By Tom Still
MADISON – A report issued last week by a Washington think tank shows Wisconsin No. 1 in yet another public education index – only this time, being first among the 50 states wasn’t the preferred spot.
In a study of how states are carrying out the federal No Child Left Behind education law, a group called Education Sector rated the states on how well they’re outsmarting the law. Wisconsin was the leading circumventer, according to the analysts, who refused to buy state numbers that indicate virtually every school district and virtually every school is meeting federal improvement standards.
“(The study) ranks Wisconsin as the most optimistic state in the nation,” reports Education Sector on its web site, “Wisconsin scores well on some educational measures, like the SAT, but lags behind in others, such as achievement gaps for minority students. But according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the state is a modern-day educational utopia where a large majority of students meet academic standards, high school graduation rates are high, every school is safe and nearly all teachers are highly qualified.”
The report goes on to note that school districts around the nation are struggling to make “Adequate Yearly Progress,” the primary standard of school and district success under No Child Left Behind. In Wisconsin, however, hitting the standard is a piece of cake. All but one of Wisconsin’s 426 school districts made Adequate Yearly Progress in 2004–05.
“How is that possible?” the Education Sector report asked. “The answer lies with the way Wisconsin has chosen to define the Adequate Yearly Progress standard.”
OK, we all know Wisconsin is a bit guilty of what radio humorist Garrison Keillor calls the “Lake Wobegone syndrome,” especially when its comes to its schools. Keillor jokes that in Lake Wobegone, Minn., his mythical home town, all the children are above average. In Wisconsin, we genuinely believe that – because the tests scores tell us so and we’re so doggoned proud of our community schools, sometimes in the face of evidence to the contrary.
But are we cooking the books in order to fulfill our fantasies? The authors of the Education Sector report suggest so when it comes to complying with No Child Left Behind. That’s vehemently denied by the folks at DPI, who say they’ve never claimed the state is an “educational utopia” or without troubling achievement gaps between students.
Let’s drill into one federal standard: What constitutes a “highly qualified teacher”? The federal law gives states some flexibility in determining which teachers make the grade, but Wisconsin’s 99 percent “highly qualified” ranking caught the eye of Education Sector. While almost all classroom teachers nationally have bachelor’s degrees and most have state certification, a significant number of teachers lack specific knowledge of the academic subject they teach. This is particularly true in high-poverty schools and in math and science courses taught in the secondary grades. Is Wisconsin relying too much on traditional certification, the report asked?
In the past, that was probably true. But recent reforms promise to slowly improve the skills of teachers as they move through their careers.
Wisconsin has developed a three-tier licensing system for teachers that will transform the process from a renewal system based on additional college credits to a skills and knowledge process. Under the so-called PI 34 law, teachers now graduating from college must renew their licenses with Professional Development Plans. The plans don’t ignore existing state standards, but they’re based more in helping teachers learn their subject matter. The teacher must assemble a three-member review team made up of trained colleagues. The review team works with the educator while the project is under way and eventually decides whether the teacher has successfully completed the plan.
Most teachers are still grandfathered into the previous system, of course, and only three teachers have completed PI 34 certification statewide. But it may become the norm over time as more teachers try the new certification system and find it does something the old system didn’t do – make them a better teacher.
Wisconsin cannot afford a “Lake Wobegone” complex. It needs well-educated students who are skilled in the disciplines needed to compete in the 21st century economy, such as science, math and languages. Only if our teachers are skilled in those disciplines themselves will Wisconsin continue to produce students who are above average in a global society.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.