23 January 2014

Letter to Rep. Dale Kooyenga

The Republican led state legislature in Wisconsin has written a bill, AB 549, expanding charter schools in much the same way the legislature last year expanded voucher schools.  Creating new schools may provide more choices for parents but it provides no new options.  The startup cost and productivity of new schools is much like planting a new service berry bush: little yield in the first few years of growing.  New schools struggle to find a footing in neighborhoods and many fail altogether. Studies indicate that our attention could be better spent improving leadership and providing more training opportunities for teachers.   

Representative Kooyenga,

While I appreciate your ambition to remodel our current educational landscape in the hope of raising educational outcomes, I cannot help but think that AB 549 might be a bit off track. 

While creating more schools could result in smaller class sizes and additional alternatives for parents, the bill seems to neglect some key data.  Each new school that opens starts from scratch meaning they are overwhelmed.  It takes a few years for a school to find its footing.

Study after study indicate that high quality schools are effective places of learning, first, because of the leadership.  A good principal stimulates enthusiasm in the staff and prompts deeper commitment.  Second, study after study indicate the next key contributor is the teacher.  Just one year with a good teacher leads to enduring effects that can alter the trajectory of a student's life.

It has become common practice across the US to attack teachers as the focal point for the flat line our educational system seems to have reached.  Yet our country as a whole does little to address why this might be the case.  Instead the solution offered is to expand the possible options of private/public schools for parents to enroll their students with very little attention on teacher training, continuing education, or retention.

Comparing the US to other countries, like Singapore, Japan, S. Korea, Finland, etc. one common denominator in each of these high achieving countries is the treatment of teachers.

Colleges of education in these countries recruit the finest and brightest of graduating high schoolers.  They focus training on developing a thoroughly strong knowledge of the subjects future teachers will teach, ensure that field work and teaching practice is extensive, and upon placement compensate them well (but compensation is less important than some would have us believe).

All of the highest achieving countries utilize centralized authorities as curriculum designers.  That is to say, there is a core curriculum that each student is responsible for meeting.  Teachers are provided ample time to plan and coordinate lesson planning with other teachers based on common learning objectives that need to be met in every school across the country.  Because of an accepted core curriculum, other countries have far less difficulty handling transient students.

In China, there's a common curriculum for the first two years of senior high school and more flexibility in the third year.  This means that no matter which school a student attends or if that student moves to another school, that student picks up right where he/she left off because every school will be at about the same place in the curriculum given a specific time of year.  This would be especially helpful in bigger districts like Milwaukee and Madison where student mobility is a troubling issue.

Good teachers across the globe are motivated and enthusiastic.  Keep in mind, most teachers are not entering the field because of money.  They do it because of the calling.  But even the initial excitement of the calling can wear thin.  In Japan, for the first three years of a new teacher's career, he/she is assigned a mentor teacher who helps guide the teacher through the struggles of those first years.  They've recognized that on average teachers burn out within the first five years.  To combat burn out, not just in Japan but in a plethora of countries, districts provide myriad supports including mentors, aides, parent volunteers, and continuing education options.  Teacher education doesn't end after graduation from university.

Another commonality is that evaluation of teachers is not treated as a summative assessment that could lead to dismissal or cuts in pay, but as a formative assessment that leads to open communication between the teachers and administration.  The methodology of evaluation is based on improving the teaching rather than pointing out what the teacher did poorly.  And the assessment is based on not only student achievement but student attitude as well as the teacher's hard work, commitment, and motivation.

These are changes we could implement across Wisconsin without the initial pains of startup schools, without the loss of funding for existing schools, and with a greater emphasis on creating better schools for all our kids with highly qualified and effective teachers.

I appreciate your service, Representative Kooyenga, and hope you'll take some of my suggestions seriously because what we do today will determine what happens tomorrow.

Thank you for your time.


No response as of 22 January 2014

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