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Originally published May 21, 2013 at 4:41 PM | Page modified May 22, 2013 at 5:52 PM

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Education reform is only part of answer to student achievement

Education reform enacted by politicians can go only so far, writes editorial columnist Bruce Ramsey. What happens at home matters too.

Times editorial columnist

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A few weeks ago I received this email from a frustrated teacher:

“I retired several years ago from teaching high school. I still sub. On Monday I was supposed to supervise peer editing of a research paper on the Industrial Revolution. The students had two weeks to write. I had five classes and about half the students did not have their papers. ‘I don’t like to write’ or ‘I forgot it at home’ were the excuses ... Teachers deal with 5 x 30 individual kids every day, many of whom consider school a waste of time and 10 percent of them absent.”

A few days later I spoke with a professor of literature at one of our state universities. The professor’s complaint: students who won’t read books. Also administrators who won’t back up professors who flunk students who won’t read books.

These are classic teacher complaints. I think about them while considering the push in Olympia to fund and reform the public schools.

I support reform. On the table now before the Legislature, for example, is the “mutual-consent” bill, which would limit the forced placement of teachers in schools to one year. A teacher sent down by the district would have a year to earn the support of the principal, or any other principal in the district, or be eligible for termination.

I sent a son through the Seattle Public Schools. Most of his teachers were good, several were excellent and the one who taught him calculus was brilliant.

Then again, there was one who assigned the movie, “Troy,” as the midterm: not to analyze it, but simply to watch it.

To remove a teacher like that would be a good thing, but I don’t expect too much from it.

I was also for high-school graduation tests. It was offensive that schools were graduating students who couldn’t read. With the tests, reading, writing and math scores are up somewhat; the on-time graduation rate has risen to 77 percent statewide.

But the improvement is not nearly what reformers hoped for, and there have been side effects. Auto shop, art and other useful electives have been shut down, and some good teachers have left the profession.

I voted for charter schools in November. Charters are a way to get around the bureaucracy and try new things. Around the country there are some exciting charters, though in general, there hasn’t been the broad-based improvement reformers hoped for.

Schooling comes down to the quality of the people: What they aim for, what they insist on, what they allow. It is about individual teachers, students and parents.

I think about that student who refused to write a research paper, saying, “I don’t like to write.” In other times and places, it would be an unimaginable thing to say to a teacher. For the teacher to accept it would be to give up.

But the one who rejects it has to have the principal’s backing. The principal has to have the district’s and the parents’ backing. And too often, they don’t have it.

So: reforms? Yes. Try them. See what works. More state money to replace local levies? The state Supreme Court has ordered it.

But don’t expect state money, or reforms, or anything politicians in Olympia do will make Johnny do his homework. He will do it when he knows he can’t get out of it, and it will take people more powerful than politicians to convince him of that.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is

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