The familiarity of K-12 education makes it an obvious emphasis for those interested in public policy; it is the only policy area where everyone has personal experience. Researchers in particular are drawn to education because of the widespread availability of data such as standardized test scores and graduation rates.
Education reform is well discussed and well researched, so why in 2012 are we as a state still struggling to educate huge segments of our population? Wisconsin is losing ground to neighboring states on test scores, and when it comes to minorities we do just about as bad as anywhere. The problem is all the more perplexing because the solution seems so simple: Find what works and replicate it.
Therein lies the problem; no universal prescription for a successful school or a successful pupil exists. The past twenty-five years of education reform efforts in Milwaukee are instructive. The city has tried parent choice, district decentralization, district recentralization, neighborhood schools, school-to-work, small high schools, project-based high schools, and just about every other research and logic based reform without substantially improving the overall level of student achievement in Milwaukee.
Isolated success stories in Milwaukee schools only further solidifies the conclusion that what works in one school may not work in the school across the street. While it is possible to institute a common curriculum or teaching philosophy, key predictors of student success such as family background, teacher quality, and school leadership cannot be cloned. Simply, the diversity of Wisconsin’s 870,000 pupils demands a diverse approach to education delivery. It is time to stop looking for the silver bullet.
Giving up the search for what works does not mean giving up, it means shifting emphasis to academic outcomes above all else. Examples of what this might look like are present in the form of the 18 independent charter schools operating in Milwaukee.
Independent charter schools enter into a contract with a chartering authority (either the City of Milwaukee or the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) that stipulates the achievement levels necessary to maintain their charter. In other words, the very existence of a school is tied to its ability to succeed academically. While success is not guaranteed, the ability to shut down a failing school is. There is no reason our entire public education system cannot be based on a similar philosophy of tying funding to the meeting of objectives.
The review and removal of onerous state and federal mandates is a logical first step to building an outcomes based education system. Recognition that K-12 education is, as it was when the nation was founded, a hyper-local issue would go a long way to giving school boards and principals the ability to pursue education policies most likely to work in their communities.
Restoring local control of K-12 education does not mean abolishing the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) or the Department of Education (DOE). Both DPI and DOE play important roles including setting broad education standards, serving as clearinghouses for research and best practices, and most importantly collecting and distributing data. A logical second step towards an outcomes based education system is using the data collected by DPI and DOE in a fair and objective way to measure the success of schools, and when necessary, to make school changes up-to and including closure.
The title of this commentary is, of course, hyperbole. Many things work in K-12 education, just not universally. Accordingly, Wisconsin education policies should emphasize academic outcomes above all other considerations by giving school boards and principals more authority to make academic decisions, accurately measuring the impact schools have on student achievement, and shutting down schools that fail to achieve their academic goals. The soon-to-be released reform package developed by DPI and Governor Scott Walker may very well move Wisconsin closer to an outcomes based education system. If so, it will be a major gain for our state.
-January 31, 2012