Sounding the Alarm: A Wakeup Call with Directions

There was a time when Wisconsin was a leader in school reform, and it wasn't that long ago. All you have to do is go two decades back, and the state's performance on reading and math assessments put its students in the nation's upper tier. The 1990 Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was heralded as a watershed for school choice, and today, it is the nation's largest school voucher program. Wisconsin was also an early adopter of charter schooling, and its SAGE class-size-reduction program gained national attention in the 1990s.

In the current education landscape, those days of innovation seem a long way off. Wisconsin is no longer mentioned as an education innovator in the same breath as states like Louisiana, Tennessee, or Colorado. Wisconsin has also seen a tremendous erosion of its once-impressive math and reading performance. In 1990, Wisconsin outperformed 76% of the states in eighth-grade math scores. Today, Wisconsin has fallen to the middle of the pack. In reading, the decline has been even more precipitous.1 And all of this has happened in spite of the fact that statewide per-pupil spending has risen from $7,749 per student in 1990 to $10,041 in 2007 (in constant 2007 dollars), proving that just throwing money at a problem will not solve it.2

Perhaps the most vexing statistic is the racial divide--93% of white students graduated high school in 2009 statewide, compared to only 66% of African-American students.3 This is a divide that no state or country can tolerate if it intends to remain functioning, let alone successful. The situation is most grim in Milwaukee, where only one-third of African-American tenth-graders--34%--are proficient in reading compared to 67% among their white classmates; in math, 19% of African-American students are proficient compared to 56% of white students.4

What will it take for Wisconsin's policymakers to improve these dismal statistics and return Wisconsin to leadership in K-12 schooling? Ironically, many of the solutions to right this foundering ship are already available today. The problem is that it will demand intrepid leadership and innovative thinking to take on an entrenched and beleaguered profession, and for too long, Wisconsin has lacked the bold leaders who are willing to do what is necessary.

This essay is not just a blueprint for the state's leaders; it is a wakeup call with directions. Each of the suggestions offered here has the potential to begin changing the dynamics of Wisconsin schooling, so that cost-effectiveness is brought out of the shadows, the incentives that reward lethargy and discourage initiative are reshaped to instead reward performance, and opportunities are created for outside innovators to better serve all of our children. However, leaders must also realize that nothing will end the downward spiral unless they choose to act.

Keeping in mind that these suggestions are off the beaten path, it's important to also look at the more systemic, broad-gauge needs in the sector. None of these points should come as a surprise to anyone who has remotely looked at the problems in education in Wisconsin and, frankly, throughout the country. But taking the necessary steps to correct them is frequently more of a political question that, for a variety of reasons, our leaders have been either unwilling or afraid to tackle.

  • There has to be an improvement in teacher quality.

  • Curriculum has to be strengthened in the core subjects.

  • Schools and teachers must be held accountable.

  • Excellence must be rewarded.

  • Discipline and school safety must improve.

  • The number of high-quality charter schools has to be expanded.

  • Persistently low-performing schools have to be either turned around or shut down.

Some specific suggestions on these counts are thoughtfully sketched in the complementary analyses for this project by Alan Borsuk, Sarah Archibald, Ruth Fernandez, and Scott Niederjohn. Our aim in this paper is not to review proposals for teacher pay systems or tenure reform, but to focus on a few ideas that tend to fall between the cracks and that begin to address the structural barriers that impede dramatic leaps in K-12 productivity. None are quick-fix solutions, nor do they promise a rapid boost in test scores. Rather, they are proposals to start addressing the structural roadblocks that have made deep-seated improvement so difficult.

Click here to read this paper in full as an Adobe Acrobat PDF.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI. Olivia Meeks is a research assistant at AEI.

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