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Originally published August 4, 2010 at 4:36 PM | Page modified August 5, 2010 at 9:21 AM

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Guest columnist

Getting serious about education reform in Seattle

Though Washington state didn't make the cut in the Obama administration's Race to The Top education-reform competition, there is much that can be done to reform education. Seattle City Councilmembers Tim Burgess and Richard Conlin discuss some bold options for making changes in Seattle Public Schools.

Special to The Times

SEATTLE Public Schools is proposing a bold change that will tie teacher-performance evaluations to student performance. It's a controversial reform but one that can play an important role in providing an effective education for all students.

The evidence that reform is needed — and quickly — is convincing.

Our state was embarrassed recently when we failed to qualify for President Obama's Race to the Top education-reform competition.

President Obama's desire — which we strongly support — is for comprehensive reforms to improve public-school performance so all of our children have the education foundation they must have to lead productive, successful and independent lives.

In Washington state, almost one-quarter of high-school students don't graduate. Shockingly, nearly one-third — in fact, significantly more than one-third at three of our high schools — fail to graduate in Seattle.

A comprehensive study of the Class of 2006 revealed that only 34 percent of Seattle high-school graduates demonstrated the baseline skills needed to be successful in college. This is a troubling statistic in today's global economy. By 2018, it is projected that 67 percent of all jobs in Washington will require a postsecondary education. We must prepare our children for this reality.

Political leaders, parents and educators from across Washington must come together to support thorough reform of our public schools.

What does education reform mean for the Seattle school district? It means higher academic standards and increased accountability. It means believing that every child can learn and must be prepared for college and the career of his or her choice. It means starting early with extensive prekindergarten "school ready" services so every child begins school ready to learn. It means providing a full range of academic services in all schools, including access to advanced curricula. It means supporting teachers with extra prep time, coaches, and school leadership that values their unique abilities to instruct and motivate students to learn. And it means recognizing that some students need extra help in the form of family support and intensive academic interventions.

Performance measurement is one critical and sometimes criticized component of reform. Ironically, we are comfortable with a system that grades student performance, but not the schools and teachers responsible for educating our kids.

That's changing. To put actions behind their words, Seattle's district will soon release school-specific report cards. This is the kind of information parents' clamor for and which has been too long coming in many districts. We need not be afraid of these facts; they can speed us in our "race to the top."

We must also pay closer attention to the link between student achievement and teacher performance. We know highly capable and deeply committed teachers are the most important factor in ensuring our children succeed in school. Every child in every Seattle school deserves teachers who believe in them, who are talented and skilled in providing them the tools they need to graduate and be ready for college and a job. Let's recognize, honor and generously reward our teachers for their effective work and measurable results.

Contract negotiations are now under way between the district and our teachers. The district has called for adoption of a teacher-performance-evaluation system tied to student academic growth. This is the right thing to do for the sake of our children's future. Teacher-performance evaluations tying compensation to student academic growth have been adopted by teachers in Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and the District of Columbia.

As leaders in our city, we strongly endorse the kind of education reform that would have kept Washington in the running for Race to the Top funding. The future of our city demands that our high-school graduation and competency rates significantly improve. Our economy, our democracy, the peace and safety of our neighborhoods all require it.

We can and must do better for our children.

Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess, left, is chair of the council's education committee. Councilmember Richard Conlin is president of the council.

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