Love & Wisdom

Do Seattle Schools Produce Underachievers?

As if Seattle’s public schools weren’t plagued enough, now critics say they are producing underchall

By Seattle Mag October 17, 2011


This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of Seattle magazine.

“My sixth-grade son’s report card came home, and he got almost all A’s,” recalls Seattle parent David Price. But what seemed like a cause for celebration quickly turned to concern.

“Later, when I asked him how hard his classes were on a scale of one to 10, he said, ‘Four.’”

Price, a parent of students in Washington Middle School and McGilvra Elementary School, voices concerns that echo those of other local parents, as well as local employers and college recruiters: that the public school education our kids receive in this high-tech, innovative, wealthy metropolis is often mediocre, belying the brain power and resources our city has to offer.

Heidi Bennett, a Seattle parent of both public- and private-school students, wonders: Why is meeting grade-level standards the only benchmark Seattle Public Schools uses on its school report cards? Why not set the bar higher?

“Meeting standards should be the minimum expectation,” she says. “We should be challenging all of our students to exceed the standards and provide adequate opportunities for them to do so.”

Schools that set the bar too low are hurtful to more than just parents; they produce students who lack the skills they need to compete—if they even stick around to graduate.

“Underchallenging kids actually short-shrifts them all the way around,” says Chris Korsmo, CEO of the League of Education Voters (LEV) Foundation.

“In all of the surveys I’ve seen of kids who dropped out, the number-one reason they give is that they are bored.”

Schools with high graduation rates are good for another reason: They raise property values in surrounding neighborhoods as parents clamor to get their kids into the best schools—schools they perceive as academically rigorous, with high test scores and lots of college-bound graduates.

But, in fact, our state’s high school graduation rates are dismal. According to the 2011 Citizens’ Report Card on Washington State Education, compiled by the League of Education Voters and drawing heavily from information provided by the Washington State Office of the Superintendent for Public Instructions (OSPI), only 69 percent of Washington’s ninth-graders will graduate from high school on time, putting us in the bottom third of states in this category, nationwide. Of those who do graduate, only 35 percent will pursue higher education, and only 18 percent will receive a college diploma after six (!) years.

In June, the board of directors for Seattle Public Schools gave its district poor marks for academic achievement, stating that the goals of the district’s strategic plan, “Excellence for All,” are not on track to be met.

According to OSPI, though there have been recent improvements, fewer than half of Seattle’s 10th-graders met state-established standards in math and science during the 2010–11 school year. “We’re not doing so well by anybody,” says

Korsmo. “We need a common language for success,” she adds, and the funds to go with it. “You can’t say you are promoting a college-going culture and then cut funding for guidance counselors, family support workers and summer school.”

How best to raise the bar on academic rigor? Some local parents think Federal Way’s school district is getting it right. In the fall of last year, that district implemented an academic acceleration program, which automatically places middle school and high school students who have achieved grade-level standards into advanced, college preparatory academic programs.

It’s an “opt-out” system, as opposed to Seattle’s confusing “opt-in” system, and it’s resulted in a near doubling of students enrolled in advanced classes.

In Seattle, if your child passes qualifying tests, he might get a spot in one of two accelerated learning programs held outside of mainstream classrooms at some elementary and middle schools (called “Spectrum” and the “Accelerated Progress Program,” or APP). But Spectrum doesn’t always have room for everyone, requiring parents to go through a second school-enrollment process to participate in a lottery for student placement.

Some say that system is elitist, favors parents who understand the ins and outs of the program, and benefits students who “test in” during elementary school over those who don’t. The APP program serves only 5 percent of middle schoolers and 3 percent of high schoolers. As a result, some savvy parents push hard for their kids to receive APP designation, or even consider a neighborhood change to benefit from these advantages.

Seattle school district officials are taking steps to address some of these problems, grappling with ways in which to raise the bar for all students.

“We’re a team of people trying to make responsible, professional judgments,” says Robert Vaughan, manager of the district’s advanced learning office. He and Cathy Thompson, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, are both parents of former Seattle public school students.

“I know firsthand we can make our schools work for our kids, and it is my goal to personalize education for every student,” says Thompson. Thompson is overseeing the district’s uncomfortable transition from a site-based system, which allowed schools freedom to make individual curriculum decisions, to a more centralized system, with curriculum alignment and standards-based instruction. The goal? To ensure consistent quality across all schools in the district. Other districts have made this transition, most notably Bellevue, which was heralded nationally for the success of its public schools, only to suffer a crippling teachers’ strike in 2008, in part over the lack of freedom to stray from district-mandated curriculum. It’s a Catch-22.

But Thompson says Seattle Public Schools is an innovative school district, with officials who regularly study the best practices of other districts to find what fits. (Some don’t like Federal Way’s “opt out” for Seattle, finding it to be too sweeping, with the potential to put kids in college-level courses before they’re ready.)

Though she likens the district to a large ship that “turns slowly” and acknowledges that decisions are sometimes slowed by the Seattle penchant for input and consensus, Thompson is excited by a number of changes that have already been made, such as the new neighborhood school assignment system, the creation of six regional executive director positions, the development of professional learning communities and the new teacher evaluation system.

Another change in the pipeline is the statewide adoption of the Common Core Standards, a set of national grade-level standards (as opposed to state-specific ones), which are seen by some as more rigorous than the ones used by our state. Thompson is convinced that will raise academic rigor across the board.

Thompson and Vaughan say they are committed to developing new advanced and specialized learning sites, such as the new science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program at Cleveland High School. Still, several candidates in this month’s Seattle school board election, such as Sharon Peaslee and Marty McLaren, have made strengthening academic rigor, particularly in math, important components of their campaign platforms.

And though many agree that raising expectations is imperative, given Seattle Public Schools’ infamously clunky bureaucracy, some parents wonder whether change can come at all, let alone soon enough for their child.

Former world-traveling diplomat turned minivan-driving mom Alison Krupnick lives in Ballard with her husband and two daughters.  A freelance writer and contributor to the Seattle magazine blog “Balancing Act,” Alison writes about education, parenting, aging, caring for elderly parents, community and food.  Check out her newly-launched blog at


Here are some steps the district could take to personalize education by closing the information and access gaps.

1. Publish, translate and widely distribute K–12 curriculum maps and milestones and grading practices

2. Hold school-based quarterly town hall meetings with translators at which academics, school climate and grade-level transitions are explained, giving parents the opportunity to ask questions

3. Have regional executive directors hold annual neighborhood meetings with leaders of area elementary, middle and high schools to explain how primary and secondary curricula feed into one another. Provide translators.

4. Replace one week of MAP (“Measures of Academic Progress”) testing at secondary schools with parent-teacher-student-counselor conferences to set individual milestones for each student who goes above and beyond meeting grade-level standards

5. Jettison the complex “opt-in” approach to advanced learning and broaden easy access to a greater range of learning opportunities for all students


Follow Us

Proof of Washington’s Retail Muscle

Proof of Washington’s Retail Muscle

National Retail Federation ranking showcases an often-overlooked strength

A prominent business executive new to town once told me he loved shopping at Nordstrom’s. He was sheepish when he discovered that the upscale retailer’s headquarters are based in Seattle...

MOD Pizza To Be Acquired By Elite Restaurant Group

MOD Pizza To Be Acquired By Elite Restaurant Group

The sale may have staved off a potential bankruptcy filing

MOD Super Fast Pizza LLC has agreed to be acquired by Elite Restaurant Group. Terms were not disclosed. Bellevue-based MOD was founded in 2008 and until recently had been on a growth tear. It now operates more than 500 locations across the United States and Canada, but had reportedly closed more than two dozen this…

Free Bumbershoot Tickets!

Free Bumbershoot Tickets!

There’s a catch. And it’s a good one.

As part of “Bumbershoot Gives Back, Powered by Amazon,” 2,000, two-day tickets will go to people who volunteer at select organizations focusing on food insecurity. Hunger affects more than 1.5 million people across the region.

Washington’s Wave Wanderlust

Washington’s Wave Wanderlust

Just in time for summer: State ranks No. 1 for beaches.

Washington is the best state to go to the beach in America. Vacation rental platform found that Washington boasts the most beaches of any state, 1,550, and has 1,053.63 miles of beach. That includes “urban beaches” such as Burien’s Seahurst Park, Alki, and Golden Gardens, and Discovery Park. A few of our favorite beaches…