Cap Times Editorial: We Don’t Know What Educational Standards We’re Talking About, But We’re Against Compromising Them for $250 Million

I’m going to put on my media-critic hat and vent a little bit here.  We recently learned that Wisconsin is not one of the 19 finalists for federal Race to the Top (RTT) funding.    While it’s tough to lose out on a slice of the multi-billion dollar pie, we can turn for solace to an editorial posted on the Cap Times’ website today.

Here is what it says:

It is, of course, unfortunate that Wisconsin has lost out for a second time in its bid to secure more than $200 million in federal education grant money under the “Race to the Top” program.

But what is even more unfortunate is the fact that the Obama administration has pitted states against one another in an effort to create a one-size-fits-all response to educational challenges.

States with inferior schools and inferior plans for improving them qualified for the “Race to the Top” money not by doing anything smart or useful but by meeting the “standards” demanded by the White House and the Department of Education.

The “Race to the Top” program is every bit as misguided as George Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” debacle.

Were Wisconsin to bend to the “Race to the Top” standards, we would, in fact, be lowering the standards of this state to fit a dumbed-down national average.

Education quality in Wisconsin would suffer as a result.

The responsibility of Wisconsin school boards and educators to this state’s students is too great to accept such a compromise. So we will go without the “Race to the Top” money.

But this should be the last time that Wisconsin is put in such a circumstance.

Wisconsin’s representatives in the U.S. House and Senate need to follow the lead of Congressman David Obey, D-Wausau, who has been challenging the Obama administration’s misguided approach.

It is time to replace the president’s race to the bottom with a serious national commitment to educational quality and equity.

I agree with the editorial that it is unfortunate that the state will not be receiving any of the RTT funds.  That may be where my agreement with the editorial ends.

To qualify for RTT funding, a state was required to commit to “ambitious yet achievable” plans for education reform in four areas:

  • Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy;
  • Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction;
  • Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and
  • Turning around our lowest-achieving schools.

These are the Department of Education’s descriptions, and they’re not all that informative.  More specific details on the application requirements can be found here.

The fourth reform area – turning around our lowest achieving schools — includes a requirement that states ensure “successful conditions for high-performing charter schools.”  This is a requirement I could do without, as I don’t think that Madison has the kind of sclerotic and failing school district that makes the charter school approach an attractive alternative (though charters can certainly have their place in Madison).

But other than this, it seems to me that all the other reforms that RTT application seeks to promote are worthy ones. In fact, even without RTT funding, Wisconsin is already implementing a number of the reforms, including adoption of common core standards in English language arts and mathematics , jettisoning the WKCE and moving toward student assessments national standards , and establishing a statewide longitudinal data system.

Try as I might, I can’t imagine which of these required reforms the Cap Times has in mind when it opines that to meet the RTT standards, Wisconsin would have to “lower[] the standards of this state to fit a dumbed-down national average.”   I have a hard time even understanding what “a dumbed-down national average” is supposed to mean.

In addition to the substance of the RTT reforms, the Cap Times also doesn’t seem to care for the process by which the funding is to be awarded.  But what the Cap Times describes as the Obama administration “pitt[ing] states against one another in an effort to create a one-size-fits-all response to educational challenges” could more accurately be re-phrased as “the administration utilized a competitive grant application process.”  This is hardly a novel approach, though the amount of federal funds in play is unprecedented.

What is particularly irritating about the editorial is the scent of smugness and condescension that wafts through it.  The states that are finalists for funding have “inferior schools and inferior plans for improving them”?  Tell that to finalists Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Ohio.

In order to qualify for funding, we’d have to “lower[] the standards of this state to fit a dumbed-down national average”?  Please.

I’m not so sure we have all that much to brag about in terms of our statewide educational standards or achievement.  The Milwaukee public schools are extremely challenged, to put it mildly. The state has one of the worst achievement gaps in the nation.  The WKCE is widely acknowledged as a poor system for statewide assessment of student progress.   Just last week our state academic standards were labeled among the worst in the country in a national study.

We brag about how well Wisconsin students do on the ACT, and this is certainly good.  But about 30 states have higher cut scores than Wisconsin when it comes to identifying National Merit Scholars, which means that their top 1% of students taking the test score higher than our top 1% do.  (We in the MMSD are justly proud of our inordinate number of National Merit semi-finalists, but if – heaven forbid – MMSD were to be plopped down in the middle of Illinois, our number of semi-finalists would go down, perhaps significantly so.  Illinois students need a higher score on the PSAT to be designated a National Merit semi-finalist than Wisconsin students do.)

The smugness of the Cap Times editorial is also galling because the Governor’s efforts to change our state laws in order to qualify for RTT funds brought into sharp focus the unfortunate fact that our legislators are more interested in pleasing WEAC than in improving our schools.

One of the requirements to qualify for RTT funds is that a state cannot bar consideration of student achievement as part of the process for evaluating teachers.  This was inconvenient, because Wisconsin has had a statute that does just that: Wis. Stat. 118.30(2)(c).

Prompted by the RTT requirements, the legislature acted to change this law.  However, while the legislature attempted to comply with the letter of the RTT requirement by eliminating the specific bar on using the results of statewide assessments as part of the evaluation of teacher performance, it flouted the requirement’s spirit by maintaining the bar on relying in any way on those results to discharge a teacher or non-renew his or her contract.

What’s more, the legislature added a new requirement that makes “the development of or any changes to a teacher evaluation plan” a mandatory subject of collective bargaining.  Prior to this, the law required bargaining only over the procedures for teacher evaluations, such as how frequently they would be undertaken.  Now, for the first time, school districts have to bargain with their teachers union over the substance of the evaluation process itself, such as the qualities that the district values when undertaking an assessment of a teacher’s performance.

The practical effect of the changes the new law wrought is that results of students’ performance on the statewide assessment, whether the WKCE or its successor, are quite unlikely to be used in the evaluation of teacher performance.  A school district isn’t going to have two separate teacher evaluation processes, one that takes into account student performance but that can’t be used for making non-renewal decisions, and a separate process that can be relied on in determining a teacher’s employment future with the district.

So this law, which is meant to bring state law into compliance with RTT requirements, has the actual effect of taking the state further away from the student-achievement orientation that all those federal dollars are intended to induce.  It’s no wonder that those who reviewed the state’s application might have concluded that our commitment to the goals of the program fell something short of whole-hearted.

Not to worry, says the Cap Times.  The fault lies with the Feds and not in ourselves. Rather than be caught in the company of the “states with inferior schools and inferior plans,” we’re better off without the $250 million in RTT funds we were seeking.

Well, that’s one way to look at it I guess.

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2 Responses to Cap Times Editorial: We Don’t Know What Educational Standards We’re Talking About, But We’re Against Compromising Them for $250 Million

  1. Jeff Henriques says:


    I like what you’ve written here and thank you for saying it aloud. Readers who want to see the list of state cut scores can go here: . It’s shocking to see who has have higher cut scores than we do, e.g., Texas, South Carolina, Idaho, District of Columbia.

  2. Worth looking at the application scoring:

    It is clear that the biggest places Wisconsin lost points involved not embracing student “achievement” data manipulation in educator evaluation. We also got 0 points on STEM initiatives.

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