Graduation Requirements, Unfunded Mandates, and the Spectre of All biology All the time

The State Board of Education recently increased the number of academic credits required for graduation.  This is an unfunded mandate: no additional money is being provided to schools to meet this requirement.  At the same time, the number of elective requirements was reduced.  Increasing the number of academic requirements while reducing the number of elective credits takes students out of classes they are passionate about and could have a huge detrimental effect on music and art!

This narrowing of the curriculum from flexible elective choice to more specific required courses is mirrored in the state’s move from a broad area science exam to a single test in biology.   These  issues are not yet resolved, and they could be acted on as necessary to implement the budget (NTIB) as they are changes that would both improve student learning AND save money.   I recently testified to the House Education and Senate K-12 Committees in Olympia.

Here’s what I had to say:

At Chimacum, we have an outstanding science department. We as teachers hold our students and ourselves to high standards.  We have a new class this year, Materials Science: students investigate questions like, “Why are airplanes now made of carbon fiber composites instead of the traditional aluminum?”  Students work on projects such as exploring various methods of heat treating to make steel stronger.  In our Middle School, students test the water quality of our local creek and then blog about the results.  In my class, chemistry students used column chromatography to separate green fluorescent protein from bacteria.  The most difficult, but also the most rewarding part of the experience is trying to integrate the biology, chemistry, and the technology involved.

These classes are successful because they integrate science, technology, engineering, and math—STEM. However, our current state graduation requirements are not conducive to such experiences. Instead of providing for an integrated STEM experience, what our state requires is a number of discrete credits and an end-of-course exam that is limited to biology. 

Increasing the number of academic requirements while reducing the number of elective credits takes students out of classes they are passionate about, such as music, art, materials science, or Career and Technical Education and puts them into yet another required class.  Each additional credit required reduces student choice and school flexibility to provide creative course offerings.  Requiring more credits without providing the commensurate funding makes it extraordinarily difficult to give students a quality education.

In addition, the increasing and ever changing complexity of the graduation requirements themselves detracts from the schools’ mission to improve student learning.  At my school, each teacher also has an advisory consisting of a mixed group of students from freshmen to seniors.  To help us track the progress of our advisory students, our principal regularly sends out a spreadsheet showing which students have met which requirements.  With culminating projects, credits, high school proficiency exams, and end-of-course exams, the number of columns in that graduation requirement spreadsheet grows and grows each year.   The complexity of the task of tracking all of this is as daunting as the length of the line of students outside the counselors’ office seeking assistance.  Instead of spending our time working on improving student learning, we are spending time checking boxes and counting credits!

The most powerful STEM teaching and learning experiences at my school have been integrated and creative. This year, I have an ambitious plan for my students to try to determine how closely related two local salmon species are using protein electrophoresis—the biotechnology equipment is borrowed from a local research institution.

So do we put all this hoping and dreaming for our classes aside so we can focus on counting credits and preparing students for a standardized test solely in biology?

By offering an end-of-course exam only in biology, our state is forcing an emphasis on biology to the detriment of other disciplines in science.  This problem is exacerbated by making this exam high stakes, as it will be for this year’s freshmen.  Making the new biology end-of-course exam a graduation requirement is expensive, as the high stakes nature will incur costs for retakes, remediation, and rescoring.

The biology end-of-course exam is the only high school science exam that has been developed for the current state science standards.  With the severe budget cuts that are being made, our state simply does not have the money to develop end-of-course exams in physical, earth, and space science or to create a new integrated science exam.   It also does not make sense to put resources into developing new state exams when the national Next Generation Science Standards, based on the Science Frameworks, are going to be released for adoption consideration this fall.  We should not invest in a brand new state science assessment graduation requirement now when we will have a completely different new national science test in just a few years.

A high stakes biology EOC is harmful to earth, space, and physical science education in the state of Washington because it forces schools to emphasize biology to the detriment of other science disciplines.  Some schools offer integrated science only–a one size fits all biology end-of-course exam is not fair to these students.  This spring, as schools make plans for next year, they may divert staff and resources away from the critical disciplines of physical, earth, and space science because biology is the only requirement. It is therefore urgent to alleviate this problem by delinking the biology EOC from graduation requirements.

The biology end-of-course exam should not be a high stakes graduation requirement. We want students to enjoy learning; we want to light that fire and instill that student drive and motivation.  Eliminating the graduation requirement condition of the Biology End-of-Course exam is a change that would not hurt student learning.  Instead, it would support teachers and allow more funding to provide our students with a high quality, integrated STEM learning experience.

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Key bills to support related to these issues:

Senate Bill 6314: Delink end-of-course biology exam from graduation requirements
House Bill 2231: Reducing costs by reducing student assessments
House Bill 2492, House Bill 2543, Senate Bill 6320: Fiscal Impact of State Board of Education requirements

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.