Federal Way schools attempt to demystify 'Power Standards'

Federal Way School Board meetings can be long and drawn out affairs, with most of the time being taken up by parents, students and staff sharing their concerns about Standards Based Education (SBE) and Standards Based Grading (SBG).

The district is trying to dispel some of the myths surrounding the two oft-discussed issues. The district's most recent effort at communicating what it's all about came in the form of a podcast posted to the district's website at In the podcast, Marie Verhaar, the school district's director of instructional alignment and development, shared the thought processes behind the Power Standards chosen by the district.

"There's a myth out there that we've gone out and written brand new standards and dropped them on our staff and said, 'Go out and get new resources,'" she said. "These standards aren't new. Our state reading standards have been around for seven years. The state math standards have been around for three years. They were revised from the standards we had three years ago."

Verhaar, a former teacher and the former principal of Valhalla Elementary, reflected on what teaching was like when she began in 1979. She said many teachers were essentially floating around, not really sure if the content they were teaching was making that much of a difference for their students.

"I'm embarrassed to tell you that I don't know what I was teaching them. I loved those little first- and second-graders. But it was what I thought they needed at the time. I was a brand new teacher and I had no clue. We are better teachers, educators, because of standards. As parents, you should want them," she said.

One of the recent arguments Federal Way Public Schools has been using in defense of SBE and SBG is that it leads to fewer college-bound students needing to take remedial classes, especially in math. Verhaar re-iterated this argument, saying her own children had the same issue.

"I have a son who got A's in math. Both my children had to be enrolled in remedial math in college, very embarrassing. Why did they get A's in math? They were compliant, they were nice kids, they sat in the front, they did what their teacher said, did their homework and they brought a ton of food for the food drive. I'm not kidding."

Because of this, Verhaar said Federal Way schools switched to SBE and SBG because it's about "learning-focused education." This ensures students have learned the material, whatever the subject may be. Verhaar said another issue faced by the school district in determining the Power Standards to be used under SBE and SBG is whittling down the thousands of standards that have been created to just 15. That led Federal Way teachers and administrators to figure out which "standards are more important in a student's future success in life and beyond."

The district and its teachers looked at all those standards and, according to Verhaar, asked themselves three questions with each one:

• Readiness: Will this standard prepare the student for the next grade?

• Endurance: Does this standard stay with the student for life?

• Leverage: Does the standard leverage the student in other content areas? (i.e. do skills acquired in nonfiction writing strengthen the students chances at success in another area, such as science)

"The power standard is the whole, the learning targets are the pieces. Some people think we have a power standard and three new pieces of learning underneath. No — all of those learning targets are connected," Verhaar said. "This was the process we took for the identifying the standards. You know as a parent, these are the 15 things — concepts — your child needs to know at each grade, (so) you can sit down with your teachers and say, 'What are the things they know and don't know?'"

To listen to the podcast in its entirety, visit and click on the link "Podcast: How the District Selected Its Power Standards."


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