First, it ends the ridiculousness that was NCLB’s requirement that 100% of children be proficient in Math and Reading by 2014. Standards can motivate schools and districts to improve, but when set at unrealistic levels they become self-defeating.
Second, the waiver contains many pieces likely to improve Wisconsin’s education system. The waiver, among other things:
- Raises math, science, and elective credit requirements for high school graduation.
- Lowers the cell size for measuring student performance from 40 to 20, making the performance level of student subgroups more transparent.
- Raises WKCE cut-scores to reflect higher NAEP cut-scores (more on that here).
- Details DPI plans to propose funding to make ACT tests (including the ACT, PLAN, and EXPLORE tests) available to all schools. If the funding is approved more schools will have access to tests that give principals and teachers quality information that can guide instruction decisions.
- Introduces a teacher evaluation framework that in part relies on data from Wisconsin’s Value Added Research Center (the waiver summary notes that individual teacher evaluations will remain confidential).
The most significant part of the waiver is the creation of a statewide accountability system that includes “all schools receiving public school funds.” However, as it stands the accountability system is limited to schools receiving title 1 funds, anything beyond that requires “state funding and potential legislative changes.”
So what is a Title 1 school? DPI has a handy FAQ with the details, but basically it is a public school with over 40% low-income students that agrees (along with its district) to conduct a needs assessment and implement specific strategies to address those needs. By definition, private schools cannot be Title 1 schools (according to DPI, “These services are targeted for students and educators and not for the private schools”), meaning they are currently left out of the accountability system.
The accountability system works by giving schools a rating from 0-100 based on student achievement levels, achievement growth, progress towards closing achievement gaps, and attainment indicators such as “postsecondary readiness.” Other indicators such as high dropout rates and absenteeism are also factored into the rating. Once rated, schools are placed into five categories. The lowest five percent become priority schools.
Currently, the waiver lists 59 priority schools in the state, 53 of which are in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). Schools in this category have the option of closing, or contracting with a “turnaround” partner approved by the state. If after four years of DPI monitoring the school is still deficient, the DPI superintendent may step in and direct the school to take specific actions toward improvement.
The waiver is not perfect, for example there remains a need to find a fair and meaningful way to include schools enrolling sizable numbers of students on vouchers in the accountability system. I am also curious to see what state approved turnaround teams look like in practice. However, improved data systems and a statewide acceptance that Wisconsin’s lowest performing schools cannot be allowed to continue to fail is a huge step forward.
There is much more to the waiver than what I discussed, including the creation of a second tier of “focus” schools, and the implementation of a new statewide data system. The full approved waiver and summary are available here and here.