In the education world, the trend has been to collect data of all sorts: academic, behavioral, attendance, and graduation, and then report those results as a reflection of success, or lack thereof, of how well or poorly our schools are educating our children. In Wisconsin, one can find a myriad of such data for every school district (though not for individual schools, or private schools, including those receiving publicly funded voucher payments) on the Department of Public Instruction’s (DPI) website. In Madison, as in most other school districts around the country, there is an ever increasing focus on data, with vast majority of responsibility for dealing with this data, assigned to classroom teachers.
There are many who critique this data driven approach to education, but since there are no signs that public schools are going to refrain from using data to drive their educational strategies, the question arises as to who will be held responsible for the results which the data reveal?
Public school governance in Wisconsin and in most of the country starts with a local Board of Education, which in turn, hires a District Administrator or Superintendent, who in turn, hires building principals, who in turn hire teachers and other support staff. While classroom success is a laudable goal, it is unreasonable to expect widespread classroom achievement if building and district-wide leadership fail to articulate reasonable goals and provide the necessary supports to achieve those goals.
I have repeatedly expressed concerns with the failure of school administrators to establish reasonable measurable goals at the building and district level. Soon, Madison voters have an opportunity to find out if this unfortunate dynamic can change because we have what should be the most interesting school board election coming up in the next few months with 3 of 7 seats up for grabs.
Since the school board sets district policy and decides who to hire as the district’s superintendent, and whether she should continue serving in that role, we have an opportunity for each candidate to tell the public:
- What reasonable, measurable academic and behavioral goals should the district be expected to achieve at the building and district-wide level?
- Who should set those goals?
- Who should be held accountable for failure to achieve those goals?
- How will the board ensure that building principals the superintendent are held accountable if these goals are not met?
While Madison has a Strategic Framework, it does not contain reasonable measurable goals. Rather it has three laudable aspirational goals, which are fine in a perfect world, but are so far from realistic, they simply cannot be used to hold anyone accountable for failing to achieve these goals, including:
- Every child is on track to graduate ready for college, career and community.
- The district and every school in it is a place where children, staff, and families thrive, and
- African-American children and youth excel in school.
While there are generally non-specific measurements listed under each goal, there are no accountability measures identified for failure to meet those goals.
More specific goals are set by each building and can be found in the School Improvement Plan (SIP). There is no equivalent District Improvement Plan. While each SIP does identify specific measurable goals, there is no indication of what will happen if the school does not meet some or all of its goals. Nor is there any indication of why goals vary from school to school nor what the acceptable floor for any school should be.
For example, at East High School, 4 year graduation goals have been set as follows:
- Raise the graduation rate for all students from 81% to 86%;
- Raise the graduation rate for African-American students from 73% to 83%; and
- Raise the graduation rate for special education students from 51% to 61%.
Yet, a very different set of 4 year graduation goals have been set at West High School, as follows:
- Raise the graduation rate for all students from 94% to 99%;
- Raise the graduation rate for African-American students from 92% to 100%; and
- Raise the graduation rate for special education students from 54% to 59%.
Why are the goals and results so different between these two high schools just a few miles apart? Are these goals and results acceptable to the Superintendent? Are they acceptable to the school board?
While candidates for school board may choose to focus on other aspects that these school improvement plan goals have set forth, my questions for each of them are:
- Are the goals set in each school’s improvement plan reasonable?
- Who will be held accountable if a school does not achieve one or more of those goals?
- Who will set reasonable and measurable district-wide goals and what should they be?
- How will the board hold the superintendent responsible for failure to meet both school building and district-wide goals?
Of course, accountability may come in many forms. If a school building does not meet goals in one year, it may be that it needs more resources to meet those goals and the board should consider allocating those resources specifically designed to achieve goals that have not been met. However, if goals continue to be unmet, then the board needs to consider whether leadership changes must be made.
The public has every right to expect candidates for school board to answer these questions. Otherwise, we will continue to struggle to define and achieve educational success for our students and we will all suffer as a result.
For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.