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Wisconsin education
English teacher Norma Mortimer watches over students earlier this year at Marshall Morse School. Governor-elect Scott Walker supports a statewide evaluation system with multiple measures of performance that would rank teachers in four categories. (Photo by Angela Peterson / Journal Sentinel)

They called it the “Canada effect” — the phenomenon in which students from a string of states along the country’s northern border regularly beat the rest of the nation on academic tests.

As recently as 1992, only three states — all from northern climates — had significantly higher average scores than Wisconsin in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math. No states scored significantly better than Wisconsin in fourth-grade math national assessments.

By 2009, this effect was wiped out for Wisconsin’s students. The state’s fourth grade reading scores placed statistically ahead of only 12 states and the District of Columbia. On the fourth- and eighth-grade math tests, the state’s students beat 26 states and the District of Columbia, results that could be considered slightly above average.

“We have lulled ourselves into thinking we’re really, really good,” said state Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), who will become chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “We’re OK, but we need to get better because other states are doing more at improving.”

With research showing the most important school factor in student performance is the effectiveness of classroom teachers, Wisconsin’s political and education leaders have called louder than ever for improving the quality of the state’s educators.

But in a profession where teaching fads come and go, in a state where most of the focus on improving schools has centered on giving parents more choices, will anything come of the push to improve the quality of the teaching force? Or will the status quo persist as Wisconsinites continue to perceive stagnant achievement levels as acceptable, assuming the problem is in some other district — not theirs?

Republican lawmakers, who will control both the Assembly and Senate in the next term, have expressed support for establishing a statewide teacher evaluation system and implementing models of pay-based incentives that would reward effective teachers. And they say it needs to be done without adding more money to the system.

Dramatic change cannot depend on political leadership alone. To adopt the measures that other states have taken to raise student performance requires improved data collection, better student assessment systems and a public that understands the current educational achievement levels are no longer good enough.

“It’s time for us to have a ‘Come to Jesus’ meeting and really be honest about what we’re doing here,” state Rep. Jason Fields (D-Milwaukee) said. “Something drastic has to be done.”

Flat performance

So how has Wisconsin gotten into this position?

One of the only tests that compares how students in the U.S. are doing in different states — the National Assessment of Educational Progress — shows Wisconsin students’ performance has remained stagnant as students in the rest of the country have made gains in math and reading.

It’s a common perception that most educational problems belong to Milwaukee Public Schools, but the state’s decline goes beyond lower achievement scores in urban areas. In fourth-grade reading, the state’s white students — most of whom are educated outside urban school districts — have scored below the national average for students of the same race on all four assessments given since 2003.

“I don’t think that most people in other parts of Wisconsin think that their school district is having trouble; I think they clearly can see that MPS has challenges, but they don’t think anybody else does,” said Governor-elect Scott Walker, adding that even the state’s successful school districts have some struggling schools.

A recent measure of international progress showed that even Wisconsin’s very best students have been outscored by comparable students in other states and countries.

In a study called Teaching Math to the Talented, Wisconsin’s highest-scoring eighth-grade math students ranked 42nd, behind 11 other U.S. states and countries such as Lithuania. Massachusetts students ranked 17th, the highest score of any American state.

On the ACT college admissions test, Wisconsin graduates continue to perform well. But the state’s third-ranking average composite score among ACT-taking states allows a comparison against only about half the states in the country, leaving out high-achieving northeastern states that favor the SAT.

Ranking teachers

Walker supports a statewide evaluation system with multiple measures of performance that would rank teachers in four categories: ineffective, needs improvement, satisfactory or exemplary.

Under his proposal, teachers ranked ineffective for two consecutive years would lose their teaching licenses while satisfactory and exemplary teachers would be eligible for bonuses. With the looming state budget deficit, Walker said districts would have to figure out how to do this without an influx of new funding.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said people will reject efforts to evaluate teachers if they perceive them as being solely driven by ideology. Barrett’s wife, Kris, is an MPS teacher at Dover Elementary School in Bay View.

“If you can establish effective evaluation criteria, then the system will have credibility,” said Barrett, who said he would support performance pay for teachers if it were based on a credible evaluation system. “If it’s not effective, then you’re simply going to see infighting and finger pointing, which does nothing to help the children of this community.”

Republicans have also floated the idea of redistributing education dollars so that reform efforts could be piloted by school districts, or so that districts embracing reforms would be financially rewarded.

“What needs to happen is incentives to disseminate the best practices, faster,” said Brett Davis (R-Oregon), the outgoing chairman of the Assembly Education Committee. “If someone has a remarkable reading program in Fond du Lac or Columbus or Superior, if their achievement scores have doubled, everyone else needs to know that. And those teachers should be rewarded.”

There are other challenges. Reform advocates, legislators and Walker all acknowledge outside-of-school factors affect student achievement, and teachers should not be evaluated or punished for them. Poverty can be a powerful roadblock to high academic achievement, and parental involvement has a telling effect on a child’s growth and development outside the classroom.

In addition, Walker’s proposals could face strong opposition from teachers unions, which have had a hold over education legislation. Mike Langyel, president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, said he thinks efforts to improve teacher quality will play a large part in state reform efforts.

“I think this is the real deal,” Langyel said.

He said the organization will wait to respond to Walker’s proposals until they’re solidified.

Data analysis key

Before any efforts can be implemented, experts say, the collection and analysis of data — such as scores on standardized tests — need to be more widespread, and that data needs to be applied in ways that improve teacher and principal performance. Researchers need to help schools not only determine which teachers are effective in making gains among their students, but also why they’re effective.

“We all know quite a bit today about how to identify good teachers; we still do not know to any degree of certainty why that teacher is a good teacher,” said Tom Loveless, a former teacher and senior fellow focusing on education reform at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “The next generation of research needs to identify what makes a good teacher … what are the things that a good teacher does that a bad teacher does not do?”

Seeking statewide model

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers this month announced the creation of a special team — a targeted group of heavyweights that includes the state’s largest teachers union and representatives from higher education — to develop criteria for a model statewide evaluation system for principals and teachers by early next school year.

The team will recommend multiple measures to evaluate teachers, including growth in student achievement data, and may also make recommendations for the implementation of performance incentives.

As Wisconsin is a local-control state with no statewide school board body, districts would not have to adopt the statewide model. However, Evers said he believes most district leaders understand the importance of consistency and would welcome a full set of recommendations.

“It makes no sense for every district in the state to develop its own evaluation system,” Evers said. “And it makes no sense for a teacher to be deemed effective in Milwaukee and ineffective in Crandon.”

Wisconsin is home to one of the most prominent organizations dialed into school data: the Value-Added Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Districts around the country have contracted with the group to help them use student achievement growth data as a means to improve instruction.

Milwaukee Public Schools was an early leader on this front. Robert Meyer, director of the center, recalls working with other states years ago that wanted to implement the “Milwaukee Model.” Now those states have taken the lead on data-driven teacher-improvement strategies.

“I’m guessing that the state and the DPI will be thinking hard about whether they want to ramp up this effort,” Meyer said. “We have the student-level data, and it’s ripe for further expansion.”

Though test-taking fatigue can be an issue among teachers and families, experts say the regular collection and application of data is crucial for establishing a baseline of day-to-day or week-to-week teacher and student performance. It’s also crucial for determining whether practices are producing results.

Without that kind of analysis, Wisconsin’s educators and school leaders are apt to continue conducting business as usual and risk falling behind even more states and countries.

At stake, leaders say, is not only the fate of those children, but also the state’s economic future.

Education is a workforce issue, Walker said.

“We have to show that there is a plan for the future workforce to be prepared,” he said. “Fundamental reforms in education play right into that.”

This article originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on December 26, 2010.

About this series

For the series “Building a Better Teacher,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s education reporting team of Amy Hetzner, Erin Richards and Becky Vevea collaborated with staff of The Hechinger Report and Alan J. Borsuk, senior fellow in law and public policy at the Marquette University Law School.

Over eight Sundays, the series will spotlight challenges to the way teachers are trained, evaluated, paid, promoted and dismissed – and how all of it comes to bear on student success.

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