Walker, Evers Move Forward on Accountability Efforts without WEAC, Which Refused to Participate

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

For years, Wisconsin has been identified as having some of the most relaxed standards when it comes to assessing public schools. A new task force created by Governor Scott Walker and Department of Public Instruction Tony Evers is planning to change that.

The two joined forces Thursday afternoon to unveil a design team aimed towards keeping Wisconsin’s public schools accountable to students, families, and the general population of the Badger State. Together, they’ll work to phase out the flawed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) school grading metric and create a value-added system that accurately gauges how effective the state’s schools are.

Various school leaders, including representatives from public, private, charter and higher education institutions will help create and implement a new accountability system for Wisconsin’s schools. Their work will replace a current metric that State Superintendent Tony Evers described as being “flat-out broken.”

“This is going to be a wake up call for citizens and states that think ‘well, our schools are good,’” said panelist Damian Betebenner.

The meeting was an introductory presentation that unveiled the purpose of the group. Their goal will be to create growth-based methods to replicate the success of high-performing schools while providing assistance for low-performing ones.

This accountability program would have roots in Florida, where overwhelming reform helped turn around the Sunshine State’s schools. Speaker Patricia Levesque, Executive Director of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, expounded on how Florida was able to raise their public schools from the bottom of the national rankings in part thanks to a comprehensive school grading system.

In Wisconsin, this would go beyond Florida’s individual progress measures to include more comprehensive measures for grading schools. This would expand the current scope of accountability from a four-pronged approach (WKCE, attendance, test participation, and graduation rates) to a larger, more descriptive focus on what makes a school successful.

The new system would phase out the current NCLB slate of school grading. Wisconsin’s schools had become proficient of gaming this system to make bad schools seem better, as publicized in the Fordham Institute’s study The Accountability Illusion. This research showed that thanks to relaxed standards, it was considerably easier for schools to meet Adequate Yearly Progress in Wisconsin than in the 27 other states examined in the study. The program devised by the task force would solve this problem by making sure that schools grade proficiently on a rigid metric that allows parents to understand just how strong their neighborhood schools really are.

Value-added research – which counts student progress and how much he or she has learned – stands to be the backbone of the school grading system. Rather than penalizing schools for accepting students who come in at low testing levels, this program would reward teachers and schools who help pupils learn and catch up to their peers. Dr. Rob Meyer, Director of the Value-Added Research Center at UW-Madison, led a session that revolved around measuring this progress.

However, one key player in the future of Wisconsin’s public education was noticeably absent Thursday afternoon. The Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), the state’s largest teachers’ union, declined to participate in the talks over how to assess school quality in the future.

WEAC President Mary Bell refused to have a member of her team participate in the discussion despite the potential effect that the task force could have on the state’s public school teachers. The organization cited a lack of trust in Governor Walker, along with Education Committee Chairmen Senator Luther Olsen and Representative Steve Kestell as the motivating force behind WEAC’s choice not to participate. “We will not join with those who do not value Wisconsin’s public schools,” Bell was quoted as saying in regards to the task force.

WEAC’s refusal means that the union won’t have a say in policy decisions that will shape how Wisconsin’s schools are graded and presented to the public. However, other teacher advocate groups, such as the American Federation for Teachers, Wisconsin Association of School Administrators, and the Wisconsin Association of School Boards have lent their support to ensure that the state’s teachers are included in the grading process. Their lack of participation was a still a concern, however, as one participant, a local special education teacher, openly worried that teachers wouldn’t be well represented without WEAC’s presence.

Despite this absence, the design team appears poised to create a program that will accurately grade Wisconsin’s schools and relay important information to parents and families. The end goal will be an overarching accountability system that Evers is “positively jazzed” to put in place. If successful, this could be the catalyst that pulls the state out of its hypnotic illusion of high performing schools and into an era where the best schools are recognized and the ones that need help are identified.