Apex Learning CEO Chery Vedoe speaking at the Technology Alliance in Seattle

Ten years ago, then Boeing Commercial Airplanes boss Alan Mulally declared in front of the Seattle Rotary Club that Washington state wasn’t a great place to do business. “I think we suck,” he said.

I was reminded of that comment after attending the Technology Alliance luncheon in downtown Seattle yesterday, one of the biggest gatherings of leaders of the tech industry. And while Technology Alliance chair Cheryl Vedoe didn’t use as colorful of language as Mulally, the message was the same.

Yes, we suck when it comes to educating our youth.

The poor state of Washington’s education system was a theme that ran through the entire event, from Vedoe’s brutal comparisons between Washington and Massachusetts to keynoter Rich Barton’s plea to institute a system that rewards teachers based on their merits.

wa-competitiveVedoe, the CEO of Apex Learning, ran though a laundry list of stats about the state’s educational system. In fact, so many that my head was spinning by the end of it. The report card wasn’t one that you’d like to take home to mom and dad.

—Washington ranks 37th in total bachelor degree production among residents 18 to 24 years old, dropping five spots compared to 1998.

—Washington ranks 32nd in science and engineering bachelor degrees and 35th in PhDs.

—Washington ranks 20th in reading proficiency for 4th graders, and 9th compared to other high-tech peer states. By comparison, half of Massachusetts 4th graders are proficient in reading, compared to just one third in Washington.

—Only 37 percent of Washington state middle school students are proficient in reading, and only 40 percent are proficient in math.

—77 percent of Washington students finish high school on time, compared to 83 percent in Massachusetts. Nearly three quarters of Massachusetts students enroll in college, compared to 48 percent in Washington.

—Washington ranks 30th in funding for K-12, dropping five spots since 1999.

—Washington ranks 49th in funding for higher education on a per-student basis.

wa-education11The Technology Alliance has been benchmarking the educational system in Washington state for 10 years, and the message never really seems to change.

In fact, Vedoe compared the findings to that of Groundhog Day, where things always stay the same. “I am here telling the same story now a few years later about where we are in education,” she said.

Despite the fact that Washington state is actually falling behind in key areas, Vedoe said the tech industry is moving forward and thriving. However, the innovation economy is moving forward, largely through the import of talent from other places.

UW’s Ed Lazowska interviews Zillow co-founder Rich Barton.

“It seems you can grow an innovation economy by largely relying on imported talent. And that’s what we are doing — relying on imported talent. The question for us to consider is as a state: Is that really what we want to do? Don’t we want those children who grow up here in Washington, our own citizens, to have a fair shot at the jobs that we are creating here?”

During his keynote remarks, Zillow co-founder Rich Barton, who supports charter schools and a state income tax, said we’ve been unable to change public education in any meaningful way.

“We are a high-tech state. We are a wealthy state, and I can’t believe that’s going on. And I don’t really understand why,” said Barton, referencing some of the charts shown during Vedoe’s presentation. “Many of the people in this room probably send their kids to private school, and that’s part of the problem. I do too. It’s bad. I am the product of great public schools in Connecticut.  And I wish we had public schools here that could compete.”

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  • Joel Grus

    Wow, it’s almost like there’s no correlation between those education metrics and those economic innovation metrics. That’s what I’m supposed to take away from this, right?

  • zorazane

    I am part of the problem, but I am not willing to make any sacrifices to fix it; – said supposed public education experts like Bill Gates, and Barton above.

    • ericshellan

      Both do support an income tax.

      • Joe McGrath

        So would I if my wealth was in assets and not income.

  • Guest

    Step 1: Grant funding to intelligent persons who start childhood education businesses (hereinafter “new schools”) that emphasize transparency, accountability, and results. These businesses should be maximally efficient in all ways from energy usage to educator evaluation.

    Step 2: Grant every taxpayer a stipend to send his/her children to new schools.

    Step 3: Close every old school. Sell the assets to the private sector.

    Of course, our idiot teachers’ unions will not be happy with my three-point plan to reinvent education. See the acclaimed film “Waiting for Superman” to see just how our public school teachers put their own comfort over the education of our children. Lay them all off. Let the talented ones apply to teach in new schools where they will be valued.

  • guest

    There’s a LOT more to the education issues in our state than these guys make it out to be. Our state, unlike the tiny states on the East Coast, are large by land mass and small in population. We fund public schools by real estate taxes. Bellevue has a massive budget because they are dense and have very large dollars for estate valuations. Seattle has a lot of estate tax revenue being generated, however, Seattle also has far more kids to put in schools. Bellevue schools are rather new and not falling apart, Seattle schools are pretty old, most built in the 60’s, 50’s or earlier and they need to be rebuilt (this costs money, I know..hard to believe right?). These are just a few of the issues. Take a look at the battle over the STEM school program right now for Seattle schools. There’s great potential to be the leader in education, but without $ supporting it I have little hope it’ll work correctly. Maybe some of the big wigs in the Seattle start-up community making millions can help by funding local schools in our state. I know Grant County needs help, there are schools there with 1 computer per grade…ONE per grade. Can you imagine sharing a computer between 90 students?

  • Kishari Sing

    This is NOT a simple fix, sadly. Cheryl Vedoe nailed it when she pointed out we’ve been having this conversation for ten years (and in some cases more)…I’ve been working in education technology myself and have seen this first hand. It’s not only about the technology, or only about the teachers, or only about the curriculum. It will take everyone getting involved (including parents) to make any large-scale change. Meanwhile, we make the small ones that can be made.

  • Steven Bradford

    What Joel Grus said.
    Obviously, if we got to be the wealthiest, most innovative, most scientifically accomplished nation with the most overwhelmingly superior military force in history– all with a failed education system– then a good education system is obviously not necessary.

    This article is just another propaganda brick in the education reform industry’s relentless attack on young people and teachers. If we just gave more tax breaks to the rich, and did more things that don’t cost money, we’ll solve all our problems without any effort, and we can ignore education. Typical software geek approach. If you just come up with the right code, everything will run on autopilot from then on, no human intervention necessary!

    • Guest

      Because we import the best and the brightest from other countries! But many experts eventually go back as their own countries improve dramatically (i.e. China, India) and the US is less attractive than ever in history, so let’s just see if this strategy will work in the future. “A good education system not being necessary” is about the dumbest statement I’ve ever read on GW!

  • Joe McGrath

    “We are a high-tech state. We are a wealthy state, and I can’t believe that’s going on. And I don’t really understand why,”
    Ah, the myth as promoted by government; the solution to any problem is spend more money. And when it doesn’t work, be confused and spend even more money.
    In the words of Tobias Funke, “It never works for couples. But it might just work for us.”

    • Guest

      Yeah, tell yourself that to rationalize why you don’t want to contribute. That’s why about every other modern country in the world kicks our asses in education. Let’s just close schools altogether, if the money is wasted anyway.

      • Joe McGrath

        They do, and they spend less. Did I say I didn’t want to contribute? Or did I maybe infer that the money is being spent isn’t being spent effectively? God forbid that is the case, with no merit based pay systems and a curriculum that hasn’t changed in 40 years.

        Just spending more money as the solution is an ignorant, lazy, and misguided solution.

  • Olivierf14

    I wonder what the statistics would be if we only included the Puget Sound area or Western WA. Most of our “peer states” don’t have large rural areas where education tends to be poorer.

    The discrepancy between “innovation economy” (most of which is in Greater Seattle) and the educational system is too great to be solely explained by spending. I think the stats are being dragged down by underperforming regions of our state.

    • Guest

      What a load of crap! Ever been to other states? Texas, Arizona, Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas, New Mexico, Minnesota, Idaho, Alaska … etc. You think they are all urban and don’t have large rural areas? C’mon.

  • Bigmack

    Washington state ranks 44th in per-pupil spending… only 6 states lower than us. And you know who those states are… Washington state ranks 42nd in class size. So… less money and bigger class sizes. Washington state spends almost $8,000 per year per pupil. Washington state spends between $30,000 and $50,000 per year per prisoner. Anybody have an idea what might be the problem? Priorities, I guess…..
    Funding Statistics: Funding WA Schools – What To Know, Data to

    • Guest

      Educate children in prison!

      • Different Guest

        Or put prisoners in schools, to REALLY punish them!

  • Suzan Delbene

    Odd that none of the speakers suggested ending tax dodges so WA can better fund education –

  • mriggen

    The parents at our school had to chip in to buy our teachers a coffee maker. There is an older fax stacked on top of an old, broken fax in the office. The copy machine only works sporadically. Nurses only come into the schools one or two days a week because there is no money to fund them, which would make me frantic if my child had a chronic medical condition like diabetes or asthma.

    It seems like there are some pretty basic issues that could be addressed with not all that much money (the cost of one big tech gala per year, maybe?) Would love to see further discussion on this topic because it is pretty appalling.

  • Mike

    Complicated problem. I would love to see an analysis of education stats versus teachers union funding, power, etc.

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