Last winter, Nick Hanauer famously called Washington State “an education reform backwater.” It’s a curious insult. Strictly speaking, a backwater is a stretch of river that moves slowly, due to a dam or other obstruction. It’s water that’s “backed up.” Washington’s geography, of course, is dominated by the Columbia River, which winds its way slowly from the Canadian border to the Pacific, through 11 hydroelectric dams, which render it, for all intents and purposes, a 745-mile “backwater,” a label that belies the fact that it provides power and irrigation for most of the northwest.
But that’s not what Hanauer had in mind with his insult. He was complaining that education reform tends to move slowly here in Washington State, due mostly to the obstruction of the Washington Education Association. If only he could have seen what I saw this summer.
What I saw was hundreds of teachers attending two four-day professional development seminars, presented by teachers and for teachers. There was an academy for experienced teachers pursuing National Board Certification. An academy for younger teachers pursuing their Washington Professional Certificate. And another one for teachers of every stripe who simply want to become better at working with the English language learners in their classrooms. These seminars were presented at great cost by the Washington Education Association simply because they want their members to be more effective teachers. Obstruction, indeed.
There is no shortage of education reform groups willing to lend their expertise to the cause of Washington State’s education. We’ve got Democrats for Education Reform, StudentsFirst, The Center for Reinventing Public Education, just to name a few. I’m certainly not going to sit here and question their motivation or second-guess their intentions, but I’m quite certain that none of these groups has done anything for public education in Washington State that compares in scale with what I saw this summer.
You can talk about policy till the cows come home. You can conduct research and release reports all you want. There's definitely a need for all of that important work. But there's also a need for high-quality, job-embedded professional development, which is exactly what the WEA puts on every summer.
This work is too important for the workers to pick fights with each other. Let the advocates advocate, let the researchers research.
And let's remember that those dams are doing much, much more than merely blocking the river.