David P. Driscoll, who started his career as a math teacher, says that when it comes to improving education, he likes addition and multiplication, not subtraction and division.
Driscoll, now chair of the National Assessment Governing Board, which runs the testing program often called “the nation’s report card” for elementary and high school students, brought a message to a conference at Marquette University Law School on Tuesday that was premised on that. He said Wisconsin faces major challenges as it raises the bar on student achievement, but he was optimistic and supportive in saying the challenge can be met.
With a capacity audience of education leaders filling the Appellate Courtroom in Eckstein Hall and with a roster of influential education figures also speaking at the conference, it sometimes seemed that Driscoll was the most optimistic person in the room when it came to prospect for great educational success in Milwaukee and across Wisconsin.
The heart of his message was that, whatever the political picture in Wisconsin and the challenges and problems, it is time to set aside what he called sideshows in education and come together to do the work of improving overall student achievement. He called for pursuing bold gains in achievement while staying away from the” subtraction” and “division” that often shapes education politics and policy making.
Based on his prior roles as assistant commissioner and then commissioner of education in Massachusetts, Driscoll said a big part of improving outcomes lies in setting high standards for schools, teachers, and students, and making those standards meaningful. Driscoll was one of the main figures in Massachusetts education policy during a period from the mid 1990s to early 2000s when steps such as more rigorous licensing tests for new teachers and a high school graduation test were implemented. Massachusetts went from being down the list when it came to state achievement – below Wisconsin in the mid 1990s – to leading the nation in reading and math performance for the last decade. Wisconsin’s record has been largely unchanged over that period.
Wisconsin is in the process of changing where it sets the marks for defining a student as proficient or advanced in reading, math, and other subjects, likely as soon as the coming school year. The difference will be dramatic. The state Department of Public Instruction plans to align the definitions with those used by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the testing program overseen by Driscoll. And NAEP is a much tougher grader than Wisconsin has been. For example, in fourth grade reading, 80% of Wisconsin students were rated “advanced” or “proficient” in Fall 2011 under the current system. But in 2011, NAEP gave those ratings to only 33% of fourth graders. In general, the percentage of Wisconsin students considered proficient or better will drop sharply when the NAEP measuring stick is applied.
The premise of the conference, sponsored by Marquette University Law School and the Marquette College of Education, was that this should be taken as a challenge to get more students to higher levels. If the percentage of students rated proficient goes down at first, that’s only because Wisconsin will be facing what Driscoll called “the truth” about how well children are doing. And if the education system in Wisconsin responds effectively – even in a period of tight spending – improvement can come.
Responding to Driscoll, Tony Evers. Wisconsin superintendent of public instruction, agreed that Wisconsin needed to adopt the higher definition of proficiency because students need to reach higher levels of proficiency in today’s world. He said the changes are in line with Wisconsin’s adoption of what are called the Common Core Standards for what students should learn. He said Wisconsin was taking pages from Massachusetts’ playbook in working to raise the number of students who have NAEP- level proficiency.
Two panel discussions – one focused on broader policy making and one focused on what goes on in classrooms – brought impassioned calls for some basic changes. Among the highlights, Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Gregory Thornton and Menomonee Falls Superintendent Pat Greco both expressed concern whether both education leaders and the broader community had the will power to make changes in programs and teaching training that would boost the opportunities to see more children reach higher goals. Jim Rickabaugh, retired Whitefish Bay superintendent and lead author of a report issued two years ago that called for fresh approaches to how students learn in southeastern Wisconsin, said education can and should be made more customized and effective for students by better use of technology and other changes in how classes are run.
A video of the five hour conference may be viewed by clicking here.
Click here for coverage by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
And an interview with Driscoll on the Lake Effect program on WUWM-FM 89.7 can be heard by clicking here.