Sunday, February 24, 2013

Staff Swap: A Revealing School Experiment

Mixed in with voucher and school choice nonsense, Wisconsin Gov. Walker pitched yet another useless and wasteful education reform this past week that panders to his free market-minded friends.  

His unproven plan to improve Wisconsin schools involves financially rewarding schools that score well on the state’s flawed school report cards. I suppose Gov. Walker believes the free market fairy will miraculously motivate the staff at underperforming schools to replicate the wisdom of the high-achieving schools in exchange for the almighty green carrot.

This nonsensical proposal presumes that staffs in high-needs schools around the state are failing because educators lack the motivation and/or know-how to help students succeed. As usual, Gov. Walker’s education plan ignores the reality of inequity plaguing our schools.

The ultimate test of Gov. Walker’s proposed incentive plan would be wholesale staff swaps between schools that fail to meet the grade and schools that “significantly exceed expectations.” Gov. Walker often brags about the staff at his own kids’ affluent Wauwatosa schools--which scored in the highest percentiles in the state’s new-fangled accountability system. Imagine shifting the staff of one of Gov. Walker’s kids’ high-achieving suburban schools to one of the lowest-achieving schools found in inner city Milwaukee.  

This social experiment would be too reckless for students at either school to consider seriously. However, as predictable as a Wife Swap episode that exchanges a rich suburban mom with a struggling trailer park mom would be the exchange of staff from a rich suburban schools with the staff of a high-poverty inner city school. The staff swap would result, at most, in marginal differences in school ratings. The transplanted inner city staff would reap the rewards of serving well-fed (in many ways) upper class kids living in the safe suburbs. They would be bestowed with blue ribbons and frequent praise in the Governor’s speeches.

In contrast, the transferred Wauwatosa staff would suffer through demeaning labels as they would drop from top to worst on the state scoring system while serving far more needy kids living in the challenging inner city. Staff attempts to contextualize their failing status with references to outside school variables, like poverty, would be met with “no excuses” and union-blaming speeches from school reformers. Gov. Walker’s plan would provide some additional, but inadequate funds to aid his kids’ former teachers. However, the extra aid only comes with extra regulations and bureaucratic accountability.

For Gov. Walker, justification for such an unequal system is found in the outliers that score well on the state’s school report cards. In his recent budget address, Gov. Walker referenced nine Wisconsin schools where “...a majority of the students at each of these schools are economically disadvantaged and, yet, they are high performers.” The Governor’s implications are clear. If these nine high-poverty schools can succeed, then other schools should be able to perform similar miracles. Explicitly, Gov. Walker said, “We want to recognize and reward excellence—and replicate it in other places.”

I do not have the resources or time to sort through all the state’s outliers, but I do know that in my own community the success of the high-achieving, high-poverty school is skewed by the city’s Talented and Gifted (TAG) program housed in a portion of this neighborhood school. Haul the smartest elementary kids in town to a high-poverty school and you get some seemingly miraculous results. In the meantime, you drain all the other local schools of their highest-flying kids and their usually most engaged parents. Replicating this in “other places,” as Gov. Walker dreams, is a free market fantasy.

Some of the other outlier schools in other districts Gov. Walker touted had very low enrollment or very low diversity. Comparing them to larger schools or more diverse schools exposes more flaws in the state’s school accountability system.

Regardless, I am not writing to rip on any Wisconsin public school. I am willing to bet, based on national trends, that almost every outlier has some other reason beyond the school report card data explaining why it is an abnormality. Trying to replicate these schools is just folly and ignores the most important issue affecting Wisconsin's public schools.

What does the school report card data show?  Poverty matters most in classifying schools as successful and/or failing. Under Gov. Walker's incentive plan, mostly the rich schools will get richer. It is time for Wisconsin to demand educational reforms based on educational research and reasoning.


  1. Walker's use of the word performance is incorrect. He's basing it only on test scores. If you haven't seen these schools' debates on controversial issues, their poems, short stories, explanations of science experiments they created, mock trials, etc., well then you haven't seen anything.
    Test scores are surrogates, not the real thing.
    You need to see the thinking of the students. You don't when you are looking at abstractions like test scores.

  2. Nice points made. IMAGINE Wisconsin without Walker's wacky ideas. Maybe Wisconsin could swap Walker?