Joint Education Committee Discusses a Range of School Reforms from Physical Education to Teacher Evaluations

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

Legislators from the Senate and Assembly discussed a bill that would enact several school reforms in a quickly organized Committee hearing Monday morning. Senate Bill 95 contains ten different pieces of legislation related to public school management across Wisconsin, including policies that could influence teacher evaluations and class sizes.

These changes, introduced by Education Committee Chairs Sen. Luther Olson (R-Ripon) and Rep. Steve Kestell (R-Elkhart Lake), addressed several different concerns brought up by local school boards. The purpose of these changes, Olson said, was to provide support to districts that will be under pressure in the face of proposed budget cuts.

One of the most significant policies touched upon in the bill addresses teacher evaluations. In the new bill, administrators in local districts would be able to use student standardized testing data as a factor behind disciplinary actions for teachers. This would add an additional dimension of accountability by tying a teacher’s evaluation and status to their students’ educational outcomes. However, questions over the validity of using the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (WKCE) have cast doubt over this plan.

The issue of using teacher evaluations to influence disciplinary decisions calls back to the state’s failures on 2010’s Race to the Top application. This helped cost Wisconsin $250 million in federal grant money while winners earned over $1 billion through tying teacher accountability to student educational outcomes. The current process allows for test scores to be used in teacher evaluations – but not to factor in personnel decisions. SB 95 would change this.

The testimony of WEAC President Mary Bell led to a complex discussion revolving around teacher evaluations that lingered throughout the rest of the public testimony period. Nonetheless, the most effective exposition on the topic may have come from Jennifer Breese, a public school teacher who declined to disclose her home district.

“Please, please give teachers a valid evaluation. We are craving the feedback. But this [the WKCE] is not the way,” said Breese. She pointed to the test’s flaws, as well as its limited scope of data and students’ unwillingness to take the exam seriously as reasons for its ineffectiveness. Her comments echoed the almost statewide consensus that the WKCE is in dire need of replacement; State Superintendent Tony Evers has been in the process of developing a new state measure since 2009.

Concerns over the test’s timing and inability to measure student growth made it an easy target for opponents of the plan. The Committee seemed to agree that a shift towards more comprehensive evaluations in a landscape where teacher seniority takes a backseat to a teacher’s ability represents a step in the right direction. However, the tools to make that work – in this case an outdated statewide standardized test – may not be strong enough to base personnel decisions on.

Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) funds also were a hot topic of discussion, as a change in the application of additional funding that helps maintain small class sizes was discussed at length. SAGE has become a common feature on the chopping block across Wisconsin’s lower income schools since many of the funds come at the expense of other programs. As a result, some schools believe they are forced with the decision between funding a program devised to limit class sizes from kindergarten to third grade or supporting existing specialty tracks like music and art.

The proposed regulation would allow schools flexibility within their SAGE contracts and give them the ability to apply funds to specific grades rather than across all four. As a result, schools that previously would have had to give up this additional funding source if they were unable to sustain the regulations from kindergarten to third grade will be able to save money by applying the system to fewer grades.

The hope behind this legislation is that it will retain manageable class sizes in the grades where educational development is at its highest – kindergarten and first grade. This flexibility is aimed at keeping both school programs and class sizes intact for schools populated with students from low-income backgrounds.

Opponents argued that this early classroom intervention needed to be secured across all four grades to have the maximum impact. However, in a budget situation where SAGE funds are an all or nothing scenario, being able to fund some, but not all, grades while keeping other important school programs may be a compromise that many schools turn too. If the bill does pass, all schools with SAGE plans will have the option to retain a comprehensive program. Any administrative decisions will ultimately come down to a school-by-school basis.

Beyond these topics, one of the most discussed changes of the day revolved around awarding school credit for extracurricular sports. Committee members, which include two physical education teachers – Representatives Evan Wynn (R-Whitewater) and Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R- Fond du Lac) – appeared skeptical regarding the plan.

“Physical education is about teaching lifetime activities, and high school sports don’t provide the well-rounded skillsets that phys. ed. classes do,” said Wynn. A steady stream of local teachers and other advocates echoed Wynn’s viewpoint.

The discussion over SB 95’s features stretched out over the course of the day, with much of the public testimony coming from supporters of physical education. It is unknown what amendments may be in store for the bill’s many changes to public education in Wisconsin. Voting on passage from the Education Committee will likely happen in upcoming weeks.