An education reform package presented Thursday by Gov. Scott Walker included plans to improve student reading skills and hold teachers and schools more accountable.
La Crosse educators offered mixed support for Walker’s proposals, which combined initiatives pulled from months of collaborative work with teachers, school administrators and top education officials.
Nearly $800 million in aid cuts to K-12 schools has made some educators leery of the state’s intentions, but Walker was warmly received when he unveiled his plans at the Wisconsin State Education Convention in Milwaukee, said Randy Nelson, superintendent for the La Crosse School District.
“He used this as an opportunity to smooth things over as best he could,” Nelson said.
Walker laid out the legislative legwork needed to change public education on three fronts. Bills to be introduced this spring would allow for closely tracking student reading skills, for implementing a new way to evaluate teachers and for finding an alternative to No Child Left Behind to fairly gauge school performance.
A number of recommendations made by Walker’s Read to Lead task force, formed in March to address the falling reading test scores of Wisconsin students, were included in the proposed reforms. One would require schools to screen kindergarten students to determine their reading ability.
Kindergarten students in La Crosse are already tested for reading. Screening illustrates the unique needs of students, allowing teachers to quickly and effectively address problems, said Mark White, principal of Hintgen Elementary School and supervisor of pre-kindergarten programs for the district.
“We want our elementary teachers to come out knowing as much as they possibly can,” White said.
Another reform proposed by Walker would change how a teacher’s job performance is measured. Student test scores, high school graduation rates and other indicators would account for half of a teacher’s evaluation.
Using student assessments to rate teachers might make sense, but it also raises some concerns, said Ed Ludwig, a teacher at Hamilton Early Learning Center and president of the La Crosse Education Association.
“It’s a very hard thing to do,” Ludwig said. “There are a lot of factors to how a student performs that don’t relate to the school at all.”
Poverty, personal issues, family background — all can impact a student’s performance in the classroom. With a teacher’s job on the line, any such review system should consider the variables, Ludwig said.
Nelson offered his support for another aspect of the reform package: plans to make way for an alternative to No Child Left Behind.
The federally mandated barometer for student progress puts a burden on schools to prove by 2014 that all students are 100 percent proficient in subjects like English and math.
In addition to its high demands, the current school accountability system doesn’t take student growth into account, Nelson said.
“Growth would make a lot more sense,” Nelson said. “We’ve just been waiting for a system that makes some sense of that.”
Detecting statewide disapproval for NCLB from administrators like Nelson, Walker met with state Superintendent Tony Evers and other state officials this summer to begin crafting an NCLB alternative.
All three of the initiatives in Walker’s reform package are based on the work of collaborative task forces. It’s that sense of cooperation that increases the likelihood that those reforms are sound and feasible, White said
“You have the state superintendent and the governor working together on this,” White said. “And that’s a good thing. It’s not just coming from one direction.”