Letters to the Editor

Standards Based Education: Winds of change in Federal Way

By RON PODMORE, Federal Way author and teacher

At a recent local school board meeting, there was a considerable amount of vocal dialogue pertaining to Standards Based Education (SBE). Several students, parents and teachers spoke out in regards to where they stood on this new and volatile issue.

Some of the comments were impressive and passionate of those who took the podium. Stories of frustration and success were evident in how individuals articulated themselves. And I’m talking about the students themselves. They were very eloquent in how they framed their responses, each and every one read from their hearts and not notecards.

If you’re not sure what SBE is all about, in its most basic element, it places the responsibility where it squarely belongs: firmly on the student demonstrating their learning in a consistent and tangible manner that leaves little to be interpreted. It’s about what they learn, not entirely what is their grade. All too often, I hear students say “What’s my grade, Mr. P.?”

Many years ago, as a newbie to the field of teaching, I recalled under the directive of the 1990 Legislature, and signed by former Gov. Booth Gardner, that to become licensed as a teacher, one needed to possess a master’s degree from an accredited, traditional university.

Like a diligent citizen, I returned to college once again and worked on my master’s degree at Lewis and Clark Law School/College. Only upon completion with that piece of paper was I able to apply and find work.

Over 20 years later, there are more industry hurdles for teachers to jump through, more certificates to acquire, more exams to take (i.e., statewide Praxis, National Board) and yes, someone will stand up from the mountaintop and profess yet another mechanism to which we can have highly qualified teachers in every classroom.

In my 21-year career as a high school teacher thus far, I’ve been engrained with the mantra of “standards based education” almost from the beginning of my career. This concept is not simply a Federal Way School District mandate that our school board passed. It is a mandate our Legislature passed and made a requirement for all of Washington state’s students. Standards based education is not a concept limited to Federal Way.

Soon, the almost 300 school districts in our state will be required to implement what Federal Way is already doing. I’m sure some private schools may opt to go that route as well. The results will be mixed. We will continue to ask ourselves: will what the students learn reduce the need for remedial education if and when they chose to go on to a college? Will the culture of SBE carry into higher education? Will SBE stop the slow passive slide of American public education in general and result, instead, in a slow climb upward?

Regardless of these questions I pose for both the community and parents, to borrow the catchphrase from the old “X-Files” series on television: we are not alone. Other school districts and states are at various stages of implementation of SBE. Some, such as the tiny school district of Round Rock, Texas (suburb of Austin) needed to scrap it entirely and start over. In a recent Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial, from a global perspective, there are countries in Europe and Asia that are further advanced in the concept of SBE.

We cannot afford to be left behind anymore. After all, it is today’s students that will ultimately choose our nursing homes. What kind of a person do you want attending to you when you are relegated to Shady Pines Retirement Home? And yes, I still have my humor. Increasingly, I need it in the profession I’ve chosen.

I work with some incredible students that give me hope, and then there are those that I just cringe with the ubiquitous “Where are the parents?”

The SBE journey is fraught with tension, angst, overburdened teachers and in some rare cases overburdened parents devoid of involvement. However, never have the student expectations been clearer. With my optimism, I hope that not just a few parents, but rather the moms and/or dads (in some cases, even grandparents) will become completely involved in their children’s education. Success includes the three tiers of communication (parent, student and teacher). Effective dialogue will form like an interlocking puzzle, cohesively with the light always shining on the student.

In the reality, I’m just a teacher in the trenches. I have no idea how in the grand scheme of SBE on a statewide basis, whether this will all result in student success. I know that the one factor missing is “real time data.” (in old language, this means “grades.”)

Nothing is more imperative than the students’ sole desire to know exactly where he/she stands in regards to a given class exam. They still want to know how they did. “Did I pass? Did I fail? Did I meet standard? Do I need to reassess…again?” Are all common conversations that I have daily with my students.

I do know from my training at Western Washington University many years ago that the single biggest indicator of student success (or failure) is their ability to know where they are in regards to making progress, almost instantly.

Referencing SBE, it is not a “here today, gone tomorrow” acronym. Our legislators wrote this policy into state code. Each district is required design and implement in very short timelines. Federal Way had teachers involved in the design of goals (called “Power Standards”) and objectives (“Learning Targets”) of what are the crucial and most important pieces of knowledge a student must master.

The students have no choice but to rise to the challenge. Many of them (dare I say most?) must disengage themselves from social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as their cellphones, and simply go through the withdrawals by leaving their phones at home.

Ideally, these students need to take the lead by firmly engaging their minds in a way that develops their intellect. They must clearly demonstrate what is inside their heads, free of outside influences. They must deliver or face severe consequences.

Suffice to say, SBE is truly a political beast. A new pathway has been created, a new course (pardon the pun) to chart. To borrow a favorite quote from one of my former students, “it is what it is.”  We being the student, parent, teacher and administrator are now confronted with these state mandates of learning expectations. We are creating an avenue for K-12 students to acquire and then apply what they must show due diligence. Before long, that storm cloud will follow our students and with them, their attitudes about learning will transcend to technical schools, training institutions and yes, colleges with their less-than-stellar graduation rates.

I just wonder, is higher-ed paying attention to these winds of change? I don’t know, but I’m sure I’ll find out, and hopefully not when I’m at Shady Pines.


Ron Podmore, M.Ed, is a National Board Certified teacher, a K-12 licensed administrator and the author of two published books. He was a recent guest on the Suze Orman show and contributes periodically to this newspaper as a respected voice of public education. He is proud to say he now resides in Federal Way.


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