Boots & Sabers

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1500, 25 Aug 23

Another school year begins

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News earlier this week:

With the beginning of another school year bursting with hope and promise, it is sobering to pause and reflect on just how bad Wisconsin’s schools are. For generations, Wisconsinites have pointed to the educational system as a point of pride. No doubt there was a time when the state’s schools were great and the pride was justified, but it has not been true for decades. We are lying to ourselves.


Yes, there are bright spots, but as a whole, Wisconsin’s education system is failing our children on a monumental scale even as we pat ourselves on the backs, increase the funding, and gaslight ourselves about what a good education our children are getting. If the first step to any recovery is admitting that we have a problem, then Wisconsinites must admit that the schools are failing.


The truth is in the data. While some bemoan standardized tests, they are a useful tool to provide objective insight into the outcomes that the schools are delivering. They also provide a longitudinal look at performance to measure the impact of changes in policy. While some kids are better than others at tests, the widespread application of tests provides a statistically relevant view of school performance in the job that matters most — are the kids learning? Are the schools teaching kids to read? To write? Do math? Civics? Science? To reason? To think? Are they teaching kids basic facts that form a base of knowledge from which kids can understand and evaluate the world around them? Are the schools teaching kids to concentrate? Study? Sort and prioritize knowledge?


For the majority of kids in Wisconsin, the answer is “no.”


Wisconsin began administering the Forward Exam in the 2015-2016 school year. The Wisconsin Department of Administration says that, “The Exam is designed to gauge how well students are doing in relation to the Wisconsin Academic Standards. These standards outline what students should know and be able to do in order to be college and career ready.” The exam is not testing to see if a kid is a genius. It is merely testing to see if he or she is proficient according to the standards for their grade level.


The results are appalling. For the 2020-2021 school year, the most recent data available, a mere 39.2 percent of students between grades three and eight were at least proficient in math. Over 57 percent of students cannot do math at their grade level. For the same age group, only 37 percent of students were at least proficient in language arts. Almost 60 percent are not able to understand language at the appropriate grade level.


It does not get better as they get older. In the eleventh grade, over 90 percent of Wisconsin’s students take the ACT exam. On that test for the 2020-2021 school year, only 27 percent of students were at least proficient in math. Only 28.1 percent of students are at least proficient in science. 35 percent of students are at least proficient in English language arts.


For every three kids who enter a Wisconsin school this year, only one of them will end the year proficient in math or language.


Yet, Wisconsin’s schools boast a 90.2 percent graduation rate. Why in the world are we graduating 90 percent of kids when only one in three of them can do math at grade level? How are we looking ourselves in the mirror and telling ourselves that we are equipping our children for the world of tomorrow when we thrust a diploma into their hands despite the fact that over half of them cannot read at an adult level?


Wisconsinites should be ashamed and angry that our schools are so abysmal at performing their core duty — educating children. Instead, we shovel more money into the Government Education Complex, celebrate that our kids managed to get a piece of paper, and throw kids into a complex world for which they are debilitatingly unprepared.


Our children deserve better, but they will not get better until Wisconsinites stop living in a fantasy and admit that our schools are failing.


1500, 25 August 2023


  1. Mar

    Let me ask you, would rather have the teacher teach to the tests or expand their teaching which will expand the students horizons?

  2. Owen

    That’s not an either/or proposition. Most of what the standardized tests test fairly rudimentary information and knowledge. For that, in a mass production education system, I want the teacher to teach to the test. Kids need to be taught to the horizon before you can go about expanding them. Then, if there is time and aptitude, the teachers who stretch a child’s mind are invaluable.

    I think many teachers oppose tests because they do not want an objective measurement of their work and under no circumstances do I want every teacher setting their own standards and teaching their own personal curriculum.

  3. MjM

    Without the basics the horizon is a cliff.

  4. Mar

    Owen, I have worked on schools for 20.years as a teacher.
    You are looking for utopia but it just isn’t possible.
    You’re right,any teacher’s evaluations are based on tests in most cases.

    This is how crazy it was and why I left teaching.
    I worked the most severely disabled students, physical andentally.
    I would teach the job, daily living, social, behavioral skills and my kids improved so much.
    But then the administration decided I had to teach English, math, science and reading skills so they could take the state/federal test.
    I wasn’t going to participate in that BS.
    But that is what the test does to education.

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