By Phil Anderson

The problems facing Wisconsin’s public schools are complex. There are no quick or easy fixes. But neither are the problems insurmountable. People of good faith, working together, can find ways to improve our schools.

We should begin by admitting that we are all part of the problem. The problems of our schools reflect American society. The inequality, racism, poverty, and violence common to American culture are reflected in our schools. We cannot blame teachers or schools for the social problems we are unwilling to address as a whole society. Children must come to school well fed, rested, feeling safe, and ready to learn.

As a society we do not value education as we should. The commercial, consumer culture favors entertainment over learning. Our “heroes” are not scholars, scientists, or teachers. They are sports stars and celebrities. Fashion and popularity are more important than brains. The competitive business model values job training over broader education. We say we value education but too often our actions indicate something different.

There are, and have been in the past, many proposed solutions for our schools. Parental choice, vouchers, charter schools, reduced class sizes, common core curriculum, higher standards, high stakes testing, and year-round school schedules are examples. Educational fads come and go. But what is really needed to improve our schools? What actually works?

Objective research tells us teacher quality is the most important factor in student learning. Recruiting, retaining, and developing goodClassroom with students studying teachers are essential for improving our schools. Other research suggests mentoring of new teachers is the best way to train, support and retain good teachers.

Research also tells us that poverty has a big impact on student performance. Social science research over the last few decades has shown that two thirds of student achievement is a product of out-of-school factors. One of the biggest factors is socioeconomic status.

We should listen to teachers. CNN interviewed a number of award winning teachers about what they think is needed to improve schools. Their top suggestions were: 1) invest in quality teachers, 2) a year-round school year, 3) stop the high-stakes testing obsession, 4) more collaboration between teachers in the classroom, 5) meeting the basic needs of students by dealing with poverty, and 5) improved teacher parent relationships.

Contrast this with the “reforms” being proposed by our current political leadership in Wisconsin. They want to lower the standards for teaching certifications with alternative paths that don’t require college degrees. They promote vouchers that provide public funding for private, primarily religious schools, which divides limited resources. They want to change the elected head of the Department of Public Instruction to a political appointee. And they have been creating budget problems for local schools with funding cuts, changes to state aid formulas, and spending caps on local districts. They have an obsession with teacher bashing and union busting. As one school official told me, “They have other agendas.”

Several local school administrators say we are moving towards “have and have not” schools. They suggest the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s “Fair Funding for Our Future” budget plan needs to guide school funding. It contains a number of provisions to fix the funding formula by investing in all students, protecting rural and declining enrollment districts, making adjustments in the aid formula to account for poverty, providing property tax relief, and increasing general school aid. Tony Evers, the state school superintendent, says,

“If we want all students to achieve, we cannot continue to ask our public schools to do more with less. The eventual outcome of that exercise will be two systems of public schools: those in local communities that can afford to provide a quality education through referendum and those that cannot.”

Schools are a big expenditure for taxpayers, but we can afford good schools if we have the collective will to do so.

Improving our public schools will involve bringing all the parties together, (teachers, parents, school administrators and tax payers) to work out the many and complicated changes that need to be done. We need to bring together the experts with the best data on what works to create world class schools for Wisconsin.