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Wisconsin Still Has A Lot of Work to Do
November 14, 2013

By Jarett Fields, DFER Wisconsin State Director

This year’s National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) results released last Friday illustrate two fundamental and chronic problems in Wisconsin’s education system: stagnation and inequity. While many other states’ results showed progress for fourth- and eighth-graders in reading and math, our overall scores showed little improvement and, even more disturbingly, our achievement gaps for African American and Hispanic students are higher than those of any state in the nation.

Wisconsin students have not posted significant gains in math or reading since 2005. Statewide, this year’s results show 47% of fourth-graders and 40% of eighth-graders scored proficient or advanced in math, and 35% of fourth-graders and 36% of eighth-graders scored proficient or advanced in reading. And the numbers only get worse when we look at the results for minority students.

In a previous post, I noted that based on the 2011 NAEP scores, Wisconsin had the most severe achievement gap between black and white students of any state in the nation. In 2013, Wisconsin still holds that disgraceful distinction. Eighth-grade reading scores for black students were the worst in any state, by any ethnic group, and fourth-grade reading scores for black students were the second worst. The chart below reveals the extent of these gaps.

The achievement gap between Hispanic and non-Hispanic students is slightly smaller, but still quite large. The gap between reading scores of Hispanic fourth-graders in Wisconsin and their non-Hispanic counterparts was the widest in the nation.

In a recent statement, State Superintendent Tony Evers agreed that Wisconsin’s NAEP results signaled there is work to do. “We can be pleased that Wisconsin’s mathematics achievement is above the national average,” said Evers. “However, our pace of improvement in mathematics has slowed, and the state’s reading results have remained flat. Achievement gaps between racial and ethnic groups, students with disabilities, and English language learners persist. We must remain focused on our efforts to improve achievement for all students so they graduate ready for college and careers. This means continuing to implement our new, more rigorous academic standards and our work in reading instruction.”

The “rigorous academic standards” that Evers refers to are what many of us know as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which have been adopted by the majority of states across the country, including Wisconsin, as a way to ensure all students are college- and career-ready.

Going beyond the adoption of these standards to actually implementing these standards is the first logical step on Wisconsin’s path to improve its students’ scores overall and to close the state’s vast achievement gaps. Yet, as I highlighted earlier this month. there continues to be pushback from CCSS opponents across the state who seem to be in total denial of how desperately we need to jumpstart Wisconsin’s education system.

The results from this year’s NAEP test should not only be a warning, but a flashing red siren drawing attention to a school system that is dire need of reform. It’s obvious from these results that we are in trouble, and that CCSS, by raising academic standards, will be an important tool to help pull us out of the stagnant student achievement waters in which we’ve been thrashing about for close to a decade.

We need to put aside our differences to help our state rise out of the muck and create change. Let’s stop the politicking and move forward with college- and career-ready standards for all.

Jarett Fields is an education specialist with a passion for community engagement. For the past ten years, Jarett has worked to increase the number of college graduates by building sustainable programs at the higher education level. Professionally, he has worked to build pathways of success for students at UCLA, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Read more about Jarett here.




Supporting the Common Core Is a Crucial Part of the Equity Agenda
November 7, 2013

By Jarett Fields, DFER Wisconsin State Director

Last week, I took the Wisconsin state legislature to task for biasing its hearings on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) to extreme right-wing CCSS opponents. As I said, I believe all voices should be heard. My beef with some CSSS opponents, however, is their injection of misinformation and fear tactics into what should be a factually-driven debate on what’s best for Wisconsin students.

This is not to say that all CCSS opponents, no matter where they are on the political spectrum, lack substantive arguments. Reasonable people can disagree on whether or not CCSS would improve the quality of education in our state. Even so, in my view the evidence in favor of Wisconsin adopting Common Core is overwhelming. It may be helpful to take a step back and consider why so many support the new standards.

Academic standards like the Common Core provide guidance to teachers on what to teach and to parents on what their students should be able to do by the end of the year. Under weak standards—like those that the Common Core would replace—teachers create easier class plans and parents assume that their students are doing better than they actually are.

These standards affect all students—but they’re particularly important for low-income and minority students. Disproportionately, students from these backgrounds attend classes with lax standards and low expectations, two forces that contribute to the achievement gaps that exist between minority and white students. How significant a problem is the achievement gap in Wisconsin?

Wisconsin has the most severe achievement gap between black and white students of any state in the country. Calculated using a composite score of the math and reading NAEP assessments, commonly viewed as the gold standard in testing, the black-white achievement gap is larger in Wisconsin than it is in states like Mississippi or Alabama. Similarly, the achievement gap between Hispanic and white students is smaller but still one of the largest in the country.

Although there are many things that our state must do to lose this shameful distinction, embracing the Common Core State Standards is a critical first step. By fully implementing the Common Core, educators can teach classes that put more low-income and minority students on the track to college and will be held accountable for a higher level of performance. These are changes that our state—perhaps more than any other in the country—desperately needs.

However, not everyone in Wisconsin agrees that the Common Core is right for our state. Critics of the Common Core often, especially those on the political left, argue that higher standards will hurt low-income and minority kids by discouraging them while in school. Higher standards and more challenging classes will cause already struggling students to struggle even more, the argument goes, and so the Common Core will actually force them out of class. As any teacher instinctively knows, the opposite is the case: insisting on weak standards means classes are easy and uninteresting. Higher standards can boost engagement by giving kids something to work towards. Moreover, weak standards leave these students unprepared for highly-skilled careers or college success.

An Education Sector analysis of the relationship between state standards and struggling students confirms that higher standards are right for underserved kids. It found that states with rigorous standards saw greater improvements among low-performing students than states with weak standards, like Wisconsin. “High standards help, not hurt, struggling students,” the authors concluded, for just the reasons described above.

Some critics concede that the Common Core will likely boost student acheivement. However, they worry about the cost of the Common Core: couldn’t the money that will be spent on implementation be better spent directly on these low-income and minority students? Unlike worries about academic achievement, which are simply untrue, these concerns have some basis. Switching to the Common Core certainly won’t be free.

Adopting the Common Core State Standards requires the state to train teachers on what is expected from the new standards, purchase new instructional materials and assessments aligned to the standards and expand professional development to ensure that all teachers can teach at the level demanded by the Common Core. All of these changes cost money. However, the cost of switching is less than critics suggest and, more importantly, well worth the added expense.

In May 2012, the Fordham Institute, a leading think tank, analyzed the implementation costs associated with the Common Core and found that for every Wisconsin student, implementation costs could range from $29 to $200 per student, or about $100 to $250 million in total costs. These are not small sums, but to place them within context, Wisconsin spent in excess of $11 billion on school costs in FY11. For around one to three percent of the annual education budget, school leaders could bring Wisconsin’s standards into the twenty-first century.

Furthermore, this small investment is well worth the cost. Unlike tutoring or technology, costs that end with a one-off purchase, investing in higher standards earns the state a dividend for decades to come. An investment in implementation means that, after the money is spent and the system transitioned to the Common Core, schools will offer a more rigorous set of classes than under the year before and students will likely achieve at higher rates. Just as the cost of widening the banks of a river results in a permanently stronger flow, the cost of increasing standards results in long-term higher rates of achievement.

A black student entering school in Wisconsin today has the unfortunate confidence of knowing that there is no state in which he or she would be limited by a more severe achievement gap than in Wisconsin. This must change. While it won’t fix all educational inequity in the state, the Common Core is a much-needed first step in making our school system a more equitable one: it represents a wise investment that will boost student achievement, particularly for the kids who need it the most.

Jarett Fields is an education specialist with a passion for community engagement. For the past ten years, Jarett has worked to increase the number of college graduates by building sustainable programs at the higher education level. Professionally, he has worked to build pathways of success for students at UCLA, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Read more about Jarett here.




National Common Core Misinformation Campaign Infests Badger State
November 1, 2013

By Jarett Fields, DFER Wisconsin State Director

There are troubling signs that the effort to move forward with new college-and career-aligned standards for Wisconsin schools is going horribly off course. On Wednesday, Wisconsin State Assemblywoman Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee) announced her resignation from the Select Committee on Common Core Standards, citing a deeply biased hearing process driven by extreme right wing ideologues.

I don’t necessarily agree with Assemblywoman Sinicki’s decision to withdraw from the Select Committee. But her critique of the process is valid and it signals that those in favor of a more rational process must speak up and take action.

Sinicki correctly points out that much of the Common Core opposition is coming from the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party and, with regard to Wisconsin, the John Birch Society. These individuals are certainly entitled to voice their opinions and to be included as witnesses at public hearings. But we should not allow our state legislators to let them hijack the process, especially since their arguments are almost entirely baseless and designed to incite fear rather than to inform public policy.

The claims made about Common Core by national Tea Party leaders are nothing short of ridiculous:

  • Glenn Beck, who is famous for stunts like immersing a figurine of Barack Obama in urine and trying to auction it off on eBay, argues that the Common Core State Standards are the first step on the path toward a one-world government;
  • Michelle Malkin, a Fox commentator and Tea Party favorite, claimed the standards are “about top-down control engineered through government-administered tests and left-wing textbook monopolies;”
  • Veteran arch-conservative Phyllis Schlafly has asserted that “[Common Core] is a comprehensive plan to dumb down schoolchildren so they will be obedient servants of the government and probably to indoctrinate them to accept the leftwing view of America and its history.”

For its part, The John Birch Society has asserted, among other things, that:

  • “Common Core’s subpar English Language Arts (ELA) standards are intended to remove the great British and American literary works of William Shakespeare, John Bunyan, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, T.S. Eliot, and C.S. Lewis from school curricula. These literary classics will be replaced with simple brochures, restaurant menus, technical manuals, and government pamphlets about the environment and sustainability from the Environmental Protection Agency. 

The purpose of literature will no longer be to expand children’s creative thinking and vocabulary skills but rather to make them practical components of a managed world economy and labor market.”

For those of you too young to remember, The John Birch Society, who entered the fray recently as a Common Core critic, cut its teeth on hoaxes. Back in the 1950’s, the John Birch Society claimed that the introduction of fluoride into our water system was an international Communist plot. Six decades later, U.S. children have a dramatically lower rate of cavities and other dental problems and the Soviet Union is a relatively distant memory.

Rep. Fred Clark (D-Baraboo), a member of the Wisconsin Assembly Education Committee, accurately summed up the opposition to the Common Core when he said: “This is nothing more than a Tea Party-backed witch hunt based on ideology but no real evidence.”

I happen to think that Common Core has the potential to do a lot of good for Wisconsin students, especially if we do it thoughtfully and collaboratively. And apparently, Tea Party-led Republicans fear that a fair and balanced debate will lead most voters to exactly the same conclusion. We need to put a stop to the propaganda campaign that the Select Committee is on now to railroad the education policymaking process and begin a substantive and serious discussion that focuses on the needs of Wisconsin students.

Jarett Fields is an education specialist with a passion for community engagement. For the past ten years, Jarett has worked to increase the number of college graduates by building sustainable programs at the higher education level. Professionally, he has worked to build pathways of success for students at UCLA, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Read more about Jarett here.




When Parents Go Wild
October 15, 2013

By Jarett Fields, DFER-WI State Director

(Originally published in the Milwaukee Courier)

When the Department of Public Instruction in Wisconsin released its second annual school report cards last month, the results sent a clear message to parents. The report card measured four indicators of every district and school in the state. Results showed that of all the school districts in Wisconsin, only one failed to meet expectations - Milwaukee Public Schools. News of the results inspired both celebration and anger among parents around the state.

Parents whose children attended high-performing schools in the state praised principals and staff for their dedication and hard work. At one high school, parents even offered to purchase new laptops for the entire school staff, including maintenance and food service workers. Parents of children enrolled at high-performing independent charter schools joined together and served cake and ice cream in recognition of those schools outpacing other schools in the state in growth in proficiency.

But just as those parents celebrated the success of their schools, many more parents were angered by the low performance of the schools their children attend. At one elementary school in Milwaukee, parents charged the principal’s office demanding to see expenditure totals, teacher evaluations, and professional development records. The single mother of seven-year-old Tasha Morgan confronted the child’s math teacher, then sat with him for six hours to come up with new lesson plans specifically targeting her daughter’s weaknesses. Most shocking though was when parents of children who attended one low-performing school in Milwaukee marched with the school’s entire staff to local and state officials’ offices, chanting, “Help our kids” and “We deserve better.”

In an interview, parents of twins Martin and Malcolm Anderson told reporters they were fed up with all the misinformation about schools in Milwaukee. “If I don’t see concrete plans on how to fix the problems in these schools, this is the last you’ll see of us,” said Mr. Anderson. “The statistics for young black men, like my sons, in Milwaukee are just plain scary.”

During the interview, an anonymous parent yelled out, “they don’t want to fix these problems.” With tears in her eyes, Mrs. Anderson looked into the camera and asked, “Why can’t we just do something about this? We know what the problems are!”

Sadly, none of these stories are true. But I wish they were. To be clear, I don’t wish for bad schools - I do wish that parents who have children enrolled in schools they find inadequate would take action, just as I wish parents who made the decision to send their children to high-performing schools would celebrate the success of those schools.

When the DPI school report cards were released, they were immediately sucked into unhelpful and unnecessary debates. Proponents of public schools used them to decry charter schools - even though independent charters posted, on average, the highest gains across the state - while suburban districts used them to show all the problems in Milwaukee. Sadly, no one - elected officials included - has used them to begin a constructive conversation about how we increase the good practices of high-performing schools, and end the bad practices of struggling schools.

This conversation has to include parents. The fictitious stories above are believable simply because we know there are parents willing to do any and everything necessary to ensure their child receives a quality education. When parents go wild for their children, it has a clear impact on their child’s education. And as more and more parents go wild for their children, it has a clear impact on a school. Parents, elected officials, school leaders, staff, and community members all have a stake in ensuring children throughout Milwaukee, and the state, have quality options. And if it takes a few parents going wild to inspire action, so be it.

Jarett Fields is an education specialist with a passion for community engagement. For the past ten years, Jarett has worked to increase the number of college graduates by building sustainable programs at the higher education level. Professionally, he has worked to build pathways of success for students at UCLA, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Read more about Jarett here.




How well (or poorly) are Milwaukee's charter schools doing?
October 2, 2013

By Jarett Fields, DFER-WI State Director

“Improvement is necessary in many of Milwaukee’s independent charter schools,” announces a recent Education Week article on the release of state report card data. The article makes an argument—echoed elsewhere—that the school report cards show that the independent charter schools, also known as 2r charters, are failing to live up to expectations.

Wisconsin’s report cards offer parents a snapshot of school performance through student achievement on the two Wisconsin standardized assessments, the WKCE and the WAA. On the surface, the claim in Education Week is right: as measured by the state accountability system, several 2r charters do not meet expectations. But this hasty argument neglects some important information about the context surrounding Milwaukee’s independent charter sector.

In contrast to the average school in Wisconsin, the average 2r charter school in Milwaukee serves considerably more black and low-income students. In making its claim, Education Week is comparing apples and oranges by measuring 2r charters against state norms. If we look more closely at the data, a very different story emerges.

Yes, compared to the average performance across Wisconsin, Milwaukee’s independent charter schools do struggle—but compared to their peer schools, they exceed the average and often by considerable margins. In fact, the number of 2r charters meeting expectations, according to the DPI report card, is 50% higher than Milwaukee’s traditional public schools.

The success of many 2r charters in Milwaukee is encouraging but it is much too soon to celebrate. Though gains in proficiency have outpaced district schools, can still continue to improve a great deal. Few 2r charters have been able to get more than 80 percent of their students proficient in math and reading which is critical to future college success. Moreover, Milwaukee’s independent charter schools serve lower percentages of English language learners and students with disabilities.It’s not clear whether this occurs because of better instruction (students are removed from the English language learner list if they become proficient) or because of selection and expulsion pressures.

All the same, many of these charters are exceeding the unfortunate level of performance that Milwaukee’s parents have come to expect of the city’s schools. It is a critical component of education reform to ensure that quality options for families - schools that meet or exceed expectations - remain open and expand to serve more kids.

Painting schools with a broad brush, as many articles are doing about the outcomes of Milwaukee’s independent charters right now, only serves to distort the charter image. There are many excellent 2r charters in Wisconsin, and there are others that fall below expectations. When compared to the surrounding schools in Milwaukee, these schools are posting above average gains. They meet and exceed the expectations of their students and families. For schools that fail to meet expectations, it is imperative that authorizers close those schools. This way, 2r charters can lead the way in innovation and accountability.

Jarett Fields is an education specialist with a passion for community engagement. For the past ten years, Jarett has worked to increase the number of college graduates by building sustainable programs at the higher education level. Professionally, he has worked to build pathways of success for students at UCLA, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Read more about Jarett here.




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