Elevating Educator Voice for Change: Holly Koon on the Washington State Board of Education
When policy makers listen to front-line educators, it makes a big difference to better meeting the needs of our students and our professions. However, educators have not always had a seat at the decision-making table. Only in the last decade have we begin to see a shift to better representation and, as the first teacher in 130 years to serve on Washington’s State Board of Education, Mount Baker EA leader and high school teacher Holly Koon, MEd, NBCT, was a trailblazer.
“I used to hear colleagues talking about trying to tackle systemic problems and joke, ‘Get a teacher on the State Board of Education,’” Koon shared. “Though, at the time I never dreamed it would be possible, or that it would be me.”
From its establishment in 1877 until just recently, Washington State law made it illegal for practicing educators to run for one of the elected positions on the State Board of Education. Then in 2006 the legislature altered that dynamic when they reconfigured the Board from all elected members to partially appointed members. This paved the way for a newly elected Governor Inslee to appoint Koon, a classroom teacher, in 2013.
As a new member on the Board, Koon found herself surrounded by other Board members coming from think tank or “reform” backgrounds and a Board focused primarily on accountability and student performance “outputs.”
“Adding my boots-on-the-ground, educator perspective served as a reality check to help the Board as a whole really understand some of the unintended consequences,” noted Koon. “Even if you come with your heart in the right place, if you don’t understand the complex implementation impacts at the district and school level, you sometimes end up doing more harm than good for actual students. I think I have helped the Board broaden their scope of concern to include equitable system in-puts and providing real access for all students and not just focusing on ‘achievement’ and classroom level accountability as measured by single test scores.”
Koon’s eight-year term on the Board ends January 1st, 2022. During her service, Koon used her position to help roll back some of the harmful high-stakes testing requirements, expand pathways to graduation, and guide the system through a global pandemic.
“I am proud to say that I’ve had a part in making Washington’s K-12 education more humane and attuned to the needs of individual students,” Koon remarked. “I think the Board is much more adept at listening to students and educators than they were 8 years ago.”
Koon encourages every educator to step up and do the policy-level work to create change, recognizing public education is so political.
“I know a lot of amazing teachers that care so much about their students and making a great impact on their students’ lives,” remarked Koon. “But if you care about all students, then you have to go beyond just your classroom and look at the school building, district, and state policy levels. Everything we do in the classroom every day is impacted by policy and politics.”
Which is why the other accomplishment Koon is proud of is her role in establishing educators as a critical voice in policymaking.
“When it came time to talk about filling my vacancy on the Board, there wasn’t any discussion about whether I would be replaced by another teacher because practitioner voice is now considered essential to the conversation,” Koon reflected. “Adding the cumulative wisdom and expertise of generations of teachers to the on-going conversation is how we will truly make a difference for all students.”