Thursday, May 19, 2011

Wisconsin legislators focus on teacher discipline

By Erin Richards of the Journal Sentinel
May 16, 2011

Madison - School boards across Wisconsin could use teacher evaluations - which rely in part on the results of students' standardized state test scores - as part of the reason for dismissing and disciplining educators, according to legislation considered by the Assembly and Senate education committees Monday.

Senate Bill 95 proposes modifying 10 state mandates so that local school districts have more flexibility to decide what's best for their communities, said Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), a co-sponsor of the bill with Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills).

The legislation covers a wide range of areas - from allowing school boards to offer physical education credit to high school students who participate in one season of an extracurricular sport, to changing the way a state-funded class-size reduction program is implemented in the elementary grades - but was criticized by some legislators who thought it was too hastily brought to a hearing Monday.

Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee) noted that details about the bill were released only one business day earlier, on Friday, by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

"I'm pretty sure if there had been more notice on this, this room would have been packed," she said, looking at the meager crowd of about 30 people.

The head of the largest state teachers union opposed nearly all of the proposals in the bill. But representatives from the state school boards association and the state school administrators association generally supported the provisions.

Olsen said the bill was prompted by requests from administrators and school board members.

One of the most contentious proposals in the bill is a provision that would allow school boards to use teacher evaluations as a reason - but not the sole reason - for dismissing or disciplining teachers.

During the federal Race to the Top competition last year, Wisconsin modified its state law regarding teacher evaluations by dropping the "firewall" that existed between student test scores and teacher evaluations.

But critics called it a tepid modification because results of student test scores still couldn't be used as a basis for dismissal of a teacher, and any changes to evaluation plans had to be negotiated with the unions.

"The issue is that state statutes do not allow student test scores to be used for discipline or suspension," Olsen explained during the hearing. "You can use them for evaluation. But if you use that evaluation for discipline or removal, then we've got a problem."

Union opposes bill

Mary Bell, head of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, condemned nearly all aspects of the bill Monday and said it would erode the quality of the public schools.

"It paves the way for privatization and the arbitrary use of student test scores," Bell said.

Many educators and legislators spoke about the need for multiple measures to be used when evaluating teachers. No single year's test scores or 40-minute principal visit to the classroom would be a fair assessment, said Jennifer Breezee, a high school English teacher in the DeForest Area School District.

"We want assessments, but we want quality assessments," she said. "This is not the way to do it."

Other speakers opposed allowing school boards to offer 1.5 units of physical education credit to high school students who participate in one season of an extracurricular sport.

PE credit for sports

Keith Bakken, executive director for the advocacy group Wisconsin Health and Physical Education and a Mount Horeb school board member, opposed allowing physically active students to opt out of physical education classes and still get credit.

"Physical education is an academic subject," he said. "What you see as a mandate is something I've seen for 16 years as a standard."

From the School Administrators Alliance, John Forester said it's always difficult to change state law, especially when it comes to education and what's best for children.

Forester, the group's head of governmental relations, said school administrators were seeking changes to the mandates because it would allow them to stretch to other areas the limited dollars they have.

For example, districts are allowed to contract for physical and occupational therapy services for students. But if a school district needs to contract for other special education service, such as educational interpreters or audiologists, it cannot pay for it with state aid. Forester said that's problematic for some districts that can't hire qualified staff for one or two students who need specific services.

He also spoke in favor of lifting the limits on what school libraries can spend on computers and software, because electronic delivery content systems are evolving.

But Bell said that allowing schools to spend more of the money they receive for library expenses on computers means they could spend less on instructional materials, such as books.

The legislation would also provide flexibility to districts in how they implement a class-size reduction program known as SAGE, which has helped keep class sizes small in kindergarten through third grade in some districts.

The legislation would allow districts to choose which grades would implement the program, thereby offering it to at least some children even if the district couldn't afford to offer it to all kindergartners through third graders.

Opponents said that could lead to an inconsistent application of the program, which would negate the benefits of keeping class sizes small for young children.

The bill could also allow for a longer school year in MPS by eliminating the requirement that the Milwaukee School Board schedule no more than 200 teaching days.
Bill’s highlights

The mandate relief proposed in Senate Bill 95 addresses areas related to pupil expulsions, the requirements of a class-size reduction program known as SAGE, special education services, pupil transportation costs, funding for school libraries, the number of teaching days in Milwaukee Public Schools, academic credit for sports participation, and the date in November by which districts must approve the tax levy in general election years.

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