In the face of an educational crisis, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) announced a troika of reform aimed at improving the state’s public schools. The headliner? A dissection of the Milwaukee Public Schools district.
Christian D’Andrea, Education Policy Analyst for The John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy, issued the following reaction.
For further information, contact: Christian D'Andrea: 608-237-7290
"WEAC unveiled their strategy Tuesday in the form of a pre-emptive strike as Governor Scott Walker prepares his upcoming budget proposal, which most insiders agree will have a significant impact on school funding and the way our schools operate.
"The organization’s main focus is to break Wisconsin’s largest district into multiple pieces by 2015. According to WEAC leaders, this move would create a more manageable system in the schools that have become a collective albatross hanging from the neck of Wisconsin’s public education.
“[I]n its current configuration, we do not believe MPS can be fixed. It is simply too big,” said WEAC President Mary Bell. Bell later went on to say that despite the state union’s buy-in, the local Milwaukee Teachers’ Educational Association (MTEA) isn’t on board.
"While MPS is fraught with problems, a reduction of size won’t be a panacea, nor will it make things much clearer in Wisconsin’s largest city. While WEAC’s change of heart is refreshing given their recent track record on education reform, they are resorting to a drastic step without fully exploring their other options for reform that are politically more feasible. MPS is only the 33rd largest school district in the country by enrollment, and while some of the cities that are larger than Milwaukee nationally have their own problems, many operate successfully despite a glut of students.
"Of the 32 districts ranked above Milwaukee, “Brew City” outspends all but four of them on a per-pupil basis. Over the past decade, the district’s enrollment has shrunk by over 13,000 students, dropping them seven spots on the national list. American cities like Decatur, Georgia and Golden, Colorado current boast higher enrollments than Milwaukee. Does this sound like an example of a school district that has become unmanageably large?
"Miami-Dade County Public Schools, for example, have seen a recent renaissance thanks to progressive reform. Despite an enrollment of over 348,000 students and the presence of 630 different public schools, they still managed to post NAEP reading scores that were above the national average for both fourth and eighth graders in their district. They did this while spending over $2,700 less per student than Milwaukee did as well.
"Other cities, such as Charlotte, Austin, and Louisville were able to make similar claims despite having student populations similar to or larger than Milwaukee’s.
"However, WEAC’s other two recipes for reform hold more promise, but may prove to be flawed in their execution.
"The first calls for more comprehensive teacher evaluations, including annual, career-deciding reviews based on value-added assessments for educators in their first three years of employment. Teachers that fail to meet the requirements of this review would be removed. Additionally, veteran teachers would see greater evaluation than their current program calls for, including a more extensive review process that would take place once every three years.
"While this system would help identify struggling young teachers and offer professional support, it may be too light on educators outside of their first three years of experience. While WEAC is advocating a shift towards value-added student data to measure a teacher’s full impact, why limit these evaluations to just one every three years? With the rehaul of the WKCE getting underway, why not tie a portion of teacher evaluation to annual progress on the revamped and more meaningful test? Wouldn’t this give parents and administrators a better view on how their teachers are truly performing?
"Another curious point here is the union’s sudden adoption of value-added testing and its ability to impact administrative decisions. In the state’s two Race to the Top applications, it was the refusal of teachers across Wisconsin to allow their students’ results to be tied into professional actions that eventually sunk the state’s chances at $250 million in additional educational funding. This was a major sticking point in 2009 and 2010.
"This past rejection of tying student performance to teacher evaluation is reason for concern when it comes to this new proposal. While they suggest greater accountability in the classroom, prior results suggest that this is something that could be abandoned in the future.
"Stronger teacher evaluations are an important piece of adding accountability to Wisconsin’s public schools, and WEAC’s proposal of a centralized format certainly has its strengths. Hopefully this proposal will be only be the start of what should be a complete overhaul on how teachers are graded – and how parents understand what’s being taught in their local classrooms.
"WEAC’s other reform hinges on a merit pay system, a program whose benefits have been debated for years. A Vanderbilt study released in Septembe suggests that merit pay programs have little effect on student performance if instituted on their own.
"However, results in Florida, which rewards teachers and schools for students passing AP exams, suggest that a merit pay system can be beneficial when working concomitantly with other reform programs. As a result, it’s difficult to gauge how effective merit pay could be in Wisconsin without an idea of what reforms it would be working in concert with.
"The educational climate in Wisconsin has grown so stagnant that little positive work can be done without making significant changes; WEAC’s suggested reforms are a start. However, they don’t seem to go far enough yet. While this reform is important, it can’t be done halfway, and fragmenting MPS seems to be the recipe for creating more problems rather than fixing them."