New system aims to make schools more accountable

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Friday, December 2, 2011

For those who expected that all public school students would be proficient in reading and math by 2014: Sorry, ain't gonna happen.

Education experts knew it wouldn't happen 10 years ago when the federal No Child Left Behind law was passed, and they said so then.

Now that push is coming to shove, state education officials say the system designed to hold schools accountable is broken. But they say it can be fixed.

"If something doesn't change, nearly every public school in Wisconsin could soon be deemed 'in need of improvement' and forced to implement ineffective sanctions," according to the state Department of Public Instruction accountability-reform webpage.

A statewide committee of politicians, educators and interest groups, called the School & District Accountability Design Team is slated to complete work on a new, better school-accountability system when it meets Dec. 15.

It might not meet that deadline, said Mike Thompson, deputy superintendent of public instruction for the state, but it's theoretically possible the new system could be in place by spring 2012.

One result would be a report card on each school that is easier to understand and more accessible to the public than No Child Left Behind, Thompson said.

While this spring is possible, Thompson indicated that spring 2013 is more likely.

In the meantime, the state would need a waiver from parts of No Child Left Behind.

State legislation is likely, although "there hasn't been lot of talk about what needs to be legislated, at this point," Thompson said.

Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, recently was appointed to the design team, replacing another senator.

The committee includes two Democratic and two Republican lawmakers. Its chairmen are the two Republicans, Gov. Scott Walker and Tony Evers, the state superintendent of public instruction.

Cullen, a former Janesville School Board member, said the federal waiver could come as early as April, "and we want a bill that has broad bipartisan support ready to go.

"Our assignment is to develop a better way of evaluating how well schools are doing in teaching children the things they need to succeed in college and careers," Cullen said. "The way to do that is to determine where we are falling short and then stepping in to fix it. Our ultimate goal is to improve student achievement."

Congress hasn't reauthorized the No Child legislation, so President Barack Obama's administration is granting waivers to states that come up with alternative systems, as long as they follow federal guidelines.

Wisconsin is likely to get a waiver because federal officials will work with the state to ensure the state system is approved, Thompson said.

All this is not to say that No Child Left Behind did nothing. It focused schools on improving student test scores, not just for the overall average but for minority groups, students with disabilities and those of low income.

On the other hand, schools focused on reading and math and pulled resources away from other subjects. Critics accused schools of teaching to the test.

According to Thompson and DPI documents, the reforms being contemplated will likely include:

-- A different way to use test data, to show whether students are proficient but also how much they improved from the previous year. Experts say that growth is important even if a student doesn't reach proficiency over a year.

-- A focus on national "Common Core State Standards," which will allow for cross-state comparisons. No Child Left Behind left each state to develop its own standards.

-- Consequences for schools that don't perform well. These actions should focus on helping the schools succeed rather than punishing them, Thompson said.

-- Indicators at the elementary and middle school levels of whether a student is on track to be ready for college or a career.

-- Indicators of closing achievement gaps between whites and minority groups.

Thompson said the new system will cost money, but no estimate has been developed. He said that's something the lawmakers would have to address.

Another design team has been working for a year to design a new way for teachers and principals to be evaluated. The system likely will use measures of student growth as part of those evaluations.

It's not clear whether the Legislature would require districts to adopt the educator-evaluation system, Thompson said.

Janesville School Board this fall decided not to work on a new teacher-evaluation system because the state was moving forward with its own. The state and districts will be much freer to put new systems into place now because reforms passed by Republican lawmakers took away teachers unions' ability to bargain for workplace conditions.

In the case of Janesville and a few other districts, school boards won't be free to make changes until union contracts run out in June 2013.

Last updated: 7:11 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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