By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
School districts in Wisconsin, faced with a new mandate to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers and other educators, must make a choice.
They can use an assessment model developed by the state Department of Public Instruction, or an alternative. Currently, the only districts with an approved alternative are using a model offered by an educational service agency known as CESA 6.
Most of the state’s school districts plan evaluation-system pilot runs this school year. All must decide, by the end of September, which model to use in 2014-15, when the system will have a full-scale debut. The cost to the state is roughly $7 million a year.
So far, the DPI model has more takers, including the state’s largest school districts, in Milwaukee and Madison. But nearly a third of the state’s 424 districts are on board with CESA 6. Districts must commit for only one year at a time.
DPI says its model is backed by more research; CESA 6 bills its model as easier to implement. Both have advocates, and the state teachers union has not indicated a preference for one or the other. But the union is concerned that the evaluations, under both models, will be used to reward and punish educators, which DPI has cautioned against.
The requirement that alternative models be allowed was included in legislation crafted by state Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon. The agency administrator of CESA 6, which stands to receive about $1 million a year in taxpayer money from selling this model to schools, is Olsen’s wife, Joan Wade.
CESA 6, based in Oshkosh, is part of a statewide network of 12 nonprofit quasi-governmental agencies created by the state Legislature in 1964. The CESAs, or Cooperative Educational Service Agencies, receive most of their money from school districts, in exchange for various programs and services.
Wade has a 2013 salary of $131,821, plus $53,809 in benefits, which puts her toward the top among state CESA administrators.
State ethics officials ruled in an earlier case that Olsen is allowed to take actions that benefit CESAs, despite the connection to his wife, because these agencies serve a public purpose. Wade, a former state legislator, does not see her husband’s role in helping pass legislation that allowed her agency to compete for tax dollars as a conflict of interest.
“I don’t make more more because we’re doing this,” Wade said. “Actually, I have more headaches.”
But Jon Bales, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, observes that CESA 6 has been “very proactive” in trying to sell its model to districts.
“The CESAs are service agencies,” Bales said. “Their whole survival is based on identifying needs and serving those needs.”
DPI officials have also raised concerns about the research base and compatibility of the CESA 6 model. But Wade argues that her group’s model is just as valid as the one used by DPI, and may be a better fit for some districts.
“I think it’s good for districts to have a choice,” Wade said. “I think that, honestly, it makes us both better.”
Find your district
Districts not listed have not committed to piloting an educator effectiveness model in 2013-14.
‘A game changer for students’
The Wisconsin Educator Effectiveness System, of which the educator evaluations are a critical part, was developed by a team of educators and stakeholders convened by DPI. It is part of a larger effort spurred by federal initiatives such as Race to the Top.
“This really is a big deal,” said Sheila Briggs, DPI’s assistant state superintendent for academic excellence. “This system, coupled with implementation of Common Core (curriculum standards), have the potential to be real game changers for students in this state. And we’re really excited about it.”
The law requires public and independent charter schools to evaluate just teachers and principals, but the evaluations will ultimately include support staff like librarians and guidance counselors. DPI is barring districts from using the results during the pilot phase for “high-stakes decisions,” like awarding merit pay or termination.
Even after the kinks are worked out, DPI sees the evaluations mainly as a tool to “support struggling educators with targeted improvement plans.” But the agency does expressly allow the system’s eventual use “to inform the full range of human resource decisions.”
Betsy Kippers, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the union representing state teachers, said her group will be working with members across the state to monitor how the evaluations are being used. “We’re going to hold them accountable,” she vowed.
The educator effectiveness system has two parts: student outcomes and educator practice, each of which will count as 50 percent of a composite score for the state’s approximately 72,000 educators.
DPI will gauge student outcomes using multiple measures, including standardized tests now aligned to the new Common Core curriculum standards adopted by Wisconsin and other states.
The DPI team ended up picking a practice model developed by Charlotte Danielson of Princeton, N.J. But it also recommended that the state allow alternative approaches, such as the one being developed by CESA 6.
“That’s how we tend to do things in Wisconsin,” Briggs said, explaining that others may come up with “something better” than the model selected by DPI.
The CESA 6 model, known as the Effectiveness Project, is based on the work of James Stronge, a professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. CESA 6 project head Keith Fuchs said the agency has been working on this model since 2010, with input from more than 100 educators. He initially hoped DPI “would work with us in developing our model,” rather than crafting its own.
Bales, who served on the DPI design team, said the Danielson model was picked because it had the best research to back up its effectiveness.
While Bales feels that the CESA 6 model is also viable, he and others on the team “were really hoping to get one uniform, statewide model,” which would be simpler to implement and manage.
DPI review raised concerns
Curtis Jones, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee education scientist hired to work with DPI pilot districts, acknowledges the elephant in the classroom: a sense of concern within DPI over the quality of alternative systems being offered by CESA 6 and potentially others.
“It’s not a big news flash that CESA 6 and DPI are a little bit at odds as to the best way to evaluate teachers,” Jones said. “There’s a real difference of opinion. If there wasn’t, they’d both be using the same system.”
Jones said CESA 6, in its presentations to districts, has criticized the DPI’s model as too complex. And he agrees it does require a major commitment of time and resources. But Jones feels it offers more solid evidence that it will produce “actionable information on teacher practices.”
Fuchs agrees the two models are significantly different in terms of complexity. He said the CESA 6 model will be easier to use, since it scores just six basic standards, compared to the DPI model, which employs more than 20 measures.
In May, DPI approved CESA 6’s application but identified several program areas “which would benefit from further development or clarifying information.”
The DPI review team questioned whether CESA 6’s performance levels “were fully equivalent to (those) used in the state system.” It argued that these levels must “mean the same thing across districts” and sought additional information on how CESA 6’s model could be used to provide useful feedback to educators.
DPI’s review team also felt “a majority of the research (underlying CESA 6’s model) was not independent and could be biased.” It suggested an independent evaluation.
Wade said CESA 6 has consulted with others in developing its model but not hired anyone to do an independent evaluation. She noted that both models will be subjected to outside evaluation as part of their implementation in Wisconsin. And she said CESA 6 is “comfortable with the research base” underlying its model.
State cost: $80 per educator
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s 2013-15 budget allocates $6.9 million in 2013-14 and $6.7 million in 2014-15 for the new educator evaluation program. Most of this money will go to school districts at a rate of $80 per educator per school year.
The districts will then use this money to pay for educator effectiveness software and training, as offered through DPI, or an alternative provider such as CESA 6.
DPI education consultant Katharine Rainey said 210 districts will be taking part in a pilot of its program this year. Fuchs said CESA 6 will be piloting its program in about 130 districts this fall; most have already received some training in the model.
While participating districts are not likely to bring all of their educators into the program’s pilot year, Fuchs said the 130 districts signed onto the CESA 6 model likely include 12,000 to 15,000 educators. At $80 a pop, that would ultimately generate between $960,000 and $1.2 million a year for CESA 6.
The state’s 11 other CESAs also stand to gain. Each will receive a $500 “finder’s fee” from CESA 6 for every district that opts for this alternative model, plus about $10,000 a year for providing support services and professional development.
DPI is also offering some compensation to CESAs. “We don’t have a finder’s fee but we are using them for support, and so we’re trying to pay them based on the amount of support they provide,” Rainey said.
Wade noted that CESA 6 has made a significant investment in the Effectiveness Project, including hiring 12 educators to train districts in how to use the new model. “We have yet to get into the black,” she said. CESA 6 had a $22.3 million annual budget in 2012-13, which puts the $1 million from educator evaluations in perspective.
The rule requiring DPI to offer “an equivalency process aligned with the state system” — essentially, an alternative way to fulfill the same mandate — was included in a bill introduced in February 2012 by Olsen, chairman of the Senate Committee on Education. The bill passed both houses of the Legislature with bipartisan support, and Walker signed it into law in April 2012.
In 2011, the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now filed a complaint alleging that Olsen’s support for legislation to let CESAs create independent charter schools violated the state ethics law. The group’s executive director, Scot Ross, seethed in a press release that “Olsen believes he is above the law and that he can use his office to benefit himself and his wife.”
The state Government Accountability Board disagreed, saying CESAs are “governmental subdivisions” and as such outside the scope of the law. According to the GAB, “an official action that benefits a CESA (or a school district or other local government unit with which an official is associated), even one headed by the official’s spouse, does not violate the Ethics Code.”
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