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Originally published Sunday, December 1, 2013 at 4:02 PM

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Guest: There’s no shame in being an education reformer

I want to set the record straight and encourage other education reformers like me to speak out, writes guest columnist Kimberly Lasher Mitchell.

Special to The Times

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I AM a former student and current parent of children in Seattle Public Schools. During my 23-year career in education, I have worked as a public schoolteacher and principal in the U.S. and abroad. I believe public schools are the foundation of any democracy.

Regardless of the depth of my experiences or how nuanced my beliefs are, however, when I reveal that I was once a Teach for America corps member and a program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I receive a curious reaction from the Seattle community; I am immediately suspected of being an “education reformer.”

Judging by the fierce debates in the recent Seattle School Board races, the term “education reform” seems to be looked upon with deep suspicion. It is disheartening to hear how polarized, angry and even anti-intellectual the debates about education reform and reformers have become. The tone of these debates is counterproductive and does not bring us together as a community to address the toughest issues we face in education.

I accept that I am an education reformer, though I feel the term has been maligned. I want to set the record straight and encourage others like me to speak out.

Contrary to what you might read, education reformers are not all wealthy philanthropists. They are not pushing a corporate agenda to dismantle public education. They do not want to turn students and teachers into test-obsessed automatons. They are not anti-teacher.

If anything, what they are is way too quiet. Education reformers have allowed a small group of people to control the debates and misrepresent their views and experiences.

What are the views of education reformers? The most important, perhaps, is that they strive to make decisions based on solid research, not conjecture. The preponderance of data clearly demonstrates that teachers are the most important school-based factor in student achievement. This is not to say that other factors do not matter — just not as much. Great teaching trumps everything else: curriculum, technology, even class size.

Education reformers agree on putting the needs of children before adults. They believe that a principal should have a say in which teachers are assigned to his or her school community. They feel schools should be able to hold on to their most talented staff regardless of seniority when layoffs occur.

Education reformers also think that teachers deserve much better. Teachers deserve exceptional training, frequent feedback and high-quality professional development. They deserve time to collaborate, plan and assess their students’ learning. Education reformers believe those who work with teachers should be instructionally well-versed and use a variety of measures, including student performance, before making judgments on teacher performance (as opposed to using a test or a 20-minute observation once a year).

Thousands of teachers who identify themselves as education reformers have come together across the country to activate their voices. In Washington state, Teachers United draws upon the collective wisdom and experience of our state’s public schoolteachers to inform policy, testify before the Legislature and make recommendations to school boards.

The rhetoric against education reform cites the influence of corporate-backed funding. It is true that many education reform initiatives are supported by wealthy philanthropists and foundations. However, their combined contributions are a drop in the bucket compared with what governments and unions spend. In fact, total philanthropic spending amounts to only one-third of 1 percent of total K-12 spending.

While we may disagree on the solutions, I know we as a community share a sense of urgency about how to provide a consistently excellent public school experience for every child.

Doing so, however, will require a much more robust and open-minded conversation. Seattle is known for its progressive approach to human rights, environmental stewardship and marijuana, yet it maintains a rather parochial view on education. Our region’s students and their parents deserve a balanced and informed explanation by those of us who support education reform.

Seattle resident Kimberly Lasher Mitchell is co-founder of Inquiry Partners, a professional development and education consulting firm.

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