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Two weeks before its charge runs out, the Special Committee on Improving Educational Options in High School completed its work. The fruits of its labor include four pieces of proposed legislation, and nineteen letters of recommended courses of action addressed to Governor Walker, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, Department of Workforce Development Secretary Reggie Newson, and various other leaders in education.
The committee, consisting of four legislators and fourteen other representatives from education and business, began working last summer to evaluate career and technical education programs offered in Wisconsin high schools. Its charge was to develop legislation and recommendations for better coordinating workforce development efforts in the state between local school districts, employers, and state institutions of higher education.
Committee members discussed and debated the legislative proposals during the four-hour meeting and will vote on them by e-mail ballot. Results will be posted on the committee's website. Successful proposals will then be forwarded to the Legislative Council, which will decide whether or not to formally introduce them as bills.
Committee Chair Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) and Vice-Chair Sen. Paul Farrow (R-Pewaukee) both said that some of the recommendations may not wait to follow the usual legislative process but may wind up in Governor Walker's proposed budget that is due to be released in early February.
Sen. Farrow makes a point while Sen. Olsen looks on. Photo by Rebecca Kemble.
Referring to the initiatives of the Governor's Council on Workforce Investment, his College and Workforce Readiness Council, and Competitive Wisconsin's Be Bold II initiative, Sen. Farrow said, "There are things happening parallel to this group. It's all going to come to a head in January or February when we see the budget."
Hiding controversial public policy changes in a 500-pages-plus budget bill is nothing new for Walker or the Wisconsin GOP. That's how they tried to end all meaningful collective bargaining for public employees: By writing it into a 142-page budget repair bill. It turned out that only six pages of that bill had anything to do with the budget.
The legislative proposals to be voted on by the group are indeed controversial:
1) Reduce the number of English credits required to graduate from High School from 4 to 3 and increase the number of math and science credits from 2 to 3. School Districts will be given the "flexibility" to define what counts as a math or science course.
2) Require all students in schools that receive public funding to have an Academic and Career Plan from 6th grade on. Every district in the state would use the same software program (not specified) to track students' goals and progress. This software would link up with the statewide student information database that is the foundation for Wisconsin's new school and district report cards, as well as labor market information software to help track kids into areas where there is a high demand for jobs.
3) Require standardized testing of all students in 4th, 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th grade. The ACT suite of tests must be one option, if not the only option, for the state to administer.
4) Require that students taking college courses through the Youth Options program justify their course selection by relevance to their Academic and Career Plan.
All of these initiatives chip away at the once great public education system in Wisconsin by shifting resources away from the essential teaching and learning that goes on in the classroom.
Instead, Walker will force districts to invest in software systems that will require massive amounts of professional development time in order for teachers to administer them, and Walker is orienting the curriculum toward the specific needs of businesses.
Some of the education administrators in the room had reservations, particularly about dropping the 4th credit of English. They also had differences of opinion about which standardized testing regime to use.
The State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Evers, favors the ACT product. However, Wisconsin is also testing the Smarter Balanced assessments. Sen. Olsen reported that a Smarter Balanced employee told him recently that if Wisconsin wrote a law privileging ACT, then they would be dropped from the advisory board of Smarter Balanced. He said, "If you don't do the full Smarter Balanced suite, you don't get to be at the table to decide stuff."
Patricia Hoben, principal of Carmen High School of Science and Technology charter school in Milwaukee, is a big booster of the ACT. "When you look at ACT, there's over 30 years of research that supports the predictive value of success in college based on that test." Getting to the heart of the matter she added, "Smarter Balanced has a vested interest in having us buy into this test. There's a lot of money to be made on these tests, but there is no research behind it in terms of predictive results for success in college."
ACT has taken standardized testing to the most absurd level yet by developing a career and college readiness test for third graders. This is but one facet of the dark vision policy makers have for our kids. With a sense of urgency, Chairman Olsen said, "We want people to understand that education is valuable and we don't have time for people to flounder around. You better use every opportunity you can to move down the career path rather than jogging off down some other direction."
Speaking about the Youth Options program where local school districts pay for high school students taking college courses if that course is not offered by their school, Superintendent of Oconomowoc schools Patricia Neudecker supported the proposed requirement that those classes to be tied into a student's Academic and Career Plan. She said, "Right now the kid can go off on a tangent and just take a course because they're interested in the course, and we have to pay for it... It becomes exploratory at everyone's expense."
Have we really gone so far down that road of school "reform" that a bright, motivated high school kid exploring his or her interests by taking a college course is seen as irresponsible?
Do the people who are building these systems of accountability and assessment really want for themselves and their children a world in which a little teenage "floundering" is intolerable?
Who really benefits from public schools that are so heavily invested in and dependent upon highly sophisticated software systems?
Does that really help teachers teach and kids learn?
Nobody is asking these kinds of questions at the policy table. Is it because most parents and teachers haven't bought into the product so we "don't get to be at the table to decide stuff"?
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.