On Education Reform: Debunking Duncan and the Journal Sentinel

By Brett Healy
MacIver Institute President

Last month the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took Governor Scott Walker to task for his “confrontational stance with teachers unions.” According to Duncan, WEAC, the state’s teachers union, deserves support for their recent reform efforts and that Walker’s approach was “nonsensical.”

I have come to expect half-truths from politicians like Duncan.  I was hoping, however, that reporter Amy Hetzner, would remind Wisconsinites of the many times WEAC has stood in the way of meaningful education reform here in the Badger State.

You see, Secretary Duncan’s view from Washington DC excludes a key part of the story.  Wisconsin, under Gov. Jim Doyle, failed twice in its recent attempt to secure federal funding from President Obama’s Race To The Top initiative.  Both times, WEAC’s opposition to accountability measures was cited by experts as the main reason why Wisconsin had failed to make the cut, accountability measures that President Obama believes are critical to improving education here in the United States.

The MacIver Institute’s Education Policy Analyst Christian D’Andrea penned a response to the Journal Sentinel which politely pointed out Duncan’s (and their reporter’s) omission.

For some reason, the Journal Sentinel chose not to publish his critique.

I’m not going to make much of the mainstream media’s inability to call out the educational bureaucracy. They so rarely devote enough space to the issue in general. Who am I to pick nits. But The MacIver Institute will always strive to give Wisconsinites a complete and accurate analysis of the challenges facing our schools.  The future of our children and their education deserve no less.

Further, D’Andrea’s critique merits your consideration, so we publish it, below. Better late than never.
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And Now, The Rest of the Story

What Duncan and the Journal Sentinel failed to mention in its story on this issue is the fact that WEAC’s refusal to adopt reform just months earlier helped cost the state $250 million in Race to the Top funding. Wisconsin not only failed twice in their application for significant, one-time funding boosts, but actually regressed on the second application (in relation to national ranking) after local leaders all but guaranteed a victory for the Badger State.

What drove this repeated failure? There were several running themes that sunk the state, but the biggest flaw was a continual lack of buy-in from local teachers. One significant example came from tying value-added student testing data to the teachers who educated them.

Many local educating authorities (LEAs) agreed that the data could be collected, but it could not be used in conjunction with any administrative decisions when dealing with teachers. In short, no action – good or bad – could have come about from measuring teachers by the performance of their students.

This happened on back-to-back applications; even after a lack of LEA cooperation was identified as a detracting factor in Wisconsin’s first attempt to earn $250 million in additional grants. This stance was repeated as recently as the summer of 2010. It wasn’t until February 2011 that the statewide teachers’ union went public with a new attitude towards certain reforms.

Indeed, WEAC reversed course on several topics and embraced change more than we’ve seen in Wisconsin in almost any other era. They should be commended for their willingness to adopt new policies such as value-added testing to analyze teacher performance and merit pay to reward strong educators and create a better product in the classroom. However, it wasn’t until a new regime was already firmly entrenched in office that these reforms were embraced. It appears that this change of heart came only after reforms appeared to be imminent.

This isn’t an endorsement, but a reminder to Secretary Duncan – WEAC was seemingly only willing to adopt change once their backs were against the wall. It was only months earlier that local districts across the state shrugged off the basis for advanced teacher evaluation and merit pay systems. This prevented hundreds of millions of dollars from reaching classrooms across the Badger State. Duncan was quick to criticize the current shift taking place in Wisconsin last week, but had little to say when a lack of change dropped the state down the Race to the Top standings.

At the same conference, Duncan later suggested that “we have to do things in a very, very different way” in order to turnaround the country’s underachieving schools. With education reaching a critical point, Wisconsinites cannot afford to take any more half-measures that leave students, teachers, and classrooms in peril. A late-game compromise after causing the state to lose out on funding that would have been valuable in the face of budget cuts is not the full measure Secretary Duncan seems to be proposing.