Archive for the 'Education in the news' Category



Drop Educator Effectiveness: an Exercise in Common Sense

By Claudia Felske – If you lose 50 pounds, do you buy some new clothes you’ll look great in, or walk around in saggy, baggy old ones?

If you finally pay off your car, do you spend that money elsewhere, or do you keep sending in that $500 check every month?  

If your engagement is broken off, do you move on, or do you spend the rest of your life sitting in your wedding dress in front of your uneaten wedding cake, Miss Havisham style?

If you’re driving to Disney for a family vacation, do you stop when you reach Orlando, or do you keep going because there’s still gas in the tank?  

If the federal government revokes Educator Effectiveness (an ineffective, time-consuming mandate that makes teachers feel like dogs chasing their own tails) do you revoke it at the state level as well, or do you keep it in place because, well, it’s in place?

So, here’s the thing. As you may have guessed, this last hypothetical is not a hypothetical.

In December, the United States Congress reauthorized No Child Left Behind Act (now called the Every Student Succeeds Act). The re-authorization includes revoking the federal mandate for the Educator Effectiveness System.  Yet, thanks to Wisconsin legislators, this highly problematic initiative remains law in the State of Wisconsin.no-nonsense

My question (and I believe the question of many Wisconsin educators) is: Why not buy new clothes, stop sending in extra car payments, take the wedding dress off, stop in Orlando, and why not bow out of a failing Educator Effectiveness System, which yields negligible results and diverts enormous amounts of time and resources that could be better spent in Wisconsin schools?  

Anything less is nonsense.

Who’s in Charge Here?

Slovak_referendum,_2015,_portable_ballot_boxBy Peggy Wuenstel – There is a piece of proposed legislation making its way through the Wisconsin state house that every free-thinking Wisconsinite should be aware of. Bill 355 seeks to put significant limits on the ways in which local school districts can ask for financial assistance from their taxpayers through referenda. It is a drastic move away from the traditional local control of schools to the state government assuming the authority to determine what kinds of schools our children attend. Why should the lack of local control of Wisconsin schools concern you?

  • There is a reason that local governing bodies that direct the policies and funding of schools are called school boards or boards of education and not boards of tax control. The charge of these bodies is to determine the needs of local students and their families and the willingness of the community to meet those needs. While some members seek office with the intent of reducing tax burdens, the majority are motivated by their desire to direct and support education within their political, social, and personal point of view. The service of these individuals is often direct democracy at its best, with these public servants attending meetings, making decisions and meeting directly with constituents in ways that far outpace other representative bodies.
  • School expenses continue to rise as costs of materials, insurance, energy, security, and staffing to meet expanding student needs grow. There are state and federal mandates which much be met. Even after exploring supplemental funding sources like grants, charitable donations, naming rights, and expanded student fees, the gaps remain between what it costs and what state and federal governments provide.
  • State funding has been slashed in Wisconsin over the last few budget cycles. With rising costs, and shrinking state support, local districts are forced to go to property owners to make up the difference. The overall cost of educating children does not go down, the responsibility just shifts from one level to another. Property taxes are often a very unfair way to apportion support for schools.
  • Wisconsin schools are diverse and proudly so. While a common set of standards drives the curriculum and content of instruction, local needs, strengths, and preferences vary widely. Areas of the state have different priorities. Some districts highlight athletic programs. Others demonstrate patronage for the arts. Agricultural programs might meet local community needs and closely bond schools, industry and community governments. The varied cultural and socio-economic needs of home districts require local control to understand, direct, and make these visions reality. Some districts are large and urban in nature serving tens of thousands of students. Some boards of education govern a single school. Wisconsin education has historically been the antithesis of one size fits all.
  • Schools are often the heart of a community, its social life, and its hope for the future. Leadership in government, civic, church, and are connected, nurtured and directed by schools and school personnel. Our buildings, staff, facilities, and initiatives are rich resources for cities, towns, and villages all over Wisconsin. They deserve, and thankfully often receive, community support.
  • The Wisconsin system for financing schools contributes to significant inequities between districts. Property rich districts are well-funded and offer superior facilities and outstanding educators due to the ability to attract and retain employees with salary, benefit, and continuing education packages that support professionals in their work with children. Rural and revenue-challenged districts face the dual challenges of smaller labor pools and limited tax bases. Providing quality education statewide should be the goal of every parent, local community leader, and school official regardless of where they live.

The current proposal before the legislature seeks to reduce how often, what time of year, and how frequently school boards ask their communities for support. It seems to be another example of fixing a problem that doesn’t exist. The ability to ask at a local level for support for education gives that say to voters, not state senators who want to centralize control of Wisconsin schools. One has to wonder if this attempt to limit “the ask” of local school boards is a reaction to a recent up-tick in positive outcomes of local referenda.  An administration that hangs its political hat on the promise of tax reduction might find it hard to convince citizens that shifting responsibility to local school boards from state tax revenues saves anything except politicians’ reputations as being tough on tax increases or as advocates for centralized, depersonalized education for Wisconsin’s children.

In my three decade career I have trained and worked in large districts and small. My own children have attended urban and rural schools. I have had the opportunity to compare per pupil spending, student to teacher ratios, course offerings and extracurricular offerings, all before the expanded school choice system. I have been employed by districts that never passed referenda, and those who have graciously supported the schools every time they were asked. I hope we continue to live in a state where the ask as well as the answer remain local decisions.

There Are No Rules and All the Rules Have Changed

rot appleBy Claudia Felske – A great man once said (actually it was Tom Brokaw last week on Meet the Press): “There are no rules and all the rules have changed.” He was talking about the trumpification of politics, but he might as well been talking about the state of education since it’s become clear that all the rules in education have indeed changed.

Incidentally, the alternative title for this blog post was “I Just Lost My Two Best Friends.” The two titles are, in essence, one: I lost my two best friends because all the rules in education have changed.

We three began our teaching careers together, same year, same high school. The year was 1993—she, the beautiful new French teacher, he the handsome, smiley guy of the math department, and me somewhere in between. Over the next 22 years, we became best friends, our social lives and families deeply intertwined. Naturally, I assumed we’d also share a retirement banquet decades later.  

Now, somehow that dynamic French teacher and that gifted math teacher are no longer in the classrooms down the hall, no longer at my lunch table, no longer in the faculty lot when I arrive in the morning or leave after school. And I’m heartbroken, as are many of their students. It just doesn’t feel right. It feels like someone broke the rules because there were rules after all, unwritten as they were.

Broken Rule #1: Loyalty is a two-way street.  Our school district was good to us; and in turn, we were good to our school district. Teaching in a small rural school, we were immune to many problems faced by larger districts. We knew this, and we were grateful for it. We educated generations of students, and we knew our students, our curriculum, and our community inside and out. This was a win for our students, our district, and for us. We could also rely on predictable pay scales with a clear path to increased salaries over the long haul. For all of these reasons, we stayed put. Whenever someone left, it was for one of three reasons: retirement, a serious health issue, or a change of vocation altogether. Teachers didn’t leave in order to teach somewhere else. We were “Lifers,” and many town residents had the same teachers as their parents. Classroom stories were passed down generation to generation like sacred folklore. 

broken rulesCompare that with our current reality: Three of our teachers recently left to teach at other high schools, two left within two weeks of the new school year. And this is hardly an anomaly; it’s happening on a much larger scale in districts across the state. Act 10 and decreased state funding (the “tools” Governor Walker gave localities) have forced many districts to freeze or decrease their payscales. This has led many teachers, with mortgages and college tuitions looming, to surf the job market. Talk to any superintendent or principal in Wisconsin and you’ll hear the same story: I spoke recently with a principal who’d lost 14% of his staff the month before school started. Imagine the long term consequences here: wealthy districts landing the most qualified teachers and poor districts, the least. The gentrification of teaching. Hardly the ingredients of free and equitable public education.  

Broken Rule #2: Faculty is family. As cliche as it might sound, faculty was family. The shared goal of providing an excellent education to our students fostered a “we’re in this together” attitude among teachers, an attitude often absent in private industry. Teachers weren’t looking over their shoulders at other teachers or other districts. The new paradigm? Frozen pay scales, lack of bargaining rights, privatization (vouchers and charters) have all contributed to suspicion in the faculty lounge, decreased collegiality, and a greater tendency to view co-workers as transitory acquaintances rather than lifelong friends. All of this has greatly affected morale and job satisfaction.   

Broken Rule #3: Kids first. It’s all about the kids, right? While you would be hard pressed to find a single teacher or administrator who would utter anything to the contrary, the reality of education in Wisconsin sings a different song. When hundreds of classrooms across the state began the school year with a substitute teacher instead of a qualified, content-certified teacher, clearly it’s not all about the kids. And it’s the learners who are the biggest losers here, not teachers, administrators or taxpayers. Increasingly viewed as widgets and data points by politicians, textbook and testing agencies (Pearson & the College Board leading the way), and the larger powers that be (ALEC), kids are treated by many as dollar signs instead of the pillars of our future. It’s clearly not all about the kids.

Brokaw was right.

There are no rules, and all the rules have changed.

On Family Feuds & Teacher Training

images (1)By Kenzie Kilb – My poor dad.

He’s always the odd man out: as literally the only man in the family, and by way of profession. He’s a financial advisor: he comes from a world of numbers and order and efficiency.

Then there’s the rest of us: my sister, an Elementary Education major at UW-Madison, my mother, an Adjunct Professor at Carroll University, and me, a graduate student in the Education Policy and Leadership program here at Marquette.

While as a family we share many core values and beliefs, when it comes to the topic of education…well, there are arguments. And snarky comments about Scott Walker (from both ends).

One topic that’s become particularly contentious is the debate regarding teacher training and evaluation.

For my dad, education should run like any other business, and the process is black and white. You’re either good at your job or you’re not; if you’re not you should be fired (or at least earn less money).

For those of us in the education field, we know there are complexities. And fortunately, these complexities are starting to be addressed through new methods and research. Last week, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera wrote about a project at The University of Michigan School of Education that made two major proposals in terms of teacher evaluation: the first deals with the way teachers are observed in the classroom, and the second deals with measuring student growth in terms less restricted to standardized testing.

Most importantly, Nocera notes, the proposal avoids “divisive political language” by emphasizing the importance of using teacher evaluations as a means for feedback and improvement, rather than as a means of getting rid of bad teachers.

Ultimately, the proposal in Michigan didn’t pass. But, to me, it offers a hopeful indication that the national conversation might start to shift.

You can find the article here. The ideas are worth consideration– even my dad agreed with them.

The Takeover of MPS: Will it Solve Anything?

6384685_GBy Shannon Bentley – Last week when I was at Hamilton High School, a substitute teacher told me about the new MPS takeover proposal put forth by senators Alberta Darling and Dale Kooyenga.

At first I thought that the substitute teacher over exaggerated, telling me random, extremist ideals that nobody would ever allow to be placed on the table. However, when I went on the Milwaukee Public School homepage, lo and behold, there was an article about the proposal. I read the proposal and grew afraid. There weren’t too many details about what the takeover would mean for students and teachers in the Milwaukee Public School District, so I did more research.

The proposal had a few items on the list that concerned me:

  • Allows for the takeover of struggling public schools in Milwaukee under the control of an appointed commissioner to convert them to voucher or charter schools while paving the way for similar takeovers in other school districts.
  • Provides for licensure of individuals with minimal qualifications, some with little more than a high school diploma, to teach in our public schools.
  • Eliminates the Common Core State Standards.

The list is very scary to me for three different reasons:

  1. Teachers who serve in the underperforming schools will be fired, and they will have to reapply for their jobs. If the requirements to be a teacher will have lower qualifications, then a teacher who has worked through a certification program and earned their bachelor’s degree will be competing for a job with someone who just only graduated high school.
  1. It is unfortunate that the senators suggest we should take our underperforming schools and turn them into voucher schools. The elected commissioners or board that the senators suggest should run these schools will not consist of people who have prior education experience or been a representative of MPS schools in the past.
  1. The students will have low standards for themselves because eliminating the Common Core State Standards will both lower the expectations for students and will take away the means for teachers to set goals and measure their students’ level of success.

I am a graduate of Milwaukee Public Schools, and I remember the consistent budget cuts that butchered the school district. Millions of dollars have been taken away from MPS and those millions took with them home economics, shop class, driver’s education, and extra-curricular activities (music and art programs were non-existent for a while). A lack of necessary funds and a constant lowering of standards – no wonder why some MPS schools are failing. The proposal is too drastic to place on a school that needs more support financially from its own state. Minority students will be affected most by this proposal if it is taken into effect.

However, the real question is: Would this proposal be applied in a failing suburban school district?

“Teaching” the Baltimore Uprising

baltimore-protestersBy Nick McDaniels – I’ve missed a few regular blog posts.  To my tens of regular readers, sorry.

To my students though, who got more unadulterated attention during this time period, you’re welcome. It would be a neglect of my educational blogger duty to be this blog’s only contributor from Baltimore and not comment on how I handled the Baltimore uprising (what you may know from the media as #BaltimoreRiots) as a teacher.

The truth is: I didn’t handle it. I didn’t teach it. I didn’t “seize” a teachable moment. I made myself a part of the experience on exactly the same level as my students. I gave them space to express themselves. They gave me space to express myself. I listened. They listened. And we didn’t have to wait for schools to reopen for that.

The day after the uprising, when schools were closed, I spent most of the day calling, texting, and emailing students, checking on their well-being, on their emotions, on their opinions. This wasn’t my idea, of course. After many students contacted me to check on my family, I was inspired to reach out to the others I had not heard from. As usual, I do my best work as a teacher when I take cues from my students.

On the day schools reopened, I structured space and time for students to talk about their experiences during the uprising, about the Freddie Gray’s death, about the protests, about police. And I learned an incredible amount. Teenagers, as I’ve come to know, are extremely sophisticated and complex. They often have more insight to offer in challenging situations than adults. If only we would get out of their way.

Many teachers I know wisely scrapped their lesson plan to do the same thing. The importance of school being open for students to have a place to share is undeniable. Students were impacted by the events in varying degrees, and students showed a great deal of respect in understanding the opinions and situations of others. Older students led discussions with younger students. Teachers organized panel-discussions. All of this helped students process an incredibly divisive set of events, from Freddie Gray’s arrest to the announcement of charges against six officers.

But this is not over. Our government arrested protesters and instituted a curfew. The National Guard patrolled our streets. The officers still await trial. None of this is over. So what do we do from here as teachers? We have given students safe space to express themselves. How can we help students move this discussion forward?

We need to give the students the language and tools to help push solutions forward. We need to help students understand the issues. Freedom of Speech. Freedom of Assembly. Habeas Corpus. Use of Force. Criminal Procedure. We need to continue to give students space to express themselves and give them the language with which to do so, because it is our young people who will be charged with fixing our system that has allowed and perpetuated systemic injustice.

Our best work, particularly as teachers, is to get out of their way while they go about this work.

eLearning? eAcademy? eLegitimate? My Conversation with a Direct Mailer

By Claudia Felske — I am about to have a conversation with a direct mailer.

Advertisements for virtual charter schools have been clogging my mailbox, making full-color oversized promises of educational utopia in an attempt to lure away yet more funding from already cash-strapped local schools.

So when yet a third direct mailer recently entered my home from eAchieve Academy, a virtual charter school within Waukesha public schools, that little voice inside me, often squelched in the interest of good manners, demanded to be heard, and so, it shall.

eAchieve logoIn the following dialogue, eAchieve Academy (eAA) will be represented by its own words as quoted from its direct mailers, and I (CF) shall play the role of myself, a public school English teacher and technology integration specialist, more than a bit skeptical about the claims of eAchieve Academy and the merits of sitting a child in front of a computer and calling it a superior education.

eAA: “Is your child happy in school?”

CF: Happiness, while important, is not the first question one should ask a student about school, ever. Happiness to a teenager may mean a jar of Nutella and a spoon, a string of easy A’s, or the opportunity to watch a viral cat video over and over and over again, yet I hardly think any of those define a quality education. A better question might be “Is your child learning?” or “Is your child sufficiently challenged in class?”

eAA: “What if there was a tuition free alternative to traditional classroom based school?”

CF:  Nothing is free, period. As is the case with all charter schools in Wisconsin, state aid follows the student, so “free tuition” is taxpayer provided tuition, tuition which would otherwise contribute to the working budget of that student’s local school.

eAA: “[We offer] the ability to go to school from home in a safe environment free from classroom distractions, social drama, bad influences and bullying.”

CF: a.k.a. your child can avoid all potentially unpleasant social situations, can elect not to interact with others, can refrain from hearing differing points of view; in essence, your child can opt out of being a part of the larger world in its complexity, diversity, richness, and  yes, conflicts, but I hardly think this will give him/her an edge in our increasingly diverse population and global economy.

eAA: “[We offer] experienced, state-certified professional teachers.”

CF: On your website, I found rudimentary teacher bios, but nowhere could I find how long any of your teachers have been teaching, kind of a biggie when you’re boasting of an “experienced” staff.  I also wonder why teachers would opt for online teaching, especially when I learned from Principal Rick Nettesheim (I had questions about my mailer, so I called) that the average virtual high school teacher has 300 students (over twice what traditional teachers have). Why would an experienced teacher opt for a less personal relationship with students, and a much higher student-teacher ratio?

eAA: “[We offer] flexible scheduling with the opportunity to work at your own pace.”

CF: Knowing both students and human nature, I can see this working well for maybe 10% of the student population, tops.  Let’s be  honest here: we are, by nature, procrastinators, which in part is why in-person learning works, why teacher encouragement and face-to-face motivation helps, why the human element is essential. This seems to be corroborated by the low graduation rates of virtual schools (more on this later).

eAA: “[We offer] a wide range of technology-rich class options including honors, AP and elective classes.”

CF: Yet, when I look on the eAA website, I see that music offerings consist of music appreciation and music theory – no actual playing of music (this was confirmed by Principal Nettesheim). Furthermore, AP classes have no in-person dimension. Having taken some virtual graduate courses, I can attest that online discussion boards are “to do” tasks rather than rich human interactions. The same can be argued of online science labs. Hands-on learning and face-to-face interactions are essential to higher-order thinking.

eAA: “[We boast] a 10-year track record of success” and have “the best graduation rate of any Wisconsin virtual schools.”

CF: When I asked how “success” is defined, I was directed to the website where it became clear that eAA chose its words very carefully:  in comparison to other virtual schools, it does perform well, but in comparison it to Wisconsin brick and mortar schools it fares poorly.  Looking at the most recent comparatives (2011-2012) eAchieve Academy has a 69% graduation rate while Waukesha West High School has a 96% graduation rate and the Wisconsin state average is 89%. This means that eAchieve Academy has a 20% lower graduation rate than the state average and a 28% lower rate than the brick and mortar high school in its own school district. This is a curious definition of “success.”

eAA: “Aspiring athletes or performing artists find it difficult to pursue their passions in life when they are stuck in a school building all day.”

CF:  Our school buildings (the ones students are “stuck in…all day”) contain opportunities for those “aspiring athletes or performing artists” while yours don’t. We provide coaches, mentors, teammates, instruction, practices, performances, and competitions. You provide none of these, but instead require parents to become independent contractors seeking (and funding) private lessons, select teams, and other experiences outside of school to supplement their child’s education.

eAA: “Students with physical or mental health issues struggle to keep up when they miss class. Kids who don’t ‘fit in’ spend more time worrying about their safety than their studies.”

CF:  Here, you are correct. We support students with physical or mental challenges within a mainstreamed classroom environment because research shows that it is essential for student growth and well being to be part of a larger community, to grow in social settings, to gain real world experiences during adolescence instead of being isolated from peers and social interactions. We also believe the issue of bullying is one that must be countered with interventions and education rather than evasion or isolation.

eAA: “Your child does not have to spend another semester in an educational environment that does not match their learning style and individual needs.”

CF: I’m curious what “learning styles” and individual needs” can be met by a teacher sitting in front of a computer, juggling a student load of 300.  This sounds to me more like the warehousing of students than meeting individual student needs.

eAA: “Our rigorous, standards-based curriculum fosters critical 21st century skills needed to succeed in college, work and life; skills like self-motivation, time management, independent thinking and problem solving.”

CF: This sounds like 95% of  the public school mission statements I’ve read in recent years. Schools—whatever their shape or size—are exquisitely skilled at writing mission statements. Yet, perhaps the most essential of these “21st century skills” is sorely lacking in virtual schools: collaboration – critical opportunities for students to work cooperatively on authentic problem-solving tasks. Furthermore, employers repeatedly cite “inability to work with others” as a top reason workers are fired. This critical soft skill simply is not developed in a virtual school setting.

eAA: “[We are] empowering Wisconsin families through public education at home.”

CF: I wonder how many families are empowered through virtual schools. I wonder how many are actively involved in their child’s virtual education experience. I wonder how often—in this financially-trying time—both parents are working while students are unmonitored at home. And I wonder if this, in part, explains the low graduation rates of virtual schools compared to school settings where teachers and support staff are physically present to monitor and help students.  

eAA: “Too often, learning opportunities in traditional schools are hampered by rigid schedules, limited curriculum options, antiquated teaching methods or budget cuts.”

CF:  Wow.  You do know, eAchieve Academy, that you are a part of Waukesha Public Schools and, in turn, Wisconsin Public Schools? So why the public school bashing? Aren’t we in this together? Or has school choice created a civil war, pitting us against us? A most unfortunate state for education; still, these claims must be challenged:

  • We’re “hampered by rigid schedules”? — You’re hampered by a lack of structure (see human nature/procrastination argument above).
  • We have “limited curriculum options”? — The pot clearly calling the kettle black. I teach at a high school with less than 600 students, yet our course offerings far surpass yours, 48 more to be precise. We have a plethora of offerings to meet student needs from remedial to AP, and we have many courses not offered at eAchieve Academy including live music, hands-on art, physical education classes which are actually physical, tech ed, agriculture, robotics, STEM, and others.
  • “Antiquated teaching methods”? – We integrate technology into our teaching practices instead of largely replacing teachers with technology; we interact face-to-face with our students while leveraging a wide variety of teaching methods: lectures, activities, discussions, labs, interactive web tools, collaborative group work, student presentations and speaking opportunities.
  • “Budget cuts” – Okay, you got me there. Yes, we do have budget cuts thanks to many factors including charter schools such as yours whose advertising tactics and questionable claims do indeed lead to budget cuts. Kudos for taking ownership on that one.
20150410_105416~2

One of several eAchieve Academy mailers sent to my home

Don’t misunderstand me. Virtual schools may be a viable alternative for some individuals. What I find objectionable is not the existence of eAchievement Academy, but its barrage of direct mailings, its misleading claims, its the tone of not being with us, but against us.

What’s clear here is that schools are being pitted against each other. Wisconsin’s broken school funding system is forcing districts to cut corners, to engage in deceptive student-grabbing tactics, to put finances before learning. And once again, it’s the students that suffer.

No more mailings please.

I think many would agree – not a prudent use of taxpayer dollars.


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