Apologists for the Wyoming Department of Education often defend the state agency by saying what happens in an office building in Cheyenne really doesn’t affect the students in classrooms
throughout the state.
And there’s some small truth to that — very small.
That is, students are most impacted daily by their teachers and other school employees whom they come into contact with on a routine basis.
Still, a recent report submitted to legislators by legislative
services auditors reveal some pretty troubling trends that
seem to have real impact for
students and the Wyoming taxpayers.
To be fair: Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill decried the report as a politically motivated hit job and pointed out that she hadn’t had a chance to review the report in-depth and respond before facing questions during a recent joint legislative committee meeting.
Fair enough. It looks as if Hill will soon get her chance.
Yet the publicly available report is bracing in its depth and scope. We would hope allegations that serious and systemic would be well substantiated, and not tossed around lightly. These are not insignificant matters. If even the majority of allegations are true, the department needs significant change that can’t come soon enough.
One of the most troubling parts of the report centers around accountability.
Lawmakers have written into law more accountability
measures. Those measures
usually fall into two categories. First, lawmakers want to make sure the priorities they outline are being met by school districts. Since the Legislature helps dole out the money, lawmakers should indeed have a say on what the priorities should be.
The second form of accountability comes at the classroom level. Lawmakers want to see students perform and they want to ensure teachers are being held accountable for the education they provide.
What the report revealed was the Wyoming Department of Education wasn’t complying with the law, wasn’t prioritizing initiatives correctly and was, in some cases, being obstructionist.
For a moment, let’s set aside the hyperbole and accusations, and turn attention to what this means beyond the Capitol.
Whether folks agree with the priorities or the accountability measures the lawmakers have enacted, there’s a good principle behind the accountability concept. That is, lawmakers want to know if students are learning. They want more than anecdotal evidence. They want to know if teachers are effective, and what objective measures can be implemented to gauge a teacher’s success. Legislators want to know what kind of return on their investment they’ve received from school districts. That seems pretty important because residents across the state are asking them the same question: How do we know our money is being spent wisely?
The Legislature must task the Wyoming Department of Education with accountability measures. The department should, after all, have the expertise to measure effectiveness and performance and report back to the Legislature. Yet, when it’s unable to follow the Legislature’s directive, codified in state law, it means that residents must simply trust the education dollars are being well spent. We must also accept that we don’t really know if our students and teachers are successful in this world of increasing competition.
Part of the frustration is linked with another problem the department has experienced. It has been remiss in getting school districts and lawmakers accurate information regarding the No Child Left Behind Act, which is the standard barometer of school district performance across the country — for better or worse.
Possibly the most frustrating aspect of the entire report is the potential impact the Wyoming Department of Education is
having on students. School
officials don’t know how their district and students are
performing on standardized test. Moreover, they don’t know how their districts are measuring on accountability.
Without data, without direction, without expertise, how can any district reasonably expect to improve? Maybe just as frustrating is the effect the lack of reliable information is having on districts performing well. We mean: If a district is making better-than-average progress, and the district is having success, that, too, will be harder to gauge. And the districts that are experiencing success could be a great incubator of ideas for those districts that struggle.
Previously, we joked that the programs to promote accountability might need an accountability program itself.
We guess that wasn’t really a joke after all.