Advocate group keeps tabs on Kennewick schools

KENNEWICK -- Bob Valiant is not happy with public school reforms, and he wants parents to know what's at stake.

Valiant has worked in schools since the 1960s, first as a science teacher, then as an administrator with the Kennewick School District and finally as a freelance consultant.

He is pretty much retired now -- "I work when I feel like it, which is less and less," the 75-year-old quipped -- but that doesn't mean he stopped caring about schools.

This time, it's personal -- Valiant has a granddaughter. He wants to make sure she will get the education he envisioned for her.

"I'm not going to sit by and watch what I think is wrong," he said.

What's wrong, Valiant said, is that schools have stopped teaching kids how to be successful in life and, instead, teach them how to be successful on standardized tests.

Valiant decided to act, and last summer started a group called Kennewick School District Citizens with a like-minded former teacher. The group exists largely online -- on its website, ksdcitizens.org, and a Facebook page.

It advocates against teaching to the tests, reports on the actions of the Kennewick school board, and links to similar groups and opinions from around the country.

Last week, the website got a big boost after several national blogs picked up an opinion piece first published on it.

The story, Waiting for Superfraud, by Michael Martin, a school administrator in Arizona, went live on the Kennewick site Dec. 22.

During the holiday weekend, Huffington Post, reddit.com and others re-posted the story, driving almost 3,000 visitors to ksdcitizens.org. Until now, the site usually got a few dozen hits on its posts.

"It hasn't gone viral, but it's gone bacterial," Valiant said with a laugh.

The opinion piece's central theme is that corporations want public schools to fail so education would be entirely privatized, redirecting the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on schools across the country into the coffers of for-profit companies.

It's an extreme and one-sided view. But it does fit in with one of the group's objectives, which is to bring national conversations to Tri-City parents.

Since most of the changes in education are prompted by federal mandates, commentary from other states might be useful for Kennewick parents, Valiant said.

The leverage of federal education policies over local curricula irks Valiant.

"The feds contribute something like 20 percent of all school dollars," he said. "But they drive the entire thing with mandates."

He not only disagrees with the federal government's control, but the direction in which it has been pushed.

"The reform effort has pulled apart whole-child education," Valiant said. "The focus is entirely on reading and math."

It's not that Valiant doesn't think reading and math are important -- he taught advanced math -- but he rejects the exclusive focus on the two subjects in standardized testing and the use of those test results to determine curricula, class offerings and teachers' job security.

"These tests were never developed for what they're used for now," he said. "The tests were meant to get a general idea on how schools are doing, not for firing teachers."

The focus on the tests crowds out other important topics, Valiant said. Kids often have to take two classes of reading or math in a semester to make sure they pass the tests, he said. This doesn't leave time to teach them how to think.

"Having a head full of little facts isn't important," Valiant said. "It's important to know how to cull out the facts you need."

The group's co-founder, Tom Staly, who reports on the actions of the Kennewick school board on the website, was directly affected by the change of focus in public education.

He taught in Kennewick schools for 30 years until his retirement in 2008. For most of that time, he taught hands-on classes such as technical education. But that elective was scrapped at Horse Heaven Hills Middle School in the mid-2000s, he said, and Staly switched to teaching math.

Staly said the need for students to double up on reading and math classes meant not enough of them could take exploratory courses, leading to the demise of his shop class.

Now he just wants to get parents more engaged in their kids' education.

"I want to help inform people about what's going at the school board," he said.

Apparently that means covering the board's politics along with its policies. The comments on the site include some strong words about local school board members.

At least one of them doesn't mind the opinions.

"I think it's really good to talk about education," said board member Wendy London. "People don't attend the board meetings -- attendance is really low."

The website can help stimulate discussion about the local schools, which can only be a good thing, London said.

But then it's probably easier for her to stomach the opinionated website -- the pointed barbs aren't directed at her.

The posts include direct -- and sometimes personal -- attacks against board members Lynn Fielding, Dawn Adams and Heather Kintzley.

Two of them said they don't pay much attention to the site.

"I only heard about it a couple of weeks ago," Kintzley said.

"I'd looked at it," Adams said. "I just saw personal opinions and attacks from a familiar set of names who campaigned against me in the last election."

Kintzley noted that a few board members are up for re-election in November.

"I perceive this as early campaigning," she said.

As for the group's ideological bent, Kintzley said she didn't completely disagree.

"I think the test data is important because you need to have a baseline," she said. "But it shouldn't necessarily drive the show."

Adams saw the matter in a practical light.

"I'm in a position where I need to meet state and federal regulations to get funding (for our schools)," she said. "I'd be open to solutions on how to get there, rather than criticizing federal policy."

* Jacques Von Lunen: 509-582-1402; jvonlunen@tricityherald.com