Assembly Republicans introduced their promised “school accountability” legislation this week as the first bill of the new session. The lead sponsor of the measure is the new chair of the Assembly Education Committee, Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt of Fond du Lac.
The bill’s animating principle seems to be that there are too many public schools and not enough independent charter schools. The bill addresses that by creating a new state bureaucracy, a 13-member “Academic Review Board.” This Board is authorized to overhaul the current state report card system such that every school will receive a grade from A to F. The grades will be based primarily on standardized test results and the Board will determine the grading scale. Three years of Ds or Fs and a school will go on four-year probation. When its probationary term is up, the Board can decide the school hasn’t shown enough improvement and must be closed, to be replaced by an independent charter school.
Last year 223 of the state’s public schools received the equivalent of a D or an F on their state report card – a little more than 10% of the schools receiving grades. This is one of the rare occasions when it is accurate to say that the Republicans’ proposal threatens to literally decimate our state’s public schools.
Are there poorly performing public schools in Wisconsin? Sure. But it is the responsibility of the local school district and school board to dig into the problems at those schools and figure out ways to make improvements.
It’s striking how dead set Rep. Theisfeldt and the other sponsors of this bill must be to privatize our schools. They’re so committed that they’re willing to abandon local responsibility and local control and instead march in lockstep behind a top-down, bureaucratic, stifling approach that in other contexts they’d be elbowing each other out of the way to be the first to attack.
Case in point. The bedrock principle of the private school voucher movement is that parents are best able to decide what schools are right for their kids. Provide good information and options and parents will choose the schools that will best help their children learn. So says, for example, the Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty (WILL), the legal arm of the anti-public school crowd: “We have previously said that the best accountability policies are the ones that provide families with enough information and flexibility to identify the best education for their children and give them the financial ability to choose the best school.”
The sanctions bill is flatly inconsistent with this free market approach. According to the bill, the new state bureaucracy will know better than families, and better than locally-elected school boards, what schools are doing an adequate job for their students. That state board can shut down schools it concludes are not up to snuff – and turn the keys of the schoolhouse over to an independent charter school – regardless of the wishes of the families that the school serves. That’s not the free market – that’s Big Brother taking away educational options from the families that value them based on some one-size-fits-all bureaucratic dictate.
And what about the emphasis on standardized testing results? Whatever else the bill will do, it will greatly raise the stakes for how well a school’s students can handle standardized test questions in English and math on the new Smarter Balanced Assessment test. The stakes will be even greater for schools with a high percentage of students of color and students living in poverty, since their typically lower scores on the tests are more likely to bring their schools within the Board’s cross-hairs.
Who might be critical of Representative Thiesfeldt’s proposal to greatly ramp up the consequences attached to students’ performance on the Smarter Balanced Assessment? Well, Rep. Thiesfeldt for one. In November, 2013, after serving as Chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Common Core State Standards, he composed a document entitled “Personal Reflections on Common Core Hearings.” There, he hammered high-stakes standardized tests because they discourage creativity in the classroom:
Closely gauging curriculum and standards to standardized testing produces commonality across classrooms. Although teachers will certainly maintain a measure of pedagogical freedom, rigid and specific standards leave little incentive to explore skills that are ultimately not tested. This limitation is intensified further when teacher, school, administrator and/or district performance evaluations are tethered to test scores.
Rep. Theisfeldt was also unhappy that uniform state academic standards would narrow (or in his word “tighten) the range of materials available to teachers who wanted to try new approaches. He was concerned that this would dial up the stress and diminish the creativity of teachers, particularly with high-stakes standardized tests:
This tightening is exacerbated when the aim is to have students score proficiently on standardized tests that are aligned closely to the standards. . . . The strain on educators due to the effectiveness of their teaching being judged (partially or wholly) on student performance and growth will greatly curtail their willingness to explore outside the standards.
Why should we think that school districts and their locally-elected school boards are unable to identify poorly-performing schools in their districts and incapable of undertaking serious improvement efforts? Why is the creation of a new state bureaucracy a better approach? Shouldn’t we prefer local control? Rep. Thiesfeldt thinks so. He writes:
Education was important in 1787— so much so that the Founders left it out of the national powers because education would thrive under state competition and would also be more accountable and responsive to unique local needs. Local control has magnified the diversity of educational thought and practice, which are reflective of the distinct American subcultures that have developed over time.
Rep. Thiesfeldt’s views are in alignment with the Republican Party of Wisconsin. The party’s platform states: “We support local control of education and keeping control of schools in the hands of elected, local school boards.”
Rep. Thiesfeldt also celebrates the autonomy of local school districts: “Wisconsin school districts have long held the right to establish their own localized standards or adopt others that suit their needs. Districts must reaffirm and exercise this right.” Okay. I propose that in Madison we establish a standard that we take a more holistic approach to assessing our teachers and schools and that we explicitly disavow the crushing overemphasis on test-taking that is the inevitable result of attaching draconian consequences to the results of standardized tests in English and math. It’s a shame that Rep. Theisfeldt’s bill won’t exactly accommodate that kind of localized standard.
Rep. Thiesfeldt’s bill is great for the operators of independent charter schools but it won’t help public schools or the students they serve. Troubling as this is, the implications of the bill are even worse. If the privatizers of public education can get a bill passed to shut down public schools that is built on the kind of bureaucratic, top-down, one-size-fits-all approach that its sponsors abhor everywhere else, then here in Wisconsin there may be no anti-public school goal that is now beyond their grasp.