I want to be gentle here because I'm sure this is important to someone.
On Tuesday the House Education Committee easily passed a bill to strike the term “achievement gap” from state law books and replace it with “educational opportunity gap.”
This was a recommendation of the Achievement Gap Oversight and Accountability Committee, which will, if House Bill 1669 becomes law, be renamed the Educational Opportunity Gap Oversight and Accountability Committee.
The rationale seems to be that terming the difference in test scores between racial and ethnic students and white students an “achievement gap” suggests the problem is with the students. Calling it an “educational opportunity gap,” demonstrates that it is the fault of the system.
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I guess there’s no harm in such a change. But it says something about priorities that on the same day the committee found time for what is at best a terminology issue, it carved out just 20 minutes to hear a substantive bill at the heart of education reform.
House Bill 1609 would change how teachers are chosen for layoffs when money gets tight or when enrollments drop.
Currently, school districts use seniority – last hired, first fired. It benefits from clarity and predictability, but ignoring classroom effectiveness doesn’t always benefit the students.
Under the bill, districts would use teacher evaluations to decide how to reduce staff, using seniority only to break ties.
Love it or hate it, teacher evaluation is a topic that something calling itself an education committee should discuss. Especially one controlled by the same party as President Obama, who has placed it on his school reform agenda.
But the hearing on the bill sounded like an audition for the next Chipmunks movie, with 17 witnesses rapidly saying what they needed to say in less than a minute each. If they failed, they were cut off by Chairwoman Sharon Tomiko Santos, sometimes in mid-sentence.
Sure, legislators have many bills and little time. But this particular committee spent more than an hour earlier this month on a bill to repeal all test-related graduation requirements. This age-old debate was deemed necessary even though it won’t come to a vote, wouldn’t attract 30 votes in the Legislature if it did and would be vetoed in less time than witnesses were given Tuesday.
The arguments on the layoffs bill settled on either side of this divide – the education community including teachers unions, principals and school administrators were opposed; school reform groups were in favor.
Opponents said that while the state is pushing districts to improve their evaluation systems to give them rigor, the job isn’t nearly done. Placing high stakes on a work in progress puts a negative tint on what has been a collaborative process.
It should be noted, however, that while the Washington Education Association relies on the timing argument, it is unlikely to support abandoning seniority even after new evaluation systems are in place.
Proponents said it makes no sense to leave weak teachers on the job and lay off better teachers simply because of seniority. Rep. Eric Pettigrew, the prime sponsor, said the poorest students like those in his South Seattle district suffer more disruption from seniority layoffs because they tend to have the youngest teachers.
For Pettigrew, effective teachers are an achievement gap issue (until HB 1669 passes anyway).
Backers argue that without consequences such as pay, layoffs and retention, the new evaluation system won’t be taken seriously.
Some legislators are trying to make the bill more palatable to opponents, and it would probably pass if it came to a vote. But the bill does not appear to have much push from Democratic leaders such as House Speaker Frank Chopp. There doesn’t appear to be an appetite in a session marked by budget cuts and layoffs to take on the WEA over seniority.
But at least the House had a hearing – belated and brief though it was. The Senate has not found time to even discuss its version of the bill.