Boots & Sabers

The blogging will continue until morale improves...

Tag: Education

Terrible school performance demands real action

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. Readers of this blog won’t be surprised by the thoughts. Here’s a bit:

Also, kids are individuals. They are not cattle. They learn at different speeds, with different methods, and with different styles. It is unrealistic to expect any single school to cater to the individual needs of students. Our kids are better served if we encourage the development of an educational heterogeny and trust parents to choose the best option for their children. All that understood, first, we must implement universal school choice with equal funding for each child irrespective of the school they attend. In Wisconsin’s current School Choice programs, taxpayers get a bargain because they provide much less money for a kid who attends a choice school than if the kid attends a government school. We must equalize funding to equalize choice. The current rate in Wisconsin is $16,017 per child. The full funding should follow the child.


Next, we should implement rigorous, focused, testing of core subjects for all schools that receive funding. The taxpayers are paying for a quality education and deserve to know that their money is being well spent. The key, however, is that the testing must only test true core subjects and not impose any other strictures on the schools. If 70% of the children are proficient in reading, writing, math, and civics, then that is more than twice as good as the current government schools are delivering. We should use the power of the purse to demand very high standards in a very limited number of key subjects.


Once the funding and testing infrastructure is in place, Wisconsin should privatize all K-12 government schools. All of them. We should get government out of the business of delivering education.


When I have suggested privatization in the past, people tend to have one of two sincere reservations. Some folks worry about for-profit schools. We have been culturalized to think that profit is incongruous with education. It is not. Capitalism and the profit motive have improved the lives of more people than any other system in the history of humankind. They have lifted people out of poverty and cured diseases. Education is not immune from its benefits. From a taxpayer perspective, if a school can deliver 96% reading proficiency and make a profit, we should be delighted.

Wisconisn’s Pioneer Days Are Not Over

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty’s Will Flanders has released a study comparing the recent test performance of Wisconsin’s children from Wisconsin’s public, charter, and private schools. The results confirm that Wisconsin needs to continue to lead in education reform.

The study, called “Apples to Apples,” evaluated the results of the 2016 Forward Exam and the ACT. The Forward Exam is required in all Wisconsin public school and private schools that participate in any of Wisconsin’s three school choice programs. The ACT is also required for all public and choice students. While there are exceptions for private schools that do not participate in a choice program, home-schooled kids, and kids whose parents opted to not have their children take the tests, the wide participation in these two exams give a broad view of the academic performance of Wisconsin’s schools.

The results of the study show that, “private schools in the choice programs and public charter schools in Milwaukee and Wisconsin perform significantly better on the ACT and Forward Exams than traditional public schools.”

These results are hardly groundbreaking. Various studies have been done for years and have consistently shown that choice schools and charter schools outperform the public schools in the same communities. In the past, these studies have been dismissed by anti-school choice advocates. They claimed that the only reason for the better performance of choice schools was because they could skew the results by only accepting the “best” students.

But the WILL study took it a step further. The key difference in WILL’s study is that it isolated school performance by accounting for the students’ socio-economic status and demographic differences. After adjusting for these variables, the study still shows that choice and charter schools outperform their public school counterparts.

Some of the details are further enlightening. In Milwaukee, while choice and charter schools outperform Milwaukee Public Schools, long-standing Catholic and Lutheran schools are top performers. Faith-based education works. Also, the best performing charter schools are those authorized by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Perhaps the most troubling result in WILL’s study is the racial achievement gap. The study shows that racial achievement gap is massive and it cuts across every kind of school. Specifically, “a school with a nonwhite student make-up is predicted to have 52.9 percent lower proficiency in English/Language Arts and 46.5 percent lower proficiency in math than a school that is all white.”

That is a massive problem and is also reflected in a recent study about the next step in education — college. A recent report from The Education Trust showed that UW-M has one of the worst graduation rates for black students in the nation. Only 21 percent of full-time black students at UW-M graduate within six years.

Given that UW-M and MPS are both, obviously, in Milwaukee, and that many MPS graduates feed into UW-M, the results of both schools are irrevocably linked. The graduation rate for black kids at MPS has been falling in recent years. The four-year graduation rate for black kids in MPS was 54.7 percent in 2016 and 67 percent after five years.

What all of this data reveals is that while choice and charter schools improve the probability of educational success for the majority of kids, none of them improves the achievement gap between white and non-white children. There is an expansive and pervasive issue that is holding back Wisconsin’s non-white children — particularly black ones. Since WILL’s study corrected for socioeconomic and demographic differences, there is something beyond poverty or unemployment driving the gap.

Flanders’ study reminds us that Wisconsin, once at the forefront of education innovation, still has a lot of work to do. We must continue to offer more Wisconsin families the opportunity to send their kids to the school of their choice, but that is only the beginning. We must also get serious about breaking the fetters that are preventing Wisconsin’s non-white kids from achieving their God-given potential.

Alternative Licensing Plans Work to Fill Critical Teaching Roles


Brown Deer — Considering all the power tools, it’s relatively quiet on the sprawling Brown Deer High School shop floor. Small crews of students — mostly boys, but a few girls — are stationed around the room, measuring pieces of wood, sawing, drilling.

Teachers Craig Griffie and James Peter move from post to post offering suggestions on technique or explaining the science behind a particular process.

Griffie and Peter arrived at Brown Deer on circuitous paths. College-educated with backgrounds in construction, they were brought in last school year under the state’s emergency licensing procedure designed to help districts temporarily fill a critical vacancy.

Griffie has since received an “experience-based” license for technical education teachers approved by the Legislature as part of the 2015-17 biennial budget, and Peter is awaiting his.

The state has issued 19 such licenses to date. Now school districts are asking lawmakers to expand that alternative to cover a host of other hard-to-fill vocational education subjects, from business and marketing to agriculture, child care and culinary arts.

Critics, including the state Department of Public Instruction, the state largest teachers union and university schools of education have raised concerns, saying the measure will lower the bar on teacher standards and create an uneven licensing system across the state.

District officials point to the critical shortage of tech and vocational education teachers, saying they need the flexibility to lure experienced professionals to the classroom or discontinue popular courses that prepare young people for work or continued training at the state’s technical colleges.

Overeducated and underemployed

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:

There is a growing chasm between the skills that people need to succeed in modern American society and the skills we are emphasizing in our system of education and our culture. It is a chasm that bodes ill for the future of our country and for our children.

A quick scan of the open job postings on any given day reveals some companies searching desperately for workers, but many of those job postings have been open for a long time. The hardest jobs to fill continue to be engineers, technical workers and virtually every skilled trade. While unemployment is low, underemployment is still high, and yet these goodpaying jobs continue to go unfilled. Why?

The primary reason is that we, as a culture, have devalued those jobs. We have benefited from the hard work of our forbearers and enjoy the most leisurely and advanced society in the history of the world. For the vast majority of Americans, our necessities are relatively easy to provide. This allows us time to focus our attention on our leisure activities and indulge our creative impulses.

This is not a bad thing and is certainly nothing for which Americans should apologize. We should be proud that our civilization has advanced so far that we are debating the relative merits of the iPhone versus the Samsung Galaxy instead of whether we should boil the water another 10 minutes before drinking it.

But through that advancement, we have devalued many of the jobs that make our advanced society possible, and in doing so we have closed the doors of many great opportunities for our children. We see this cultural trend manifest itself in colleges.

Simply put, far too many kids are spending money they don’t have to get degrees they don’t need for jobs that don’t exist. A recent survey by the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Letters and Sciences showed that more than a third of their graduates were working in jobs that did not require their degree, and 10 percent of them said their degrees were “irrelevant” to their jobs. Almost half of those surveyed regretted getting their degrees.

The problem is that there are very few jobs for people with degrees in Scandinavian studies, Latin, gender and women’s studies, comparative literature, etc. There is absolutely nothing wrong with studying those subjects, but most graduates from those programs will only find employment teaching others the same topic in an educational pyramid scheme. Such intellectual aerobics are useful, but have historically been the indulgences of rich folks who do not need to worry about gainful employment after graduation.

Meanwhile, while our universities are churning out highly educated people whose degrees have little value in the job market, there are great jobs being left unfilled. Culturally, parents want to brag to their friends on Facebook about how little Jimmy got accepted to Marquette far more than they want to say little Sally just started an apprenticeship to become a plumber. Yet the odds are that Sally will more likely be employed, better paid and debt-free in 10 years compared to Jimmy.

Additionally, as the education committee from the West Bend Chamber of Commerce recently revealed, the skills that are most valuable to employers have little to do with formal education. Punctuality, respect, manners, clean attire, work ethic and other soft skills were more important to employers than knowing specific subject matter. Employers can teach specific skills. They cannot teach people to show up on time and work hard.

Our society can use a few experts in medieval tapestries, but it needs far more skilled people who work hard at things we need. And some of our kids are better served learning to be a great crane operator than getting a master’s degree in comparative literature and folklore studies.


WPCP sees massive expansion

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:

The school enrollment numbers are in for September and the statewide school choice program is continuing to see strong demand all over the state wherever it is available to parents and kids. It is a remarkable story of success for a program that is so short-lived.

The Wisconsin Parental Choice Program was started for the 2013-14 school year as a small pilot program. The WPCP is one of the three school choice programs in Wisconsin. The other two school choice programs are for Milwaukee and Racine, but the WPCP applies to all citizens outside of those two cities.

Only 511 kids participated in the WPCP in the first year. Enrollment almost doubled in the 2014-15 school year, to 1,008 kids. And this year, thanks to a gradual lifting of restrictions by the Legislature, enrollment in the WPCP has more than doubled again to 2,513 kids. Similarly, the number of schools participating has increased to a total of 82 schools statewide, including the first high school in Washington County, Kettle Moraine Lutheran High School. Granted, these numbers are a tiny fraction of the 994,536 students in K-12 in Wisconsin, but the trajectory of growth is positive.

Predictably, anti-choice advocates and defenders of the status quo are decrying the fact that some of the funding for the WPCP is coming at the expense of the public schools. Their criticisms are rooted, unfortunately, in the interests of the public school infrastructure and not in that of the children those schools are meant to serve.

The Legislature instituted a way of funding the WPCP with the budget earlier this year. It is a simple funding formula that is designed to be flexible with growth and is rooted in the core principle of money meant to educate a child should follow the child. For every child who gets a voucher through the WPCP, the voucher is funded with state aid that would have otherwise gone to the public school for the purpose of educating the child. For example, if a child in West Bend attends a private school with a WPCP voucher, the amount of state aid the West Bend School District would have received for the child is redirected to the voucher instead of the school district.

Some claim that such a redirection of funds from the school districts constitutes a “cost.” They claim the public school districts are paying for the voucher program, and even using this argument as a justification to raise local property taxes to “offset” the “cost.”

Their arguments are a sham. While the school district does not receive the state aid for the child receiving a voucher, the school district is also not responsible to educate the child. The school district incurs no cost to educate the child, so why should they receive any state aid for that purpose? One can argue whether or not the state taxpayers should pay for lower income kids to attend private schools, but there is no valid argument for state taxpayers to pay public school districts to educate students who do not attend their schools.

It is also worth noting that the state’s open enrollment system, in which students in one district can attend a different district, is funded through a similar mechanism. Open enrollment has been the law in Wisconsin for decades, and yet public school advocates have not complained about it. They only get exercised about the shifting of state aid when that money goes to a private school instead of another public school.

There is a cost to expanding the WPCP, but it is a cost to state taxpayers — not local school districts. To date, roughly 76 percent of kids participating in the WPCP were already attending a private school. Before the WPCP, these families were footing the entire bill, not state taxpayers. With a WPCP voucher, the state taxpayers are now paying for an education that was previously being paid for by only the parents. Even though this is a small additional cost to taxpayers (currently less than 0.01 percent of total spending on K-12 education), the increasing competition in education delivery and varied education opportunities will more than offset the cost while providing better outcomes for Wisconsin’s children.

From health care to groceries to internet providers to banks, having choices has always benefited individuals and society as a whole. Having choices in our education providers will have the same positive impact. We are in the beginning stages of seeing something great for Wisconsin and our children with the budding WPCP.

MATC Announces Tuition Assistance Plan

This looks like a good plan to help more poor folks access higher education.

In exchange for the program covering the difference between students’ federal and state financial aid and the cost of tuition and fees, students must be willing to do things that will make them successful in college, and ultimately, the workplace.

They must maintain solid grades, have good attendance, do reasonably well on the ACT college admissions test, and meet strict deadlines their senior year of high school. The deadlines include applying for enrollment at MATC and filing the federal financial aid application. Their families also must meet an income eligibility requirement.

Once at MATC, the students must provide eight hours of service to the community each semester, attend classes full-time for four consecutive semesters and maintain solid grades to keep the scholarship. They also will be expected to attend regular workshops offered through the program to help them succeed.

The MATC Promise won’t cover all costs. Students will still have to pay for books, transportation and living expenses.

Is there really a teacher shortage?

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:

The public education industry has lately been pushing a story that there is a teacher shortage in the nation and, in particular, Wisconsin. A closer look at the facts paints a more complex picture than that.

The word “shortage” is a relative term. When someone says there is as “shortage” of teachers, what does that mean? Nationally speaking, there are more teachers than at any time in our history except for a brief blip in the last decade. In fact, the U.S. has been on a decades-long teacherhiring binge as the nation has added teachers six times faster than the number of students since 1970, according to the Cato Institute.

This drove the student-teacher ratio from 22.4 in 1970 to 15.6 in 2015. Meanwhile, over the same period, student achievement remained essentially flat. If there is a teacher shortage, it is partially self-inflicted as we have flooded our education system with teachers without the benefit of a corresponding improvement in student outcomes.

The statistics cited most often as evidence of a teacher shortage in Wisconsin are the amount of teacher turnover and the number of open positions. According to the Wisconsin Education Career Access Network, there are about 1,000 open positions across the state as the school year is beginning. That is a few more than are usually open at this time. Considering that this is roughly 1 percent of all of the public education jobs in Wisconsin, that does not seem particularly troubling. Some businesses in manufacturing and technology envy the low vacancy rate of public education.

The turnover rate for teachers is difficult to pin down. Most studies estimate it at about 17 percent nationally with most turnover happening within the first five years of employment. But it fluctuates based on many factors. For example, teacher turnover tends to increase during strong economic cycles because the regimented wage scales negotiated under union contracts were not attractive in a booming economy when other jobs are plentiful. But even at 17 percent, it is hardly in the upper echelon of industries when it comes to employee turnover.

So is there a teacher shortage in Wisconsin? Except for some specific subject areas, no. For example, according to Ted Neitzke, superintendent of the West Bend School District, they receive more than 100 applicants for every normal K-8 teacher position that is posted. This is similar to what other district are experiencing. But when it comes to some specialized subject areas, there are fewer people in the labor pool. According to the Teacher Shortage Areas Nationwide Listing from the U.S. Department of Education, Wisconsin has a shortage of teachers for things like special education, business, science and math.

What is being misinterpreted as teacher shortage is really the introduction of market dynamics into what used to be a very rigid, closed-labor market. By reducing the relevance of the unions and giving school districts more freedom to manage personnel, teachers are more mobile than ever and school districts are being forced to respond.

Before Act 10, the path for a public school teacher was fairly defined. After graduating from college, they got their first job in a school district. They might change school districts in the first few years as they established a family, but after that teacher turnover was rare. For a teacher to move to another district meant giving up seniority and the pay, benefits and pension that came with it.

After Act 10, teachers have much more freedom to move between districts without being penalized. They can take advantage of jobs in other districts that might pay more, be closer to home, have better advancement opportunities, have better working conditions or whatever reason.

School districts are forced by Act 10 to participate in an active-labor market. No longer can they rely on the fear of losing seniority to keep teachers from leaving. School district administrators can use the power from Act 10 to shed bad teachers and actively recruit better teachers for their district. For the first time, good teachers whose skills are valuable are being called by other districts and offered jobs. School administrators are calling their own good teachers and working with them to keep them on board.

For good teachers, this has been a golden age of opportunity. They can leverage their skills and education to better benefit their families. For bad teachers, it is a time of uncertainty and fear. One thing that is certain is that most public school teachers and administrators have never had to work in a labor environment that is so fluid. Events like a teacher leaving for a better job two weeks before the school year starts did not happen before Act 10. But events like that happen in the rest of the economy every single day.

There is not a general teacher shortage in Wisconsin. Instead, there is a competitive labor market for specialized teaching positions and great teachers that is causing some uncertainty. There are a lot of winners in this new education paradigm. Students and good teachers are benefiting the most.

One final note: If there really were a teacher shortage, one way to alleviate it is to allow educated, skilled professionals to enter the classroom without onerous education and licensing requirements. But the public education establishment fought to keep that out of the budget. Perhaps the rest of us should not take their whining about a teacher shortage crisis seriously until they act like it is actually a crisis.

School Grading System Penalizes Virtual Schools

Here’s an interesting piece from James Wigderson at the MacIver Institute. The background is that the grading system that the state uses to grade schools measures the drop out rate, and because of the nature of virtual schools, they get hammered hard for it.

Drop outs are held against the last school attended. Some online schools including eAchieve are being labeled “failing schools” even though the students attending the schools are succeeding. Nettesheim said, “It’s a common problem for virtual schools that currently have a high school population.”

Nettesheim explained that there is almost nothing the school can do to screen for truants trying to hide from the state’s school attendance laws. “So we get an awful lot of students who come on board who apply during the regular open enrollment period who are simply trying to hide from truancy. It becomes apparent fairly early on. They’re with us for two months or three months and they’re not doing anything. So we send them back to their resident school.”

Despite sending the students back to their previous school, when the students inevitably drop out they’re often still counted against eAchieve.

“But then what happens the family does not re-enroll at their resident school. And even though we notify the resident district, they don’t go hunt the student down to ensure and compel the student to go to school as is required by law. And nobody is overseeing this. It’s really left up to the districts, and the honor system really, for districts to go and find these students who were already failing in their schools, who were already truant in some cases. And now, because they’re no longer the last school of attendance they’re not very motivated to go after these students anymore.”

As Nettesheim explained, this lack of follow up has an impact on his school’s report card. “This is a big enough problem that eAchieve goes from meeting expectations to failing expectations. We go down two levels purely because of the drop out issue.”

As an overall perspective, I don’t think it makes sense to include drop out rates at all in a grading system. Really tough schools that provide an excellent education, for example, will usually have a higher dropout rate. Does that make them a bad school? If the state implements the grading system for choice schools, will they be penalized when kids drop out because they can’t afford it (even with vouchers)?

Perhaps the drop out rate should be considered in a school’s grade, but only as a tiny piece – if at all.



Pin It on Pinterest