State Views: Education in Wisconsin resembles two-hump camel

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Matt Pommer
Sunday, March 9, 2014

Education in many parts of Wisconsin has turned into a two-hump camel.

Many young people are doing very, very well academically—with one of the humps on charts showing results. The other hump is composed of students doing very poorly in school. The numbers of B-minus and C students are down dramatically.

“The middle is missing,” said Bruce Dahmen, well-known and beloved Madison Memorial High School principal, just weeks before he died unexpectedly Feb. 11.

Elected state officials are scrambling to find inexpensive answers to the education questions. Gov. Scott Walker wants to expand voucher schools, but the idea suffered a black eye when one Milwaukee voucher school closed abruptly late last year after getting hundreds of thousands of state tax dollars. Three former Assembly speakers, all Republicans, are lobbying for expanded vouchers and other taxpayer-helped private school choices.

Other interest groups think the answer might be privately run charter schools operated with taxpayer funds. Unanswered is whether these schools should undergo uniform testing to show which are successful. This is called “accountability,” but what should be done to improve those that get poor test scores remains an unanswered question. One idea is force under-performing schools to close.

That assumes that some new organization—be it a charter school, a voucher school or private education—will better educate the struggling students. Many minority families see the need for more teachers of color for their children.

Alas, statistics indicate a close relationship between failing student achievement and poverty. The Madison School District’s reading tests show that link. One elementary school with 76 percent economically disadvantaged students had fewer than 4 percent rank as proficient and advanced in reading.

But it’s not just urban areas such as Milwaukee and Madison that are struggling with education of those in poverty. State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, has cited the problems facing rural districts in northwestern parts of the state.

Taxpayers can’t afford higher taxes. Schools have reduced staffs, and the number of special-needs students has increased, she said, citing testimony by school superintendents at public meetings.

Arcadia had no English-language learners 15 years ago. Now every third student primarily speaks Spanish, she said. Spanish-speaking students in the Independence district have doubled in three years, and three out of five students live in poverty.

“Many of these students had no opportunity to attend good schools before they came to Wisconsin,” Vinehout said.

Political twists and turns also play roles in the education dialogue. Tea-party groups are upset with Wisconsin’s acceptance of a Common Core program of standards to improve education. Some 45 states are using it as a way to improve education.

Common Core is a program that details what students should know in math and English arts at each grade level. Backed on a bipartisan basis by government and corporate leaders, its aim is to ensure high school graduates are ready for college or the workplace.

Gov. Scott Walker has responded to tea-party concerns, and his office has helped draft new legislation under which Wisconsin would create its own program with a 15-member oversight board. Walker could get to appoint six of the citizens. Some business groups have urged Walker to stay with the Common Core approach.

There is evidence that the education struggle isn’t new. Michele Erikson, executive director of Wisconsin Literacy Inc., has said that one-third of adults “lack the necessary literacy skills to function above a basic level.”

What does this mean for today’s children?

“Whatever progress is made from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. stands to come unraveled from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. if parents aren’t part of the literacy equation,” she said.

Matt Pommer writes this Wisconsin Newspaper Association weekly state government newsletter. He is dean of the state Capitol correspondents, having covered government action in Madison for 36 years. Readers can contact Pommer at mpommer@sbcglobal.net.

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