Opinion

SB 5328 will do nothing to improve the status quo

By JAMES U. BEHREND

Regarding Senate Bill 5328:

In war, the generals and political leader are held responsible for success or failure of a battle. Nobody would blame the troops for a Waterloo, Stalingrad, or Dien Bien Phu. However, in education, the teachers fighting in the trenches of learning are always and exclusively blamed for a student’s failure. And, if Senate Bill 5328 passes, an “accountability index” will award “non-performing” schools and teachers a big scarlet letter “A”.

SB 5328 plans to establish a “School Grading Program” based on the progress a school makes. This seems like a sensible idea. Students should operate and test on their grade level, and teachers, just like the politicians, should represent the cream of the crop. The reality, however, is different.

Teachers, already working 60 to 70 hours, must educate 150 highly individual teenagers of dissimilar academic abilities and interests.

According to state Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, only 76 percent of our students graduate (The Seattle Times, Feb. 8). Who was teaching these 76 percent? And what were the other 24 percent doing while obviously some teaching and learning was going on?

The problem with SB 5328 is that the sponsors apply a business approach of measurable productivity to teaching. However, while there are incompetent teachers and administrators, the system’s deficiency is not the teachers’ fault.

SB 5328 sees a student as some object that can be shaped into usefulness, like a tree into 2 by 4s. SB 5328 expects teachers to do the shaping, even if the “raw material” does not cooperate, lacks essential ingredients, or may not even be present to participate in the shaping.

Senators, the essence of a human being is different from an inorganic substance. A child has a soul, and potential, and some strong non-conformist genes. Have you ever tried to get your kids to do something they do not want to do? Multiply this by 10 and you have a classroom.

In business, non-performers and disruptive and frequently absent employees are fired, and better people are hired. Schools don’t have that luxury.

The sponsors of SB 5328 also consider the teachers the exclusive source of students’ low scores and high dropout rates. They conveniently forget that the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the state Board of Education, the legislators, and district administrators write all education policies and laws that schools must follow. SB 5328 also overlooks the most important participants in the progress of education: students and parents.

We keep hearing that European and Asian students test higher than U.S. students. Why not find out why and how and what they are doing and borrow their best ideas?

Many European countries offer their students a several-track high school experience, including night high school. President Obama, in his 2013 State of the Union address, praised the German vocational high school system consisting of several tracks.

The state of Lower Saxony has, like Washington, some 7 million population, but it is divided into only four school districts; we have 295. Is that sensible from an educational and financial point of view? (The per-student cost in Germany is $4,682; in the U.S., $7,743).

Our legislators don’t really have a clue what’s going on in today’s classroom. I, too, had no idea either when I switched from being a business owner to teaching. I thought, like the SB 5328 sponsors, that I could convert 35 sophomores to 35 knowledgeable juniors.

How wrong I was! What I faced was a bit like Plato’s two realities: my World of Ideas clashed with the school’s World of Reality.

In my first year of teaching, I had 11 sophomores who did not finish junior high school (they tested on a fifth- to seventh-grade level). One student came with his own parole officer. One student went hunting for 10 days right after school began. Two students spoke no English. Ten percent of students were always missing school (more than 100 per day). Some 20 percent did not bother with homework.

In my last year of teaching, our classes were “mainstreamed.” I had special education students and AP kids in one room, to practice “Differentiated Instruction,” OSPI’s then-latest folly to raise productivity. The administration also introduced and abandoned again five major changes, and OSPI undermined standards with waivers, exemptions and equivalencies. That was the school reality.

SB 5328 is a simplistic solution to a complex problem. It will do nothing to improve the “status quo” Sen. Litzow is complaining about.

— James U. Behrend taught history at North Kitsap High School after owning a printing company in Seattle for 15 years. He lives on Bainbridge Island.

 

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