Special Report

Finding Partners in Reform

By Robert C. Johnston — January 11, 1999 2 min read

Despite its tiny staff of three full-time employees and a modest yearly budget of $800,000, Washington state’s Partnership For Learning gets high marks for spelling out the ABCs of school reform to the public.

The influential Washington Business Roundtable formed the partnership in 1995 and charged it with raising awareness and understanding of the state’s school improvement efforts.

And while some states have blamed poor community outreach for their failed or slow-moving accountability efforts, Washington has sustained a standards-based reform movement for nearly five years now. And the partnership is getting a lot of the credit for the broad public acceptance.

“What we are trying to do is stay in touch with the movers and shakers of the state,” William Porter, the executive director of the Seattle-based group, explains. “We were not set up to be permanent. Our purpose is to help get over this hump.”

The partnership’s tools include a 26,000-name mailing list of leaders and opinion makers at the state and local levels: elected officials, journalists, business owners, and others. A quarterly newsletter on school reform is mailed to each person on the list. And the group hosts community workshops on school policy.

The partnership also produces reports and guides on new standards and tests as references for noneducators, as well as ready-to-use materials that help local school officials explain the reforms to parents and other citizens.

“Nobody else does this,” Porter says. “I’m not sure that the state has the resources to do it.”

One of the group’s first tasks was to gauge public opinion about the state’s learning goals, which were adopted in 1993. The bottom line, according to polls, was scattered skepticism and a widespread lack of awareness that the goals had even been adopted.

“But when we talked about the idea, the responses were out the roof,” Porter stresses. “The ideas were popular.”

That’s no surprise to Nancy Belden, a partner with Belden Russonello & Stewart, an opinion-research firm in Washington, D.C.

“I’ve seen some states view public involvement in reform simply as hoops they’ve had to jump through,” she says. “If we have something valuable, we have to do the job of explaining it better.”

In Washington state, Partnership For Learning has done just that, says Ellen L. Wolf, the superintendent of the 6,000-student Walla Walla schools in the southeastern portion of the state.

Wolf regularly refers local residents and parents to the group for additional information about school changes.

“It also gives me another level of credibility of not looking at this just from inside of education, but from outside,” she says of the business-backed endorsement of the state’s school policies.

Admittedly, the biggest challenge may come this year, when the legislature takes up the issue of consequences for schools and students that do poorly on statewide assessments.

“There’s a general sense we’re headed in the right direction,” Porter says. “But there’s still a long way to go, especially when we get to accountability.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 1999 edition of Education Week