"I have heard from many people about the things that are going on here and I wanted to see it myself," Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said Monday during a visit to Hawthorne Elementary, a high poverty school in Seattle's south end.
Although the money spent to improve Hawthorne came from a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Van Roekel said he believes reform can only be successful when it is managed locally with teacher involvement, not mandated by the federal government.
The federal government wants Washington state to embrace more education reforms, such as toughening its teacher evaluation system, by making test scores more of a factor. The Washington Education Association is fighting this effort, but some lawmakers and education reform advocates want to hold teachers and their unions more accountable for student success and failure.
For example, after Gov. Jay Inslee put pressure recently on unions at the Boeing Co. to agree to a new contract to help keep airplane production in the state, Liv Finne of the Washington Policy Center wrote a blog post encouraging the governor to apply some of that same pressure on the teacher's union.
"The governor seems less concerned about how union conflict in the area of education affects children in our public schools," she wrote. "To appease the powerful WEA union, the governor worked to kill positive school reforms."
Since 2010, Hawthorne Elementary students in third through fifth grades have shown double-digit improvement in passing rates on math and reading standardized tests.
Improvements at the school included more support for and involvement of families, more teacher training, a full-time librarian and improved understanding and use of student testing data.
One example of their efforts was a 17-day reading intervention at one grade that brought every kid up at least one level in reading comprehension.
Schools that find something that is working should be rewarded with more money, not less, Van Roekel said.
Taking that grant money away when the school is improving "shows me the system is just kind of broken," he said.
State education officials said of the 10 high-poverty, low-achieving schools that received school improvement grants - ranging from $50,000 to $2 million during each of the previous three school years - 76 percent showed improvement in reading proficiency and 96 percent improved in math.
Another 17 Washington schools are still receiving federal improvement grants, which were awarded during second or third rounds of the program.
During two days in Washington state, Van Roekel and Washington Education Association President Kim Mead visited half a dozen schools that benefited from federal school improvement grants, in celebration of NEA's American Education Week.
Mead agreed with Van Roekel that successful school improvement has to be designed locally.
But Eileen Graham, the Hawthorne school business officer, didn't entirely agree.
"We shouldn't all be reinventing the wheel," said Graham, who shares administrative duties with the school's principal. "There are some things that are replicable."
Van Roekel and Mead also criticized the federal government's emphasis on testing and expressed concern about giving teachers enough time to learn and teach the new national education standards known as the common core.