A Fresh Forum on Wisconsin Educational Policy

PoliticsBy Bill Henk – This past Monday evening I had the honor of participating in a unique panel discussion about educational policy in Wisconsin.

The event, sponsored by the Wisconsin Association of Colleges of Teacher Education (WACTE) reportedly broke new ground.  How so?  Let me explain.

Apparently no group that spanned legislators, teacher educators, and the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) had been convened to discuss a range of educational policies before.  Well, either that or no such group had been assembled since some major legislative changes had been enacted two years ago which  dramatically impacted public school teachers, districts, school boards, and teacher associations in the state.

Fellow panelists included Senators Luther Olsen and Kathleen Vinehout as well as Representatives Steve Kestell and Mandy Wright, all of whom chair or serve on legislative committees devoted to education.  Rounding out the panel were Dean Julie Underwood of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education and Michael Thompson, Deputy State Superintendent in DPI.

Alan Borsuk of the Marquette School of Law and a weekly columnist with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel moderated the discussion (and with considerable skill and patience I might add).  My own invitation to participate centered on representing private colleges and universities in the state, whereas Dean Underwood represented public institutions of higher education.

To encourage the fullest airing of ideas, no media were present.  The thought was to keep the discussion largely in the room.  So, I’ll respectfully keep my account to a minimum, share some impressions, and note the questions that I raised in my opening statement, ones I believe are important for teacher educators.

So, How Did the Panel Discussion Go?

The purpose of the event revolved around finding ways for our respective groups to align for the benefit of education in the state.  However, because DPI already works closely with legislators and with teacher educators, the virgin territory resided in connecting those who make educational policy with those who prepare a range of educators, most notably teachers.

To be honest, I didn’t know what exactly to expect, because I had only worked with one of the legislators before.  As it turned out, I ultimately left encouraged.

All of the policy makers seemed to care about school children, and they were quite well-versed in the issues of  K-12 education.  They did not appear to be as attuned to policies that impacted teacher education, and as a result, very little of the discussion addressed issues that were directly important to the WACTE audience, beyond recruiting prospective teachers to our programs.  Since teacher education was supposed to be the organizing theme, I have to admit to being thrown somewhat, even though I could comment on the K-12 issues, too.

civil-discourseTo sum up, with one exception, the discussion qualified as very civil and productive, although the conversation became spirited around the topic of public school funding.  Using another lens, I think it’s fair to say that the legislators demonstrated varying levels of preparation, passion, insight, and open-mindedness.  And I’d be remiss in not saying that Dean Underwood and Mr. Thompson  provided consistently thoughtful remarks throughout.

As for how I performed, I’ll leave that mostly up to the audience and my fellow panelists.  However, I do take pride in having exercised significant restraint when confronted with a personal insinuation that was misguided and dismissive.   Knowing that such behavior often goes with the turf and hoping to retain the intended spirit of the meeting, I dialed it back and let the effrontery pass.

More importantly, though, I felt badly that the facts I stated hit a nerve and gave rise to the kind of invectives that adults allow to get in the way of helping school children.  In the end, my basic hope was that I spoke knowledgeably.  The only thing I’m certain about is that I spoke with heartfelt conviction and complete honesty.

What Inquiring Teacher Educators Want to Know

As promised, I’ll end, ironically enough, with my opening questions.  Please note that they were directed at everyone –panelists and observers alike — and they were earnest and not intended to be critical.  I put them out there as a frame to give the legislators a stronger sense of the issues that we’re wrestling with in teacher education.

  • How should teacher educators respond to prospective students who ask “Why would I want to be a public school teacher in Wisconsin after what occurred two years ago?”
  • What can teacher educators do to build the trust and respect necessary so that legislators would seek our expertise on a full range of educational policy issues?
  • What evidence could teacher education ever produce that would ultimately appease our wide range of critics?
  • Why is it that national accreditation, which is a very rigorous process, carries so little weight in making a quality argument for teacher education outside of our colleges and universities?
  • What can teacher educators do to offset the deleterious effects of future National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) studies which are known to be scientifically flawed and politically motivated?
  • Should we remain committed to the implementation of the Common Core State Standards regardless of what happens to them legislatively?

Once again, I have more questions than answers.  But there’s no discounting the fact that for teacher educators, these issues are important ones.  My hope is that at some point our legislators can help us to answer them.

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