacoma chapter of Stand for Children received a $150,000 grant from the Gates Foundation with the first goal of influencing local teacher contract negotiations there.

So what’s in this Plan?

At the first discussion table I sat at, the topic was listed as Teacher Job Rights: we discussed tenure, RIFs, and firing.  Tenure was the first confusing language issue we had.  Does tenure mean a teacher has a job forever, almost no matter what; or does tenure just mean that a certain process is followed before a teacher is dismissed? How tenure is defined matters when discussing these matters, and tenure was not defined at this forum.

One point in the People’s Plan concerning dismissal was to “Establish an expedited hearing and appeals process.”    What “expedited” means was not specified by ESN, and because it was so vague, it was virtually impossible to discuss in a reasonable manner.  Another point was “Allow cause for dismissal to be lack of available, applicable positions.”  Does this mean a district can decide a certain teaching position is no longer necessary and then dismiss that teacher, even if that teacher has been there 15 years?  That certainly seems to allow for arbitrary firings–and furthermore, this dismissal process will be ‘expedited’?

Teachers who are not doing their job should not remain in the classroom, but due process should be followed in dismissal.  However, teachers are in a relatively public position, open to criticism by many, and if teachers have no job security, no one will want to be a teacher.  We are already having a hard enough time recruiting great new teachers.

During the next discussion round, I was at the Teacher Evaluation table.   Much of the ‘People’s Plan’ was supportive of many parts of the Washington’s Teacher Principal Evaluation Pilot, which is a good thing.  However, while TPEP seems to focus on whole teacher evaluation, much of the People’s Plan focused on “measures” which seemed to mean test scores. The ESN coalition would have a statewide panel “identify appropriate measures in untested subject and grades.”  In other states, this has resulted in extreme amounts of testing and some ludicrous testing requirements in subjects like physical education which would tie PE teacher evaluations to the health of their students.  Not only teachers would be evaluated by test scores—schools and districts are included as well: The People’s Plan depends on implementing a “growth model to compare student learning gains across the state, disaggregated for individual classrooms, schools, and districts.”

I didn’t have a chance to participate in other discussions, such as that at the Teacher Compensation table. The People’s Plan starts off on a nice note, stating, “increase beginning teachers’ salaries to make the profession more appealing to newcomers.”  However, apparently after you get that new higher beginning salary, that’s all you’re going to get, because it also suggests to “remove the salary enhancement for master’s degrees.”  National Board Certification is also not included in the People’s Plan.  Teaching is an education profession.   Shouldn’t higher education and professional development be encouraged?

Instead of the current salary allocation model, ESN proposed an amorphous four step “career ladder” but never described it with any detail, so I can’t comment on it.

Even worse than some of the vague language was the doublespeak.  In a prime example, the People’s Plan has a section concerning the establishment of “transformation zones.”  Close reading reveals that “transformation zone” actually seems to mean “charter school.”  How are these “zones” going to be “transformed”?  Through the reduction and elimination of collective bargaining, of course.   The People’s Plan states: “All schools in Zones will be expected to renegotiate or request waivers from union contracts in order to meet the needs of students in their building.”  Can’t student needs be met through working with teachers?  Wisconsin, here we come!

On a personal note, many of the ESN coalition organizations were very vocal in last year’s legislative session in wanting to maintain the science assessment graduation requirement for the class of 2013.  Maintaining the requirement would have meant students would be responsible for two completely different sets of science standards in their high school career–an injustice.  Students who did not pass a science exam would have had to pass a biology end-of-course exam.  This end-of-course exam would not have been given at the end of their biology course, but instead, a full year later.  This defied common sense.

Rather than address these logical issues, the ESN coalition members’ entire argument was that delaying the science requirement was lowering standards for our students.  Holding students responsible for a test, even when that test makes no sense, is not, in my opinion, a valid way to have high standards.  Conversely, advocating for a delay so that a more fair test can be administered is not the same as advocating for lower standards. Their argument left me personally offended.

The Excellent Schools Now People’s Plan seems to follow in the same vein as their science assessment arguments last year–rather than cooperation with teachers, there seems to be a pattern of suspicion and blame.  Inviting a few teachers to a forum to provide input on a legislative agenda, as ESN did last week, is a good start.  Seeking input from even more teachers, and then honestly considering that feedback and incorporating it, would be an even better next step.  The only way to reform education in Washington state is to work with teachers, not against them.

The Personal is Political, and My Feet Didn’t Even Reach the Floor

This year’s legislative session is over, and all around the state, local schools are now dealing with the effects of the state budget.  Looking back at decisions the legislators made, teachers have had a range of reactions.  Many teachers, thinking about the immediate local repercussions, and also thinking ahead to next year’s legislative session, have vowed, “We’ll make our voice heard.” Even in the past week, I have heard this more and more as teachers have brainstormed a number of ways to get our messages out.

How do we make our voices heard?  Through communication with our communities. When thinking of community, we should think both big and small, both local and state.  Our local communities need to understand the impact decisions are having, and our decision makers need input from teachers in order to make well informed choices.  

In communicating, our personal stories can make our political points clear.  The personal is political: it is our personal stories from the classroom that can inform and sway decisions affecting education. What’s my point here?  Let’s get out there and send our messages.  How am I going to make that point? By telling a personal story.

Earlier this spring, I drove down to Olympia.  This was to be a two day mission.  The first day, a team effort: another teacher from my district and I would meet personally with each of our three legislators to discuss full funding of teaching and learning.   The second day, I would testify before a legislative committee about changing the science assessment graduation requirement.

I had been to Olympia previously, of course—I have lived in Washington my entire life.  My previous legislative building experience, however, was somewhat limited.  My most vivid memory from under the dome was as a fourth grader, standing around George Washington’s shiny bronze face on the floor with a tour group, my brother daring me to put a foot under the velvet rope and plant it straight on George’s nose.  I don’t think I listened to my brother then, but I was certainly more respectful this time under the rotunda!  We were there on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the other teacher had actually watched his “I have a dream” speech in person as a child.  It seemed fitting to celebrate MLK day by advocating for education.

I have to admit that I was somewhat nervous about coming with my own message to meet face to face with lawmakers.  However, the issues were important, and I was excited to go!  I met the other teacher from my district in the Dome Deli—the legislative building cafeteria.  We went over our message, and then it was time for our first meeting.  Up a stairs and through a door, we found ourselves in a much fancier cafeteria than the Dome Deli.  It was full of serious looking people in dark suits.  Oops!  The sign above read, “House Locker Room.”  It certainly bore no resemblance to my high school’s locker room—we were in the private quarters of the House.  Yes, it could have been the ideal lobbying opportunity given the number of representatives present, but we figured we better find the fastest way out.  We tried the door—some sort of automatic locking mechanism prevented our exit.  One of the representatives pointed to a discrete button off to the right, and we were out.

Up the other stairs, across the senate floor, and through a rabbit warren maze of grey marble we made our way to our first meeting.   As soon as we were in the senator’s office, all anxiety eased and we were ready to talk.  The other teacher and I shared our positions on K-12 funding, National Board Certification, and science assessment.  The senator was definitely not in full agreement and asked a very pointed question.  The other teacher and I related some classroom anecdotes.  Guess what?  He really liked the point our stories made.  He related them to an issue in his own children’s education, and said it gave him something to think about. 

Next, we rushed down the stairs and out to a portable in the parking lot to meet a representative.  Yes, the legislature has portables, and they are no different from the portables at any school.  We chatted with the representative about a mutual acquaintance and shared our stories and issues.  Finally, back up to the fourth floor of the legislative building to meet the final representative.  He had an intern shadowing him for the day.  There was lots of friendly chatting with both the intern and the representative—this legislator seemed to be in almost complete agreement with everything we said. 

My plan for the next day, to testify before a legislative committee, was more formal and came with a slightly higher level of anxiety.  The day of individual meetings with legislators, however, without a doubt helped me feel more at ease.  I had also attended a committee meeting the day before to get a feel for the situation. 

The committee room was long and thin, and several hundred people gathered in it—a major budget hearing was also on the room’s agenda for the day.  The front of the room was dominated by the tall stair step dais and the seated legislators.  At the top level of the dais sat the chairperson.  With a rap of the gavel, the Chair brought the meeting to order, and this Chair ran a tight meeting. 

My turn came.  I was seated in front of the room at a table at the base of the dais, looking up at the committee.  Instead of the old fashioned large hook on a long pole to get people off the stage, a three way light was off to the side—green meant go ahead and talk, yellow meant hurry up, and red meant it’s over.  The TVW cameras and microphones were going. 

There was one issue—I am rather short.  The chair was too big for me, and my feet did not reach the floor!  Sitting there with my feet swinging below me, looking up to the top of the dais, I felt just like a little kid.  I thought about trying to adjust it, but we have a similar chair at home, and every time I try to adjust that one, the seat swings up and pushes me forward.  I did not want to launch myself out of my chair in front of the gathered crowd, so I just let it be.  I tried not to fidget too much in the oversize chair during my testimony—but next time I think I’ll just take the time to adjust it! 

Overall, the testimony went well.  At one point, I said I supported a certain elected official’s position on science assessment.  The stern chairperson interrupted me, looking rather severe, “Excuse me, Ms. Johnson…” and explained that this meeting was not the time to support or oppose specific bills—it was rather for more general positions.  Well, OK then—clearly it was time to convey my message through classroom stories.  I regained my composure and went on.  The legislators asked me a number of questions at the end, and I came back the following week to testify at a similar hearing.

My impression of the two days?  It was fun.  Definitely a new experience and I learned a lot.  I also felt as though what we were doing was making a positive difference for education in Washington state.  Legislators seemed very interested in hearing from classroom teachers.  I think our local communities are as well.  I believe our voice can be heard—we just need to speak out!

Thinking about National Board Certification? Now’s the time!

The state legislature is supportive, OSPI has opened up applications for their conditional loan (closes May 18), and the WEA is now registering people for Jump Start, their fabulous summer seminar that will get you on your way! If National Board certification has been in the back of your mind, now might be the time to pursue it. National Board Certification is a rigorous professional development program which focuses on making a positive impact on student learning.

Why do it?

Teaching and Learning Benefits:

  • Positive impact on student learning
  • Improved professional practice
  • Personal challenge
  • Backed by extensive independent research

Certification Benefits:

  • Replaces state teaching certificate (no clock hour requirement!)
  • Can be done instead of ProCert/ProTeach
  • If you have a residency certificate, that certificate can be renewed for the full three years you may be a National Board candidate to allow for retakes
  • 45 clock hours for completing process; 45 more upon certification; many more for attending support programs

Financial Benefits:

  • $5090 annual stipend for 10 years and can be renewed
  • The stipend is $3054 the first year a teacher certifies–it is prorated because certification happens partway through the school year
  • Pensionable: $1527 extra annually (depending on years of service) in defined benefit portion of the Teachers’ Retirement System for duration of retirement
    (1 percent X $5090 X 30 years service credit = $1527)

What is it?

4 entries, April 1-March 31 timeline:

  • One entry on assessment practice and analyzing student work
  • Two video based entries—usually one small group and one whole class
  • One entry documenting impact on student learning by the teacher as a learner, the teacher as a collaborator/leader, and the teacher as communicator with parents and community
  • 6 assessment exercises. These are 30 minutes each and are completed in one day at an assessment center.
  • Take One! Program. You have the option of completing one portfolio entry a year before you complete the rest, allowing you to spread the work over more time and make sure the process is right for you before you do the whole thing.

What support is available?

  • District/University support programs: get feedback on papers/videos from a trained facilitator, give and receive peer feedback, required by state loan.
  • Conditional loan from OSPI. Applications are due May 18. This is a no interest loan that is paid back out of the first year’s stipend. It is for $2000. The candidate is responsible for the other $500 of the NBPTS registration fee.
  • OSPI will pay (as a scholarship) for two retakes; priority given to state loan recipients
  • National scholarships.
  • WEA Jump Start and Home Stretch. Need based scholarships are available. Great seminars from our state teachers’ union to help you through the process.

What are the next steps?

  • Choose a certificate area.
  • Read the “Assessment at a Glance” document for an overview of requirements and sample questions
  • Look at the National Board teaching standards and see how they are reflected in your own classroom!

How about that state education budget?

Our state legislature is now in special session.  Their main goal?  Come to agreement on a budget.  It’s not all about the money, however.  Policy bills that have long since died in committee have been resurrected at the beginning of this special session as NTIB, or necessary to implement the budget.

Here’s my take on a few of the budget highlights, (or lowlights as the case may be) and some of the policy embedded in it.

Compensation and Certification:

Salaries: The house proposes freezing step increases for years of experience and education completed, cutting $56 million.  The senate proposes a 3% reduction in state funding for salaries, cutting $261 million.  In a true case of passing the buck without passing along any money, the senate then leaves it up to local districts to negotiate the details of making this 3% cut work.  The governor proposes a 1.9% decrease instead of the senate’s 3%, saying teachers have already had a 1.1% cut from the loss of LID days.

Given that the house cuts so much less overall than the senate, the house proposal seems preferable, right?  Well, probably.  However, the value of master’s degrees and years of teaching experience has been hotly debated in our state and around the nation this spring. While no legislation on this passed this year, it is definitely being considered for the future. The senate did pass HB1443, sponsored by Senator Rodney Tom, which establishes a work group to study “how to reduce the number of tiers within the existing salary allocation model.”  Earlier this year he proposed limiting the number of years of experience on the salary schedule to eight, and limiting salary increases for masters degrees to math and science teachers.

Teaching is the only profession I know of where you are expected to work the last 15 years of your career with no hope of a raise.  Also, shouldn’t all teachers be encouraged to improve their practice through further education?  If salary steps are frozen while a workgroup studies reducing them permanently, that paves the way for future legislation.  How are outstanding new teachers ever going to be attracted to the profession with such a system?

Cost of Living Allowances:  A bill with the fun title of “Reducing Compensation for Educational Employees” would suspend the COLAs for another two years.  The house, senate, and governor plan to do this.  The COLA, initiative 732, was approved by voters in 2000, but has now been suspended for 4 years.

National Board Certification is a rigorous professional development program which focuses on making  a positive impact on student learning.  About 10% of teachers in Washington are nationally certified. Stipends for National Board Certification have been in place in Washington state since 1999.  Losing this stipend would be an approximate 10% pay cut to a teacher in the middle of the salary schedule, ON TOP OF all the other pay cuts faced by teachers this year.  The house would more or less keep them intact, the senate would make severe cuts, and the governor would suspend these completely.

Curently, it is free to renew a continuing (clock hour) certificate.  HB 1449 would impose a processing fee for this and other certification events.  This bill has passed the house and may soon pass the senate.  If you need to renew, right now might be the time!

Teacher Evaluation:

The Teacher Principal Evaluation Pilot (TPEP) was instituted last year by our legislature, and will be fully implemented in the 2013-14 school year.  With increasing class sizes, and decreasing school resources and salaries, should teachers be held to new and possibly higher standards?  Should money be spent on piloting a new evaluation system?  Well, my initial response to these two questions was a resounding “No,” but on further reflection I think my answer is probably “Yes.”

Why? Our previous evaluation system was over 25 years old and needed to be overhauled.  Some of the old categories such as “Interest in teaching students” were ambiguous and seemed difficult to assess.  In addition, there has been an extremely high level of collaboration between teachers, principals, superintendents, school boards, OSPI, and communities in developing this new system.  It would be a shame to put an end to the cooperation and work that has taken place so far.  I still have serious concerns, however, with the new criterion of “using multiple student data elements” especially when that is defined as “change in student achievement between two points in time.”  It will be interesting to see how the pilot districts deal with this.

The governor would maintain the TPEP program, while the senate would expand the number of pilot districts. The house would offer incentive grants to early adopting districts.

Senator Rodney Tom’s HB1443 amendment again rears its ugly head with teacher evaluation.  This bill would RIF teachers by evaluation, starting this year.  However, the new evaluation system is not yet even in place!  Districts are still using the old evaluation system that everyone agrees needs to be replaced, and teachers would be RIFed under this old system.  Is our old evaluation system up to this RIF task?

Using evaluations for RIFing would undermine the collaborative work that has been accomplished to date on the new teacher evaluation system.  1443 restricts collective bargaining rights; local policies regarding RIFs would be superseded by a one-size-fits-all plan for the entire state.  Districts already have procedures in place for removing low performing teachers–if those procedures are not working, then they should be modified.  If a teacher does not fulfill their duties and then is unwillling or unable to improve, then they should not be in our schools.  However, due process should be followed when a teacher is terminated, and a RIF action should not be a substitute for this.

So HB1443 passed the senate, but does it have a chance when it heads back to the house for approval of the amendments?  Bills with more extreme versions of these evaluation/RIF/salary ideas made little headway in the house earlier in the session, but we’ll see what kind of support 1443 has.

Student Assessment:

Science Assessment: The House Education Committee is hearing a substitute to HB 1410 on Monday, May 9.  Will there be a biology end of course exam or a comprehensive science test next year?  If the test is comprehensive, will earth science be given the boot?  How about the sophomores I have in class right now–do they or do they not need to have passed the science HSPE they took in April to graduate?  One possibility is requiring students who fail it to take a third year of science–but many districts may not have the appropriate course offerings, staffing, or resources for this.  If there are so many questions and uncertainty regarding this exam, why is it all being carried out in such a high stakes environment?

The HB1443 chimera doesn’t stop at dealing with teacher salaries, evaluation, and RIFs.  It goes on to science assessment, proposing an as yet unwritten comprehensive test for next year, and an expensive third year science requirement for students who fail the test.

WAKids:  Standardized testing for the young’uns?  Well–sort of.  This standardized kindergarten readiness assessment is intended to inform instruction, and passed the house and senate.  It would only be required in state-funded full day kindergartens.  The bigger question:  When will the state fund full day kindergarten?

Special Ed assessment:  HB1519 modifies the assessment (the WAAS) for students with significant cognitive disabilities so that it can more closely match an individual student’s IEP goals.  Supported by OSPI and the WEA, passed by the legislature, signed by the governor.

Math: The number of math end-of-course exams required for graduation by this year’s sophomores and freshmen was reduced from 2 to 1.  Good for the students and also saves money.  Passed and signed.

Class size: Both the house and senate would eliminate K-4 class size funding and I-728 money.

What’s Next?

The May 15 RIF deadline is almost here–however, HB 2110 is being heard May 9, and would extend the RIF deadline to June 15.  It would be difficult, but not impossible, for this bill to pass in time to affect this school year, but this would allow for implementation of Senator Tom’s RIF by evaluation amendment.  What is truly terrible is that RIFs will happen, however and whenever they do, leaving us with fewer teachers for our students.

It’s not all up to the legislators.  Washington voters passed I-1053 last November, which requires a two-thirds majority of the legislature to even make minor changes in the amount of taxes.  This allows a minority to veto the decisions of the majority.  A budget has two parts: expenses and revenue.  Both must be examined in order to provide a fully functioning education system. Washington state educators need to make their opinions heard, through their voice and through their votes.

Washington State Science Assessment: What’s the plan?

Current state law requires sophomores to pass the science high school proficiency exam to graduate. What’s the issue, you say?

Students who do not pass the high school proficiency exam this year will be required to pass the biology end of course exam next year, one full year after most of these students have taken biology. The end of course exam is designed to be taken at the end of a course, not the following year.

The biology exam will cover the new 2009 state science standards. The current high school proficiency exam covers the old 2005 standards. This means that within their high school career, many students in our state will be held responsible for two sets of standards and two different tests. This is unjust!

The biology end-of-course exam is going to be introduced next school year in a very high stakes fashion—it must be passed to graduate. It takes time for teachers to adequately prepare for such a new exam—curriculum must be modified; classroom activities must be aligned. This year, however, we had an equally new, equally high stakes, yet completely different exam to prepare for: the science high school proficiency exam. Then, after only one year, this science exam is going to be abandoned and replaced by the biology end of course exam.

Implementing this new science graduation requirement would cost 19.4 million dollars according to a fiscal note prepared by the Office of Financial Management. At a time when our state is unable to fulfill its paramount duty to fund basic education, should we be spending money on a flawed science assessment system?

But where are we going? Our state legislators may have finally heard and responded to some of these concerns. What are their plans?

Three days before tenth graders took the science HSPE, the house passed their budget, which included a proposal to delay the the science assessment graduation requirement for the next biennium. Reasonable, I say. Postponing the graduation requirement would allow for transition between the 2005 and 2009 standards, and would allow teachers to align their courses to the new standards before the assessment becomes high stakes.

Then, on the day of the science HSPE, literally as the sophomores were writing in their assessment booklets, the senate not only introduced their budget proposal, but also passed legislation relating to science.

An amendment to E2SHB 1443 was proposed and passed right there on the senate floor. If students do not pass the science HSPE, they must take a third year of science or a CTE equivalent. The problem: how are schools supposed to create, fund, and staff this third year course on such short notice? Because only two years of science are required for graduation, many schools currently have a sparse selection of third year science/CTE equivalent classes. The existent third year courses may not be the best match for a student who just failed the HSPE.

An even greater problem: The 1443 senate science amendment states, “OSPI must administer a comprehensive science high school assessment and shall not implement any high school science end-of-course assessments.” Here’s the deal: OSPI has already spent time, money, and resources preparing biology end-of-course exams aligned to the new standards! Because these are brand new standards, I am not sure that assessment questions aligned to the physical and earth science standards even exist. If they do not, when would there be an occasion to pilot them before next year’s spring exam administration, as there are no large scale exams scheduled between now and then?

The new high school science standards are designed to be taught over three years. The 1443 senate science amendment would have a comprehensive exam administered after just two years. We can not teach three years worth of standards in only two years, so something must be cut. The standards cover three disciplines: biology, earth science, and physical science. Should one of these be eliminated completely? Should only parts of each discipline be taught? There are no easy answers to these questions, and meanwhile the assessment is high stakes. Following the house plan to delink the graduation requirement from the assessment while these issues are resolved just makes sense.

Our alternate futures: As the special session started this week, assessment bills that had long since died in committee were revived as NTIB, or necessary to implement the budget. Here’s a rundown on the possibilities:

HB 1410/ SB 5226: Request legislation from OSPI. This bill would delay the science assessment graduation requirement for three years. In the meantime, a biology end-of-course exam would be administered. Other end-of-course exams in physical science and integrated science (including earth science) would be phased in over time. Students would have to pass one to graduate. Having several end-of-course exams available would allow more local decision making in terms of class offerings.

HB 1330: Originally this bill dealt with modifications to both math and science requirements. Then, the entire contents was gutted and replaced with language referring exclusively to math. Only the title, “Adjusting high school assessments as graduation requirements,” was left intact. In the intervening period, separate math legislation passed the legislature and was signed by the governor. With such a broad title, the language of the bill could be replaced again with almost anything relating to assessment.

HB 1463: The truly revolutionary alternative. Representative John McCoy, Tulalip, is the prime sponsor of this bill that would eliminate the use of statewide assessments in all subject areas as graduation requirements. With our state and school districts suffering from severe financial constraints, with discussions of reducing the length of the school year, do we really want to spend our money and class time on testing, or do we want to spend these valuable resources on teaching and learning?

Note: I first wrote portions of this as a guest post for the Center for Strenthening the Teaching Profession’s blog, Stories from School, and for testimony to the state’s House Education Committe which Al Gonzalez so kindly posted on his blog.

Building a Stinkin’ Community

I’m going to start out my first post on this blog by looking back to one of my most vivid classroom lab experiences ever.  One year ago in my chemistry class, we were making soap.  This was the real deal–we started from scratch and used nothing but fat and lye to make soap the way people around the world have been making it for thousands of years.

It was right before Mother’s Day, and many of the students had high hopes of presenting their mothers with a handcrafted gift of soap.  They spent several days working on cardboard soap molds shaped like stars, hearts, and even a guitar mold made by a talented student musician.

Anticipation was high the day of the soap making itself.  Students bring in their own sources of fat–most bring in things like Crisco, coconut oil or lard.  Last year, however, the vast majority of students brought in butter. After the butter was melted, it was time to add the sodium hydroxide (lye).  Students pour the soft soap into their molds, and it hardens over a few days.

The trouble started quite quickly.  A student working with my personal favorite hot plate was a bit impatient and turned the thing up to high.  This hot plate really cooks, so the “high” setting led to boiling over of the fatty sodium hydroxide solution onto the hot plate surface.  Students at nearby lab stations noticed an acrid burning odor.

The acrid burning odor got worse–it turned into one of the most foul scents there has ever been in my chemistry lab.  It was like rancid butter, but far worse.  The sticky mess continued to bubble on the hot plate surface, and over the control knobs.   I grabbed a hot mitt to turn it off–I got the hot plate turned off, but now the mitt was covered with the putrid substance.  We opened windows and turned on exhaust fans.  Let’s admit it–this smell was bad.  When organic chemistry goes wrong, it is not pleasant on the nose. Amid the colorful student comments concerning the odor, one student said, “I feel like I might vomit.” Another student noted, “I wish someone would vomit–that might actually make it smell better in here.”

Meanwhile, a few lab stations over, the aspiring musician was pouring his solution into his guitar mold.  His mold was not well constructed, and the weight of the solution caused the whole thing to collapse, spilling the greasy smelly mess all over the counter and the floor.   Wanting to be helpful, the student grabbed a pile of hot mitts and used them to soak up the liquid–we now had a pile of stinky hot mitts.

I was getting out the chemical spill kit to deal with the rest of the mess when the door opened.  Perfect–it’s the assistant principal in my room for an unannounced walk through!  I mumbled a few words of explanation, a bit chagrinned by the three ring circus of chaos that was unfolding.  “But looking at classrooms is much more authentic this way!” he assured me as he sidestepped a mess on the floor.

Some students had actually filled their molds with solution and were putting them away in a cabinet. I went back to see how they looked.  Much to my consternation, one student had clearly made a bar of soap shaped and colored like a psychedelic mushroom.  This was completely inappropriate for school and I would not tolerate something like this in my classroom.  I went about trying to find the perpetrator.  After a few inquiries, I had a suspect.  It wasn’t a student who I would normally associate with such nefarious behavior, but one never knows.  I asked the student what he thought he was doing making such a thing at school.  He protested his innocence.  Holding the alleged magic mushroom up to himself, he said, “But Ms. Johnson, I was just trying to make a piece of soap that looked like the sweater I was wearing today!”

I examined the sweater.  I examined the soap.  Sure enough, they were a close match.  How was I supposed to know the sides of the mushroom were actually sweater sleeves?  This student’s collection of sweaters was a standing joke at school, and he had decided that the especially colorful and fuzzy sweater he had on today was worth memorializing in soap. 
The lab ended and we got most of the place cleaned up.

Lessons learned?  Well, we won’t be making soap from butter again!  Sodium hydroxide breaks down the fats, the triglycerides, into three fatty acids.  A sodium ion then combines with a fatty acid to form a soap molecule.  When you use butter as the source of fat, and then apply too much heat, the fatty acid is broken down even further to butyric acid, the chemical providing the odor in both rancid butter and vomit.

Did we actually have any product to show for our efforts? No–instead we had a stinking mess!   What did we get?  Well, hopefully the students got a vivid mental hook to hang some of their ideas on both about lab safety and the chemical reactions involved.

More than that, we had a strong shared experience in chemistry class.  Maybe we all stank, but at least we stank together!  The most well-designed lesson ever will go nowhere unless it is built on a positive classroom climate, and common experiences provide that.  The social media project that this blog is a part of is all about expanding our community beyond our school.  To do that well, we first need to make sure that we have strong relationships with the people we see every day.

It’s a tough time in our state.  It’s a tough time in our district.  Let’s make sure we capitalize on our shared experiences to build that sense of community.