DPI Unveils No Child Left Behind Waiver, Asks for Reform in School Standards, Accountability

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

The Department of Public Instruction presented their plans to free Wisconsin from No Child Left Behind mandates to the Joint Committee on Education Thursday afternoon. If successful, this waiver could help promote reform in state classrooms well into the future.

Deputy State Superintendent Michael Thompson presented the Department of Public Instruction’s (DPI) latest application to qualify for a waiver from federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) standards. The new program would erase increasingly unattainable national standards for public schools and create a new system of educational accountability in Wisconsin. The program, Thompson argued, will “create a system that raises the expectation of what it means to be career and college ready in Wisconsin.”

DPI’s waiver would tap into the upcoming school accountability program to fairly assess the state’s public schools in a stronger way than NCLB’s “Adequate Yearly Progress” metric. The waiver relies on a dynamic system of goals and measurements to gauge how students within an institution are performing.  Every school and district will have rolling personalized goals that assesses where pupils currently are and what true growth would look like. Their goal is to create a fair and evolving system that holds schools accountable for not just student test results but their achievements in the classroom.

Questions swirled over the role of recently announced education programs like Read to Lead and the teacher grading system. Wisconsin has recently unveiled three reforms aimed at improving the quality of the state’s public schools. Though all three will have an impact when it comes to replacing NCLB, Thursday’s hearing made it clear that these reforms will operate more as Wisconsin programs than as federally mandated legislation.

The school accountability system, a program by which schools will be graded and categorized in Wisconsin, will be the foundation of the state’s NCLB waiver. However, other programs, like Read to Lead and the Educator Effectiveness reforms, exist outside the waiver. While they’ll play a role in accountability in Wisconsin public education, they were not pushed into action by this NCLB issue. Thompson assured legislators that the state’s upcoming education reforms were separate entities aimed at customizing and improving school performance in the Badger State’s classrooms.

These new methods will hold Wisconsin’s students to a higher standard when it comes to graduating from high school. The goal is to eliminate remediation for pupils in higher education and to create a breed of students that are more college-ready than ever before. However, this stricter metric likely means that the state’s testing scores will drop in the short term – an aspect that Thompson stressed won’t be a negative for the state, but a positive in the grand scheme.

The waiver garnered support from legislators, researchers, and teachers’ unions alike, though some were concerned that the program would not go far enough with its reforms in the future. Governor Scott Walker echoed some of the comments made at the hearing. “Continued collaboration with Superintendent Evers and a wide range of education stakeholders including teachers, administrators, and school boards will be needed to refine and submit a waiver to the federal government that will allow us to continue to innovate the way we deliver education in Wisconsin,” said Walker.  “The proposed waiver is a good starting point.”

Legislators also expressed concerns over standardized testing within the program. Past issues with the WKCE seemed to spur these issues. Other issues like teacher training and financial concerns also came up during the hours long public hearing, though the majority of testimony and discussion were in favor of the waiver.

This waiver presents an opportunity for Wisconsin to customize its standards without extended federal oversight. The proposed plans to reform both teacher and school accountability alongside the waiver will both take advantage of that. However, it will be up to DPI to make sure that these standards are stringent enough to raise the quality of education in Wisconsin. While that may be tough and provide some short-term testing disappointments, the effect of higher standards will resonate well into the future and help create a stronger generation of students in the Badger State.