Wisconsin is at an educational crossroads

Editor’s note: The following is the text of the address delivered by Wisconsin State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers at the BizTimes Get Smarter Conference on Oct. 20. To view a Wisconsin Eye video of the conference, click here.

Thank you, Steve Jagler, BizTimes executive editor, for that kind introduction and for inviting me to participate in today’s conference. In fact, I commend you and Dan Meyer, BizTimes publisher, and all the sponsors for hosting and supporting this event. The focus of this conference is right on: smart schools do lead to smart students, who become smart employees that result in smart companies headed by smart leaders.
Milwaukee is a focus of my work. After I was elected state superintendent, I established an office in Milwaukee, providing me a home base here for my work. I have joined the new Milwaukee Succeeds effort to improve the educational outcomes for all children in the city, regardless of whether they attend traditional public, charter, or private schools.
Through my federal and state authority, we are working aggressively to improve student achievement in our lowest performing and largest school district: the Milwaukee Public Schools. We have required MPS to adopt a uniform curriculum, implement data-driven student intervention systems, and implement turnaround strategies in nearly a dozen low performing schools.
I have enjoyed working with Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Greg Thornton. His solid leadership is producing results for students.
Reading and math scores are improving, particularly in the elementary and middle grades, and MPS has reduced the number of suspensions by over 26,000, an astonishing 36 percent! Dr. Thornton understands that kids can’t learn if they are not in school, and I commend his hard work.
As state superintendent, I have the privilege of being able to visit schools and communities across Wisconsin. Overall, I am tremendously proud of the accomplishments of our public schools and proud of how diligently our educators are working to help students thrive and achieve, making Wisconsin a better place to live and work for everyone.
Wisconsin’s public schools continue to lead the nation in graduation rates and college entrance exam scores, and we are best in the Midwest for students taking and passing rigorous college-level courses.
However, our great successes too easily mask the deep and long-standing challenges we face. Our graduation and achievement gaps are far too large, especially for students of color and low-income students here in Milwaukee and across Wisconsin. This is a challenge for our schools, our business and our economy; our future success depends on addressing this challenge head on.
Too many Wisconsin students drop out of school — one of every 10 students fails to obtain their high school diploma. The drop-out rate is much higher for our African-American, Hispanic, and Asian students, and for students with disabilities.
Dropouts are a statewide problem, but they aren’t a problem in every district. In fact, 50 percent of the state’s high school dropouts are right here in Milwaukee. Sixty percent can be found in just 10 school districts, and 80 percent are found in 50 school districts. Like any good business, we need to be laser-focused on this challenge and strategically deploy resources to address it.

Because the reality is that high school dropouts earn less, rely more on social services, and are four times more likely to be unemployed than college graduates. Our least skilled, least educated workers are bearing the brunt of this difficult economy, and we must remember that our future prosperity is tied up in their success.
Our high school graduates must have reading, writing, and computation skills that support the teamwork, problem-solving, and critical thinking that employers want. Not every student wants a college degree — some have different goals and aspirations— and our schools need to capture student interest and respond to varied learning styles so all students are successful. We need the support and involvement of Wisconsin’s business community to help our educators and schools prepare students for the future.
The bottom line is this: Our system works for most kids, but not all kids. Our mission must be to prepare them ALL to succeed in college or career. Wisconsin needs all children on the pathway to prosperity.
Despite enormous challenges, we are doing everything we can to build this pathway to prosperity, to ensure Every Child is a Graduate ready for college or a career. To that end, we are focusing on four simple, but powerful questions:
• What and how should kids learn?
• How do we know if they learned it?
• What do we do if they don’t? and
• How do we pay for it?

These questions are the cornerstones for reforming our education system, and we have aggressively tackled each one.

First, with regard to — What and how should kids learn?:
• We adopted the Common Core State Standards—rigorous, internationally benchmarked English language arts and mathematics standards that are now shared across 46 states and territories, and we are working to bring these new standards into the classroom.
• We are putting a new emphasis on early reading. Wisconsin used to be a national leader in elementary reading performance, but the reality is too many of our children aren’t reading on grade level, and other states are closing early reading achievement gaps faster than we are. To address this, we are working to strengthen our early learning standards, exploring statewide early literacy screening, and retooling educator preparation and ongoing professional development to promote early reading success.
• We are also engaging in next generation learning projects that use technology to customize the student experience. Technology-driven instruction personalizes and supports student learning beyond the classroom walls, creating the possibility of individual learning plans for each student in the not too distant future. Southeastern Wisconsin school districts, through the leadership of CESA 1, are leading the way with this.
• Finally, we must continue to bridge the divide between high school, college, and career by expanding opportunities for every student to earn college credit or secure industry certifications while in high school. Industry certifications and expanded career and technical education opportunities will increase the employability of our graduates and reinforce the value of a high school diploma.
Second, with regard to — How do we know if kids learned?:
• We are developing next generation assessments tied to our new standards. Soon, these online adaptive exams will provide students, parents, and teachers the timely feedback they need to improve learning.
• We are also upgrading our data systems to provide a wealth of information regarding student progress. For the first time, we are matching student progress from K-12 into higher education. And, we are exploring ways to capture critical early learning data as well.

The third question — What do we do if students are not learning? — focuses on supporting improvement through accountability.
• With stakeholders across Wisconsin, we are leading the way in advancing educator effectiveness and school accountability.
• Together with a team of education leaders, we are crafting a fair and robust educator evaluation system. The reforms we are building are being developed with teachers and education leaders— not imposed upon them. Bringing our world-class educators to the table to advance meaningful reforms not only values their role as professionals, but results in a better product for students.
• On school and district accountability, we have long known that the system imposed by No Child Left Behind is broken. Congress is five years overdue in reauthorizing this broken law, and, without changes, every school in the country could soon be labeled as “failing.” My fellow state education chiefs and I have pushed Congress and the U.S. Department of Education, and, as a result, Secretary Duncan has agreed to give states waivers in exchange for comprehensive, state-led reform.
• As a result, Wisconsin is leading a nationwide movement to build state accountability systems that will replace NCLB. Our new system will include growth and attainment and will focus on graduating all students ready for college or careers. It will identify and support struggling schools as well as reward and replicate the practices of our highest performers. And, perhaps most importantly, our system will focus on outcomes for all children; and thus will include all publicly funded schools — traditional public schools, charter schools, and private choice schools.
• We know with Wisconsin voices at the table, we can create something better than what Washington has imposed. More importantly, this is a remarkable opportunity to have a statewide conversation about what we value about our schools and then build an accountability system that mirrors those values.
And, of course, the final question — How should we pay for schools?:
• Last year, we advanced the first comprehensive school finance reform plan in decades, our Fair Funding for Our Future plan. The plan laid the groundwork to prioritize existing resources and created a pathway for significant and necessary re-investment in our public schools. I urge our leaders to take this up now.
The path to prosperity is paved by having smart schools. We must move beyond the harsh rhetoric of the past few months and begin the slow process of rebuilding. Recently, Bill Penzey of Penzey’s Spices said that to be “pro-business is to be pro-education.” I not only appreciate his comments, and his donation of gift boxes to 10,000 educators in Milwaukee, I think we can all agree that to be pro-business, you have to be pro-education.
We cannot afford to let conflicts among adults rob our children of the educational opportunities they need to succeed. I am committed to finding common ground and working together to improve education for Wisconsin’s children wherever possible. Our kids deserve no less from us.
To keep Wisconsin’s economy moving forward, it will take a sincere investment in our public schools.
Middle class opportunities are fading in the face of a struggling economy, declining wages, growing income and wealth inequality, and disinvestment in education. These challenges are threatening the foundations of our economy and democracy.

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