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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Monday, June 05, 2006

Paging Dr. Pangloss

I teach high school. In Milwaukee. It is neither easy nor all that uplifting most days.

Considering how hard I worked last year trying to change my school’s fortunes on the state’s standardized test (a vain effort, as my school failed again), I was surprised to see a front-page headline in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel telling me I was getting off easy on No Child Left Behind.

Well, not me, personally, but Wisconsin in general.

A report by the think tank Education Sector takes us to the woodshed. Research and Policy Manager Kevin Carey has created what he calls the "Pangloss Index," so named after Voltaire's character Dr. Pangloss, who, in the face of evidence to the contrary, keeps insisting that we live in the best of all possible worlds.

“According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction,” Carey says, “the state is a modern-day educational utopia where a large majority of students meet academic standards, high school graduation rates are high, every school is safe and nearly all teachers are highly qualified.”

If you can’t tell, he’s being sarcastic. Apparently, none of those things is true in his world.

I’m no fan of No Child Left Behind. A tiny part of me is gleeful about our gaming the system. Another part of me wonders whether anyone learned anything from the phony “Texas Miracle” that spawned NCLB in the first place.

But most of me is thinking, “Hey, that’s my integrity being impugned, there.”

I read the rest of the report at Education Sector’s website. Carey is merciless towards Wisconsin, using more italics to express disbelief than even I do. However, Carey’s breathless takedown of Wisconsin’s DPI ignores how our students, even on measures external to DPI, do very well.

Just a week before, for example, the same newspaper buried a story on page 8B about how only three states perform better than Wisconsin on the National Assessment of Educational Progress science exam. Other NAEP data (click on our state) show that Wisconsin ranks in the top third in reading and math, too. Our ACT-taking students rank second in the nation. Census figures show that we are in the top 25% of states for adults with high school diplomas.

These are all data we can be proud of, and that indicate things are going well here. Utopia? Maybe not—but certainly not deserving of Carey’s critiques.

Another complaint is the notion that 99.5% of Wisconsin’s teachers are “highly qualified,” according to DPI. To DPI, “highly qualified” means you have a license in the subject you teach. Carey thinks this is insufficient. Clearly, he hasn’t gotten a teaching license in Wisconsin lately. The process includes not only coursework and practical experience (up to a full year of student teaching, depending on your license), but also a standardized exam in general knowledge and your subject area.

Maintaining a license isn’t as easy as it used to be, either. Gone are the “lifetime license” and easy renewal credits; instead, the law governing license renewal (called PI-34) requires rigorous self-assessment under the strict guidance of specially-trained mentor teachers. It is no longer true—if it ever was—that those who can’t do, teach.

Then there’s Carey’s utter horror that only one district in the state is labeled as failing (Milwaukee, naturally). Surely, Carey thinks, the rest of the state must be failing, too, and we’re just covering it up.

Well, it depends on how you really want to define failing. One of my biggest complaints about NCLB is the way its labels can create an inaccurate impression of student performance.

The report notes that only 28% of schools in Florida are making annual yearly progress (and the report praises Florida for its honesty). I don’t believe for a second that 72% of the children in Florida are getting substandard education. The NAEP data confirm my suspicions.

Schools can miss AYP—and be labeled as failing—when only a small percentage of their students perform poorly on state tests. Florida, apparently, is willing to take that to the extreme, an extreme that includes taking money away from the failing schools to hand over to unaccountable supplemental educational services, among other things. Wisconsin does not do that, figuring, in part, that continued investment in what works in schools is the better choice.

Do I think Wisconsin’s schools are perfect? No. But I also do not believe that DPI is blind to the state’s problems.

And I don’t think we should be criticized for our success.

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