Category Archives: OR / WA Education

Common Core Implementation in Washington State: Marilyn Melville-Irvine

When Marilyn Melville Irvine retired in 2003 from a 25-year teaching career in Longview, Washington, she didn’t simply sit around reading Barbara Kingsolver novels. Irvine stepped right back into the classroom, this time as a consultant with the Kelso and Longview School Districts in Washington state, teaching staff development classes, classroom management skills, and differentiation. That’s where teachers modify content to make it available to students of different learning abilities.

A teacher will present Homer’s Odyssey differently to a class of special education students for a classroom filled with high academic achievers, for example.

That is Irvine’s day job: providing support in English language classrooms for teachers in Longview and Kelso. But for this busy grandmother of 14, one job wasn’t enough. Irvine was visiting the offices of Education Service District 112 (ESD 112) one day when someone mentioned that the ESD’s literacy specialist position had opened up. Irvine applied for and got the job.

Under normal circumstances, acting as ESD 112’s literary specialist would have extended geographically the scope of the support services she was already providing to the Longview and Kelso school districts, but this is not a normal time for schools in Washington – or anywhere in the nation.

The 2009 passing of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (The Stimulus Package), announced President Obama’s Race to the Top (RTTT) educational reform initiative.

According to Irvine, RTTT aims to provide solution for:

  • declining ACT / SAT college entrance test scores;
  • falling comparative international scores;
  • elevated rates of college students needing (and having to shoulder the costs of) remediation; and
  • feedback from the business community that students graduating from high schools were not equipped with job readiness skills,

With support by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers collaborated on development of a national set of educational standards called the Common Core State Standards (“Common Core” or “CCSS”). The stated aim of Common Core is to equip American students for college and career readiness upon graduation from high school.

The group chose to first create English and math objectives, with other topics scheduled to be rolled out. The objectives affect the entire K-12 scope of public education.

As a veteran English language instructor and ESD literacy specialist, Irvine is in position to the ESD’s 30 districts get the new Common Core standards implemented so that the region’s schools will be on schedule to be in full deployment in the 2014-15 school year.

In her position, Irvine is part of Washington state’s Literacy and Leadership Cadre, a group of representatives from the state’s nine Educational Service Districts and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). The group meets monthly to design staff development modules that will be used across the state.

Common Core is not without vocal and influential critics. Arguments are both philosophical to political. Educators who are not in support feel a national rewrite of educational curriculum cannot meet the best needs of students when teachers, parents, and developmental psychologists are not involved in its creation. They don’t buy into the idea that the function of public schools is to create consumables for the business community.

Political opponents don’t get past the concept of a national rewrite. Public education belongs in the hands of the states and not in the hands of the federal government, they believe, citing the Tenth Amendment to the Bill of Rights. They raise concerns about a socialist agenda in the Common Core’s standards.

Irvine, though, feels optimistic that Common Core is a “fabulous” solution. “This is exactly what the public school system needs to help students become career or college ready,” Irvine stated in a phone interview this week. With the majority of states adopting it, Irvine looks forward to being able to share ideas and curriculum resources which teachers across the nation. Teachers are now able to do an Internet search and find resources. (Forty-five states originally adopted Common Core though 17 of those are slowing down their implementation.)

Speaking of the benefits of Common Core to mobile students, Irvine said, ““Kids can transfer from Longview to Oklahoma City and they will meet the same standards.” The Department of Defense recognizes this advantage for its military families and has embraced the standards.

To detractors, Irvine says, “To anyone who criticizes the standards, I ask, ‘Have you ever read them?’”

English Language Arts Common Core Standards

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Common Core Critics See Socialism, Revisionist History, Racism

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Poverty is Bad for Learning, but Not All Hope Is Lost

Fifty-some students from Mrs. Brewer’s and Mr. Daniels’ fifth grade classes stuffed into one half of the portable classroom outside Fircrest Elementary School last May. They sat grouped together on chairs and on the floor, chattering noisily as eleven year olds are known to do. Jennifer Horowitz had just handed out job assignment for the following week’s BizTown simulation, and the kids were excited to find out what their jobs would be . “This is going to be a challenge, but I have faith in you,” Horowitz edified, shoving as much preparation and encouragement as she could into her remaining minutes with the students.

Jennifer Horowitz, parent volunteer, teaches financial literacy to 5th grade Crestline Elementary students who were displaced by a school fire which devastated their building. Evergreen School District spread the students among five different elementary schools. Students in Nancy Brewer’s fifth grade class, whom Horowitz is addressing in the picture above, landed at Fircrest Elementary School. (Photo by Kaley Perkins)

Five years ago Horowitz introduced Junior Achievement’s BizTown into the Illahee Elementary School. When a school fire destroyed the Crestline Elementary School, one of Evergreen School District’s poorest schools, in February of 2013, Horowitz and substitute teacher Stephanie Braden, secured sponsorship from the local business community to bring the program to the displaced fifth graders.

While Horowitz’s tone was upbeat with the kids, it was grave in a whispered comment as she briefly stopped to observe the class. “I underestimated the difference between the two schools,” Horowitz confessed. “The kids are struggling with the content. I have parents volunteering and then dropping out, and I am scrambling to get enough people to the event to make it a success,” Horowitz said before rejoining the students.

The percentage of students on the school’s federal lunch program at Crestline is 78.9 percent. At Illahee, where parents volunteer eagerly to spend the day with their kids, the rate is 22 percent. Same district, different sides of town.

Chart represents correlation between percentage of students on free and reduced lunch program (blue bar chart) and standardized test scores (red line represents end of course math; green line represents reading scores) for Clark and Cowlitz county school districts. Scores are for 2012 tenth grade HSPE scores.
(Copyright ©2013 by Kaley Perkins)
Sources accessed August 1, 2013:

Since 1946, meeting the nutritional needs of the nation’s students has been part of the federal budget. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 is the latest iteration of school nutritional legislation. Directly pegged to the federal poverty levels as determined by the Department of Health and Human Services, eligibility for school nutrition programs is an obvious indicator of the percentage of children living in poverty. The chart above shows that, at least in Clark and Cowlitz counties, the higher the percentage of children living in poverty, the lower the test scores on state standardized tests.

Free and Reduced Lunch Eligibility Requirements by Kaley Perkins Baker

Much is written about poverty and the poverty mindset. One thing everyone agrees on is that poverty has far-reaching consequences. One of the goals of public education is to help intervene with the cycle of poverty by providing a strong, basic education to all children. But food and a classroom may not be enough to battle the often generational effects of poverty.

“The biggest obstacle we face (in education) is poverty,” said Jo Perkins, 22 year veteran special education teacher in Longview, Washington. (Perkins is the author’s sister and President of the teacher’s union). “It isn’t always that parents don’t care,” she said explaining why she has a low record of parents’ attendance at student conferences. “It’s that they don’t have gas money or can’t take time off from work,” Perkins said, adding, “Sometimes they are self-conscious about how they dress, and that can keep them from coming in.”

View Clark & Cowlitz School Districts (Numbers from 2011) in a larger map

Family life, according to Perkins, is a strong indicator of school success. “We have a group of students who come from the country and tend to come from larger families. The families are generally intact,” Perkins continued. “There are a lot of kids, so by the time the little guys are in school, they’ve already picked up a lot of life from their older brothers and sisters. They play outside and they have a strong community. It makes a difference in their ability to learn,” she said.

John Medina is a developmental molecular biologist, director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University, and an avid student of the genetics of psychiatric disorders. Medina is fluent in the neurobiology of the brain and how it learns. In his book, Brain Rules, Medina writes: “One of the greatest predictors of performance in school turns out to be the emotional stability of the home.” He recounts a story of his mother who was a fourth grade teacher. As an ace student’s family life fell apart, so did the girl’s performance at school. Medina quotes his mom’s first ever use of profanity: “The ability of Kelly to do well in my class has nothing to do with my class!” (Profanity omitted.)

Medina spells out universal learning rules that, if followed, can lead to great gains in learning. Unfortunately, those gains can be reversed from stress - the kind of stress that often accompanies poverty. Medina writes, “Stress hormones can disconnect neural networks, the webbing of brain cells that act like a safety deposit vault, storing your most precious memories.”

Not a fan of the traditional classroom, (“If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom.”) Medina’s brain-based solutions would take educational reform to a whole new level. He suggests starting education with the parents. Medina advocates robust intervention classes: parenting, marital counseling, and job counseling.

The good news, according to Medina’s Brain Rules, is that the brain has what neuroscientists term plasticity. It is not the fixed organ we used to believe it to be. When treated well, the brain can essentially rewire itself to health.

(Pages cited from Medina’s book: 5, 179, 183)



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Longview Education Leaders Advise Teachers to “Relax, but Get Familiar” with New Evaluation System

Mark Morris is one of two high schools in Longview, Wash. (Photo by Kaley Perkins)

When Washington’s K-12 public teachers and administrators return to school this September, new students aren’t the only things they will need to get to know. This fall, teachers will come face to face with Washington’s new evaluation system known as the Teacher Principal Evaluation Pilot, or “TPEP.”

In 2011, President Obama passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“ESEA”) which provides a flexible option for state education boards to satisfy No Child Left Behind Act (“NCLB” or “Nickle B”). ESEA’a goal is to increase student learning through high quality instruction. The evaluation tool TPEP measures how classroom teachers, school principals, and assistant principals provide that high quality.

TPEP’s legislative pedigree is in orange. Structure of local Longview School District’s educational governance is in blue. Who is performing evaluations on whom is in green. (Infographic created by Kaley Perkins. Use of this graphic is permissible with attribution.)

If you have fallen asleep by now, you aren’t a teacher in Washington state.

“This is a ridiculous amount of change to expect teachers to make,” said Jo Perkins, President of the Longview Education Association (“LEA”) in a recent interview. Perkins referred to another significant initiatives that significantly impacts teachers’ responsibilities: adoption of the state’s curriculum overhaul also known as Core Curriculum Competencies.

Additionally, Longview has suffered through a year of contentious discussion as its school board and community conduct feasibility on a massive facility reorganization.

Perkins, who was a 22- year veteran, special education teacher before becoming the president of Longview’s teacher union, is the author’s sister.

“Teachers don’t know what to think about TPEP. I am hearing a lot of anxiety but also some cautious excitement,” Perkins said, sitting under the emergent mid-morning sunshine on her back deck with a Robert K. Tanenbaum novel, one of  summer’s last pleasure reads, perched on her knee.

The anxiety comes, according to Perkins, because teachers are really concerned about losing their livelihoods. “We are living in a climate where teachers are blamed for societies ills. They are not feeling job security, and they feel like this new evaluation mechanism may be a ruse to justify firing them.”

“I think that falls more inside the lines of paranoia,” said Tracey Schroeder, assistant principal of Longview’s Mark Morris High school. Schroeder, an alumni of R. A. Long, Mark Morris’s rival high school, spent years teaching math in Las Vegas, Nevada before sitting for her administrative papers and returning to Longview to serve as a school administrator. Her Nevada district used an  evaluation system similar to TPEP.

Schroeder and Perkins discussed how to best relieve teachers’ anxiety. Perkins suggested developing a common vocabulary. She hopes educational leaders will clearly explain what successful evidence of student progress looks like to educators. As the conversation broadened, Perkins expressed that local teachers sincerely want to be the best they can and are frustrated by what they perceive to be receiving edicts from leadership without explanation.
Schroeder gave a specific example of how she prepared for her evaluations when she was a Nevada teacher. She added that it is critical for teachers to become familiar with the CEL 5D rubric, the framework that the district has adopted. (Photo by Kaley Perkins)

Sipping ice water at local restaurant, Schroeder explained the benefit of the TPEP. “The old (evaluation) system was ‘Satisfactory v. Unsatisfactory.’ From an evaluator’s (administrator’s) point of view, it didn’t allow me to recognize the things teachers were doing that were really effective or to identify the areas that were ripe for improvement. It was ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’”

Schroeder feels the TPEP provides an effective framework for staff development.

Participants in pilot districts were overwhelmingly favorable about the program, feeling it has great potential for creating increased professional collaboration around a common goal. They expressed that the primary challenge of the pilot program’s implementation was the time required on top of already hectic schedules.

Tracey Schroeder is Assistant Principal at Mark Morris High School in Longview, Washington. Schroeder experienced a 4 point evaluation system when she worked as a math teacher in Nevada. She enjoyed the feedback.

“What is going to come off of your plate to make room for the evaluations you are going to be required to do?” Perkins asked Schroeder.

Schroeder just laughed. “My personal life exploded last year, so I’m feeling kind of glad that I don’t have a partner or kids to worry about.”

Perkins, whose pet peeve is the notion that teachers are more noble if they sacrifice their personal lives for the sake of their work, growled.

“The best thing teachers can do,” Schroeder advised, “is to become familiar with the rubric. Longview has adopted the University of Washington’sCEL 5D” model for its evaluation framework.

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It’s Still Debt: Oregon’s “Pay It Forward” Program May Be More Feel-good Than Do-good

Future college student, Matt Baker, introduces the Portland State University campus, home to more than 29,000 students and the offices of the Oregon University System. (Source accessed July 14, 2013; photo by Kaley Perkins)

In the first week of July, the Oregon state legislature unanimously approved a measure to allow a feasibility study to be conducted on a program called “Pay It Forward,” a creative post-secondary funding solution that hopes to address Oregon’s (and the nation’s) skyrocketing student debt. The program has been lauded as the potential savior of a generation of indebted graduates, and it has the support of legislators, policymakers, and alternative political parties in the region.

“We have issues with students borrowing to finance higher education. They are borrowing high and earning low and finding themselves having trouble paying off debt,” reported Diane “Di” Saunders, Director of Communication of Oregon University System (“OUS”) in a July 11 phone conversation. Housed at Portland State University, the Oregon University System currently provides governance for all seven of Oregon’s state universities and ensures that legislative mandates are carried out at the state’s college and university campuses.

Historically, higher education has been considered the path to socio-economic mobility. People with four-year college degrees typically earn $54,756 to their high school graduate friends’ $23.504, making post-secondary education an attractive asset for both individuals and communities who benefit from the resulting economic flow.

Map of American educational system’s classifications, degrees, and 2011 median income for adults working full-time over the age of 25. Statistics from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics as displayed in this post. Years in post-secondary education per level represent approximations. (Created by Kaley Perkins)

The “Pay It Forward” program, if implemented, would allow a student to attend community and state colleges without paying up front in exchange for a fixed percentage of the student’s income once he or she enters the workforce. As written, the payback rate would equal .75 percent per year of school completed, or three percent for a 4-yr degree, and the repayment terms would span 24 years. Current students’ loan repayment schedules run for 10 years.

Inspired in part by Australia’s HECS-HELP program, the “Pay It Forward” program was brought to the Oregon legislature by a group of PSU students working with local policymakers. In place for a quarter of a century, the Australian program sees AUD $6.2 billion  (USD $5.62 billion) currently in default. Issues contributing to default include a portion of that nation’s higher-dollar earners leaving for jobs overseas and escaping repayment, the governments “demand driven” policy which puts no limits on seats (demand drives cost), and lower wage earners being exempt from repayment requirements.

“It’s a creative idea, and we are really proud of our students for bringing it forward,” said Saunders who pointed out though, that, far from adopting the program, the legislature’s “Pay It Forward” vote simply approved a study bill to determine if proposing a pilot program is worthy of pursuit. The feasibility, and not an actual pilot program, will be presented to the Oregon legislature in the session beginning in Feb 2015.

Time isn’t all that might hold up implementation of the bill. “We don’t want to call this debt, but that is what it is,” Saunders noted. Prior to her position at OUS, Saunders worked with a Boston-area non-profit company which, to protect its loan portfolio, absorbed the loan servicing functionality of a failing lender. She has seen first hand the challenges of becoming a loan servicer and pointed out that higher education is not in the business of banking.

Saunders cited four primary concerns she has about the program:

  1. Inordinate amount of administrative oversight. The program will require some contractual obligation for students to make sure they enter into repayments. Further bureaucracies will need to be created to administer the financing functions that the current student loan system has built in. Saunders envisions a “department within an agency.” Further, a dual registrar system would also be required if students were able to opt out of the program.
  2. Seed funding. Saunders estimated an eight to ten year period for the repayment population to be solidly employed and regularly contributing. Media estimates suggest a $9 billion price tag that the state would need to fund until the program is financially sustainable.
  3. Legislative changes. If the funds were available for such aggressive educational funding, legislative limitations have no provision for committing future funds. Each two-year budget stands alone, so that even if that $9 billion were approved, it would have to be re-approved every two years in the midst of legistlative turnover and changes in political will. State laws would have to be rewritten to enable the ability to commit to future funding.
  4. Repayment. The door is open to perceived inequity in repayment as higher income students would essentially subsidize students entering majors with paltry income projections. Like the current student loan climate, students with low income earning potential may have difficulty paying into the system.

More than a new program, Saunders would like to see more creative repayment systems within existing loan servicers and more forgiving terms as graduates struggle to become financially independent.

But state funding of higher education through additional grants is where Saunder’s real focus lies. She compared budget statistics between 1999-2000 and 2011-2013 biennium budgets. In 2011, the state of Oregon allocated $100 million fewer dollars than in 1999. Further, this $100 million dollar was spread among 34,000 more students.

Also, Saunders reported that in 1999, 70 percent of higher education costs were funded by the state with students and their families making up the difference. In 2011, the ratios were inverted with students shouldering more than 70 percent of the cost of higher education.

Comparison of Oregon state’s higher educational funding percentages between 1999 and 2011. Based on information provided by “Di” Saunders. (Created by Kaley Perkins)

“Sometimes we go forward with things just because they have momentum,” Saunders said. “I’d hate to see us start something we can’t fund for the long haul.”

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