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Originally published Monday, August 23, 2010 at 3:25 PM

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Guest columnist

Seattle, speak up for children as Seattle Public Schools contract negotiations go on

Seattle needs to decide if it will be an early adopter or a laggard in education reform, writes guest columnist Norman B. Rice, CEO of the Seattle Foundation and the city's former mayor. The current approaches are failing many students. Citizens should speak up for them.

Special to The Times

CONTRACT negotiations under way between Seattle Public Schools and its teachers union are much more than the usual tussle over salaries and benefits and class size. What's at stake in this year's talks are the policies at the heart of education reform in our country.

As a community, we need to determine if Seattle will be an early adopter or a laggard in education reform.

Each and every city resident — and parent, in particular — needs to get informed about the issues, take a stand and advocate not for the teachers or the school district, but for the kids and the creation of a school system that truly works for them.

It's a fact that our current system isn't working for a large share of the kids. The achievement gap between white and nonwhite students is actually growing. Nearly one-third of the students in our city's public high schools fail to graduate. A mere 17 percent of Seattle's high-school graduates take the actual classes needed to meet the state's four-year college entry requirements.

On the state level, we just saw Washington lose out on federal funding from the Obama administration's Race to the Top competition. And, most startling, Washington ranks 46th in the nation in the chances our 19-year-olds will be enrolled in college. Is there any doubt of the cause and effect here and the immeasurable lost opportunity for our kids and our economy when so few of our graduates are college bound?

The union and the school district need to come together and agree on what can be done now — controllable, deliberate steps we can take to improve education. We need to start with what happens in the classroom every day. We have an education system based on measuring how well students learn. Why shouldn't our children's progress be considered when assessing how well teachers teach?

Research shows that outside of parents, an effective teacher is the most important factor in determining whether children will succeed in school. More than classroom size or curriculum, the teacher makes the biggest difference. It's time we had teacher evaluation and compensation based on recognizing teachers as a critical factor in every child's education.

It's a fundamental fact of life that what gets measured gets done, and what gets done gets rewarded. Successful teachers who help children move ahead deserve a raise, a bonus, a supportive work environment, or all of the above. The four-tier scale that would utilize student growth as a factor in teacher assessment would replace the current system based on principal observation only, which most agree is an imperfect and incomplete measurement method.

Some of the reforms on the table seek to elevate the teaching profession and create new career opportunities for strong teachers. More than just a factor in compensation, evaluation results would influence school transfers and promotions.

Teacher effectiveness would also be a consideration when layoffs are necessary, ending the practice of last-in, first-out reductions that safeguard teachers with seniority regardless of their effectiveness.

Across the nation, urban school districts have adopted groundbreaking reforms. In each case, school districts and unions came together to craft solutions focused on what students need to succeed. In Denver, voters approved a $25 million tax increase to fund a performance-based pay system for teachers, while a pilot program is under way in Chicago in which educators get bonuses if students post achievement gains.

While the negotiations in Seattle are between the teachers union and the school district, the real battle here is for the children. If sacrifices and compromises are to be made, let the adults make them. Let's not ask for anything more from the kids.

It's time to do right by our children by holding school teachers and leaders accountable for student academic growth. Seattle, speak up and speak out for the kids.

Norman B. Rice is president and chief executive officer of The Seattle Foundation and former mayor of Seattle.

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