The Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators (WASDA) turned heads earlier this year when they released survey data that suggested that 59 percent of local school districts increased their class sizes in 2011-2012. However, a look at historical data from that same survey suggests that issues like class sizes and teacher layoffs have been problems in Wisconsin public schools for over a decade now.
The WASDA survey made headlines when it was released thanks to eye-catching numbers when it came to classroom issues. A majority of districts reported laying off teachers, increasing class sizes, and offering fewer courses in 2011-2012. What got lost in the shuffle was that these figures, which many attributed to the 2011-2013 budget and the effects of Act 10, were actually in line or lower than most survey results over the past decade.
The state teachers' union used these results to support their argument that Act 10 was dramatically altering the quality of public education in Wisconsin. However, all references to previous data, which could be used for comparison sake, had disappeared from their and others' websites. The Gannett papers in Wisconsin recently editorialized about the controversy:
According to a news story by the Wisconsin State Journal, the governor's office contends the organizations that conducted those surveys -- the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators and the Wisconsin Education Association Council -- were unhelpful, and in WEAC's case actually worked against the administration as staff tried to compare recent results to past surveys.
"It's unfortunate that WEAC stands in the way of survey data that they have released in the past, which shows the governor's changes are working and are good for their members and the state's schoolchildren," Cullen Werwie, Walker's spokesman told the newspaper.
Problem is, those old surveys disappeared from WEAC's website. Representatives from the union did not respond to questions from the State Journal. The story appeared on Page 1A of the April 7 Stevens Point Journal.
We think that's the wrong approach. If there are legitimate changes in the surveys which would skew current results, that should be apparent. If the governor's staff takes liberties with the data, that too will come across. Making data disappear will not allow the public to see the information and decide who's right. As it stands, it looks like WEAC's got something to hide.
|School Year||Offered Fewer Courses||Reduced Extracurricular Activities||Laid Off Teachers||Laid Off Support Staff||Increased Class Size||Increased Student Fees|
Above is a sample of some of the most relevant questions presented in the survey and their responses over the past 18 years. Data from 1996-1998 and 2009-2011 was not available.
The data shows that issues such as layoffs and class size have been issues in Wisconsin since the turn of the millennium. The percentage of local districts that increased class sizes actually peaked at 75 percent in 2006-07 before regressing to 59 percent in the latest version of the report. Teacher layoffs were another interesting piece of the puzzle. The 2011-2012 survey reports that 65 percent of districts reported net staff cuts amongst teachers, including actions other than layoffs, which had been broken out in specific subsets in prior years. When accounting just for layoffs in the past year, the number of districts choosing to release teaching staff drops to 31 percent.
Even if you count all cuts in teacher staffing, that figure increased by one percent between 2009 and 2012, but still remained lower than they had been from 2001-2005. Those 2001-2005 figures appear to count for only layoffs and not other factors like early retirement. The only significant rise that connotes a negative classroom effect in 2011-12 was with districts that offered fewer courses, which peaked at 71 percent this year.
This survey gives Wisconsinites a good baseline of what is happening in public schools across the state at an administrative level. However, it is a flawed metric that fails to account for the severity of changes at the local level. Rather than painting a pointed picture of how each district is changing it just presents an overall number that trades specificity and effect for general information.
For example, if one district adds courses and another cuts them, that results in a net loss on the survey. Additionally, if one district cuts one course and another cuts 10, then those two districts are given the same weight on the survey. As a result, the data presented doesn’t tell the whole story.
If it did, it would paint a nearly doomsday scenario for the state’s public schools over the past decade. The WASDA survey suggests that layoffs have been a common theme in over 60 percent of districts since 2001-2002. Over that same span, over 60 percent of districts also raised class sizes, though that streak was broken in the 2011-2012 school year.
Critics of the 2011-2013 budget will turn to the survey as evidence of the legislation’s negative effect on schools. In fact, the 2011-2012 numbers don’t even show the most drastic survey numbers of the past decade. After Act 10, districts were less likely to reduce extracurricular activities, lay off support staff, increase class size, or increase student fees. According to the survey, teacher layoffs were about in line with previous years as well.
The only thing that the WASDA survey tells us for sure is that basic survey results fail to create comprehensive data. Pointing only to this survey presents some dangerous assumptions about Wisconsin’s school districts and the effect of Act 10 on the state’s schools. This observational data creates an incomplete view of how Wisconsin districts are operating. Unfortunately for those who have used it to criticize the state’s latest budget, it may actually support Act 10 when compared against previous years.
*This 65% figure reported by the WASDA survey in 2011-2012 includes all teacher staffing cuts rather than just layoffs. Previous year data applies only to layoffs handed down by the district. If only layoffs are included for the current year, this figure would be approximately 31%.