Politics & Government

State OKs new school improvement plan

SEATTLE - After three years of research and discussion, the state Board of Education on Monday approved a new way to identify failing schools and manage their improvement.

Under the new process, districts with schools in the bottom 5 percent of a new accountability index would have a required performance audit and must start an improvement plan.

The accountability index measures math and reading test scores and graduation rates and focuses on improvement, not just one year of test results. It also will be used for state recognition of schools making the most improvement.

The state’s previous school improvement efforts under the federal No Child Left Behind law were optional. This process would be optional in 2010 and mandatory in 2011 if approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor. Its chances of passage were not immediately known.

The new program would put Washington on par with what most other states are doing about failing schools.

Edie Harding, the state board’s executive director, described the new program as a whole school approach to change, not just changing one thing as has been done in the past.

“We want it to be a transformative process,” she said, adding, “We stop short of a state takeover.”

Harding said the districts with schools that will land on the new improvement list likely know who they are.

“Some of the lowest 5 percent have made attempts to improve and have not been successful,” said board member Kristina Mayer, an educational consultant from Port Townsend.

She said some districts have not chosen to make changes, so the state board is acting on behalf of the children in those schools.

There would also be consequences for not embracing reform, ranging from mediation or binding arbitration to a redirection of federal dollars away from a school.

And unlike some previous reform mandates, this time there will be money to help the districts.

The improvement process was designed to fit a federal program offering $42.5 million to assist schools through the process. Districts will have to choose from four federal improvement plans to qualify for the money.

Mayer said one of the unique elements of Washington’s school improvement plan is the community involvement. Public hearings and input from teachers, parents and other constituents are required before a school board decides which reform plan to pursue.

Washington state intervention in failing schools is all about collaboration, Mayer emphasized after Monday’s board meeting.

“It’s about people working together,” she said.

The four federal school improvement plans also include:

 • Closing failing schools and transferring students to another school in the district where the students are high-achieving.

 • Restarting a failing school by reopening the building as a charter school, which is not allowed in Washington, or by reopening the building under an education management organization, which would be directed by the school board, unlike a charter school, which is independent of school board control.

 • Employing one of two models called the turnaround and transformation plans. Each would require school leadership to be replaced, a new curriculum plan, a review of all teachers on staff, and high-quality professional development for staff, among other requirements.