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Originally published Sunday, December 22, 2013 at 4:04 PM

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Buoyed by changes in public education

One can be overwhelmed by the work left to do improving public education, or be buoyed by the changes thus far, writes columnist Lynne K. Varner in her last column for The Seattle Times.

Times editorial columnist

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Lasting improvements in public education have been hard-won and tempered by a discovery that change in the K-12 system will never be swift, but rather incremental.

Reflecting on the two decades I’ve written about education in Washington state, I notice a sea change. Remember when students misbehaving in school were suspended or, depending on the transgression, kicked out permanently? The Washington state Legislature is among a number of states curbing the practice of school suspensions and expulsions.

Not long ago, struggling students were relegated to low-level academic tracks. The best teachers were given the gift of high-performing “deserving” kids.

Expectations of rigor were placed on the shoulders of students in gifted programs. Now, Washington state and other states require students to take an advanced course.

Public schools have shifted dramatically from the days of racial and socio-economic apartheid. The Seattle Public Schools raised the bar with continuous efforts from superintendent to superintendent to send more resources, including good teachers, into underserved schools.

According to a 2005 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the U.S. ties with Switzerland for the highest public education spending, with the two countries spending more than $11,000 annually per student. But as a percentage of our incomes, the U.S. drops to an embarrassing 37th place in per-pupil spending.

We could stand to spend a lot more. But how the money is spent is as important as getting it in the first place.

Training attention and resources on education is the morally right thing to do. It is also in our self-interest. Kids helped to reach their full potential today will save our pension plans and Social Security checks tomorrow.

Stay focused. There is no country in the world like the United States. Our size, diverse population and our aspirations to deliver a good education to all children, rather than a select few, make comparisons with other countries difficult. So stop looking at Finland. And don’t crow over that Nordic country’s recent decline in test scores. Statistics are tricky.

Congress must stop using education policy as a political football and get moving on revamping the No Child Left Behind education law. It is easy to be cynical about the chances of this happening if you’ve watched Congress’ stunning lack of progress on immigration reform or the tantrums over the new health-care law. But Congress passed this unwieldy law. Lawmakers own it; they must fix it.

The law needn’t go away. Don’t forget the educational apartheid that existed before. Among many transgressions, schools used average test scores to hide the struggles of individual students. Accountability was selective; now it is mandatory. But the federal education law does subscribe to a fantasy that all students can progress fast and far enough to be at grade level by Jan. 1. The flurry of waivers blanketing states are an acknowledgment of the law’s magical thinking.

Informed by neuroscience and empowered by smart advocacy, preschool is becoming the critical antecedent to kindergarten and the rest of the K-12 system. One can be overwhelmed by the work left to do improving public education, or be buoyed by the changes.

I’m choosing the latter.

This column is my last in this space, coming 13 years to the day after I stepped away from reporting in the Times newsroom and joined the Opinion page. I’ve awakened each day since then feeling blessed to share this public platform.

I’m off to a new career working in higher education.

Agee or disagree with me, I’ve stimulated debate and offered different ways of looking at things.

Since I made this decision, I’ve been asked what I’ll miss most. You. I am grateful for, and humbled by, Times readers who have been generous with their time and their knowledge.

It is not easy to leave one of the best newspapers in the country, and one of the last that is independent and locally owned. I could remain within these cozy confines, doing impactful journalism supported by owners who care.

But a golden rule of mine is that you have to be willing to give up what you have for what you can become. That means bidding everyone adieu.

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