It’s Time for Washington to Commit to a 21st Century Education System for the 21st Century Economy

10/9/09

Every second year, the Technology Alliance gathers policymakers and leaders from the innovation community at a retreat designed to explore issues affecting Washington’s technology sector and to map out strategies to increase our state’s long-term competitiveness. We organize the retreat around what we call the “three drivers” of a vibrant innovation economy: excellent K-12 and higher education systems; strong research capacity at our public and private research institutions and companies; and a robust entrepreneurial climate that nurtures the growth of young startups generating new technologies, services and jobs in our state.

This year’s conversation was all about talent.

Much has been made by our organization and others about the need to increase our students’ college and work readiness; to improve science and math teaching and learning in our schools; and to invest in high-impact, high-demand programs at our public universities. These have been priorities of our organization and our partners in the innovation community for a long time. Now, it’s time to get serious. Washington is at a crossroads. We have the framework to enact meaningful education reform with the enactment of Senate Bill 2261, and the design of an important new tool to track student progress and teacher effectiveness through a longitudinal data system.

The latter is particularly important when one considers the data we heard at the retreat, and a lack of awareness on the part of many in our state who could help drive change. Here are just a few key points we heard during our retreat that everyone in this state should know:

• According to Postsecondary Opportunity, our education pipeline isn’t so much leaking as it is hemorrhaging: for every 100 students who start 9th grade, only 69 graduate from high school four years later; only 33 of those enter college the following fall; only 24 return sophomore year; and only 17 earn a four-year degree within 6 years of enrollment. We start with 100 high school freshmen, and we get 17 college graduates. Seventeen.

• Meanwhile, we were told that 80-90 percent of parents surveyed expect that their kids will get a bachelor’s degree. That is particularly sad when you remember that our high school graduation requirements do not, at present, align with the minimum requirements to enter our public baccalaureate institutions.

Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, shared sobering data on our performance internationally. We in the tech community know we are competing not just with other states but with the rest of the world. We don’t do well: in the 2006 PISA test given to 15-year-old students in 26 OECD countries, the United States ranked 22nd in mathematics and 19th in science.

• In higher education attainment, the U.S. is one of only two OECD nations (out of 30) in which today’s young people are less educated than their parents.

• Teacher quality matters more than anything else. Studies show a 10 percentile point difference in math achievement between students in the classroom of a top quartile teacher and a bottom quartile teacher. And, students who have two or three weak teachers in a row may never recover. Sadly, most teachers who are ineffective are not even aware of it because most current evaluations deliver little in the way of useful—or even accurate—information.

• Students in the lowest quartile make noticeable gains in achievement when placed in a challenging college prep curriculum, and have lower failure rates. As Kati Haycock put it, “These kids need to be accelerated, not slowed down.”

My other big takeaway from the retreat was that we need to look long and hard at how we fund and operate higher education in our state. Our public research universities are the foundation upon which our innovation economy is built; they produce our most precious resource: highly skilled, educated and entrepreneurial people. Our universities do well in graduating students once they have them; but we need to build capacity and ensure they have the resources they need to continue to grow in size while maintaining quality. I have said before that you can not starve your way to excellence. We need to continue the conversation with state leaders that began at the retreat about how Washington can invest in and grow high-demand, high-impact programs at our research universities and forge a commitment to transparency, accountability and innovation within our higher education system.

Washington has floated along quite nicely based on our ability to attract talent from other places. We have one of the most highly educated populations and are among the top five states in the nation in the intensity of scientists and engineers in our workforce. Meanwhile, we shortchange our own students year after year—we are among the bottom states in the nation in the participation rate in bachelors-level and graduate/professional education. The victims, in addition to kids who grow up here, are smaller companies, which must recruit locally.

The competition to attract the best and brightest grows fiercer by the day. Meanwhile, the companies upon which our economy is built are finding it difficult to answer the question, “How are the schools and colleges?” when recruiting the highly-educated workforce they need, because we don’t grow enough of our own here at home.

It is not smart. It is not fair. It is time to act.

It is time to move forward on the design of the new student data system, and to package that data in a way that provides useful feedback to educators and empowers policy makers, school leaders, parents and students with the information they need to force change at the state and local levels.

It is time to make education policy and budget decisions based on data and what we know is right for our students rather than adhering to myths and appeasing entrenched interests.

It is time to totally revamp how we evaluate and compensate teachers.

It is time to make the CORE 24 college prep curriculum the default curriculum—for not just some but all students in all districts across our state.

It is time to look to innovative models such as the TAF Academy in Federal Way and the new Delta High School in the Tri-Cities for fresh approaches to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education.

It is time to empower our state to intervene in schools that consistently underperform without showing measurable improvement—before it is too late for another class of kids walking their halls.

It is time to rethink how we operate and fund higher education in our state. It is time to get fighting mad and force the change our kids—and yes, our economy—so desperately need.

Kati Haycock asked us, “The door is open—will you walk all the way through it?”

Washington has its assignment; let us not fail. We invite you to join us as we hone our messages, build a coalition and finally make meaningful change happen for Washington’s students.

Susannah Malarkey is the Executive Director of the Technology Alliance, a statewide organization of leaders from technology businesses and research institutions dedicated to Washington's long-term economic success Follow @

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