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Washington State Panel Issues Blueprint for School Reform

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Washington State would join those that have adopted some of the most popular regulatory ideas of the education-reform movement if it backs proposals contained in a draft report by a blue-ribbon panel studying economic-development needs in the state.

The ideas include mandating curricula emphasizing "core competencies" and statewide testing for graduation. But they also include more controversial proposals, such as a pay-for-performance plan for teachers and administrators, more school choice for parents, and assessments not necessarily based on standardized tests.

The draft was issued last month by the Washington State Economic Development Board, a 28-member coalition of business, education, labor, and legislative representatives created by the General Assembly in 1985.

The group concluded that the economic health of the state depends on "how well we train and educate our future workers," according to Paul Knox, a spokesman for the board.

Ronn Robinson, a spokesman for the newly re-elected governor, Booth Gardner, praised the initial draft, saying it "confirms some of the reforms that the Governor has already initiated, and some yet to come."

But Mr. Robinson and others predicted that the board might have difficulty winning enough support to get its proposals onto January's legislative agenda.

The report recommends that the minimum teacher salary be "raised to equal industry standards," but it proposes that both teachers' and administrators' pay increases be based on "performance criteria," which would be measured on the district level, not by the state.

John Cahill, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association, said, however, that his organization opposed the idea of pay for performance. "It has been tried all over the country, but so far, no one has come up with a plan that works," he said.

The report also recommends that the state adopt a "choice" system, which would allow parents greater latitude in selecting their children's schools. It cites Minnesota's open-enrollment plan as a model.

Although Washington already allows some flexibility within larger districts, Mr. Robinson said, the Governor "likes the notion of more choice and more flexibility."

The Governor, he added, may propose legislation to expand the choice options specifically for parents of returning dropouts and students in8drug-rehabilitation programs, and for teenage parents.

But the teachers' union contends, according to Mr. Cahill, that such school-choice systems "tend to segregate school districts economically," because "those who have the means to make a switch do so, but those who don't end up staying where they are."

The economic-development board's report also recommends that students be required to take tests periodically to measure competency.

Mr. Knox noted that the board does not necessarily support the idea of using standardized tests. "A combination of self/peer/teacher assessment could also work," he said.

The w.e.a. has long opposed testing as a requirement for graduation, Mr. Cahill said, noting that the Seattle school system had attempted mandatory testing but subsequently dropped the idea, declaring it unsuccessful.

Mr. Robinson pointed out that the Governor has supported testing students for competency at all grade levels, especially in the early grades.

Stating that computers are the "pencils of an emerging age," Mr. Knox said the report recommends that each student and teacher in the state have access to a personal computer at school.

Reacting to concerns about the cost, he added that the board would encourage large corporations to donate the technology to schools.

The board also recommends a curriculum of "core competencies" that all schools should adopt, but in their own way, according to Mr. Knox.

The competencies--which the report says should be attained before the 9th grade--include basic literacy and numeracy, critical-thinking skills, citizenship and values, science and technology, proficiency with calculators and computers, appreciation of arts and humanities, and good work habits.

The curriculum in each school should be "individualized" enough to allow for different teaching methods, according to the draft, as well as to permit students to learn at their own speed. "Schools should be freed up to create a different curriculum that meets these core competencies," Mr. Knox said.

The board also proposes:

"Internationalizing" the public-school curriculum by requiring each student to learn a foreign language and to study other cultures.

Expanding publicly supported preschool programs for disadvantaged children.

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