Wyoming tries a new education reform approach

Jan 28, 2012

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A year ago legislators were frustrated by the amount of money they were putting into education and their perceived return.  Wyoming pays teachers some of the highest wages in the country, but lawmakers claimed that too many students had to go through remedial programs in college, that test scores were not high enough, and that the states dropout rate was too high.  In the early part of the legislative session lawmakers took dead aim at teachers, even going so far as to bring a bill to get rid of tenure so that teachers could be more easily dismissed.  But lawmakers backed off on that hard line stance and a year later they are prepared to consider legislation that could bring about what most are calling positive reforms.  Wyoming Public Radio’s Bob Beck has more.

BOB BECK: This is the largest legislative committee room in the state capitol.  The audience is mostly filled with representatives of Wyoming’s school districts.  They have been watching Joint Education Committee wrap up two days of work on a new school funding model and on a piece of legislation that will reform how schools and teachers are judged.  Senator Kit Jennings, a Republican from Casper says the state needed some reforms because despite the fact that Wyoming has poured millions into school funding, students were not performing as well as lawmakers wanted.

KIT JENNINGS:  Our graduation rates haven’t increased; our grades haven’t increased the way that we thought they would by now. 

BECK: However, Senator Chris Rothfuss begs to differ.  The Laramie Democrat says things have been turning around.

CHRIS ROTHFUSS: We are seeing improvement.  If you look at the PAWS scores they are going up, if you look at the ACT scores they’re going up.

BECK: But Rothfuss also thought they could do better.  So he and other lawmakers, educators and representatives of interest groups got together to craft a new piece of school reform legislation that will not only address Senator Jennings concerns but also help education in the state take a big step forward.   But it’s a novel approach, because it’s positive. While programs like the federal No Child Left Behind law used sanctions to push improvement, Rothfuss says this bill is about helpingstudents, teachers and even schools improve.

ROTHFUSS:  We’re not being punitive.  It’s always very much an enabling approach. We need to say that school is having difficulties in reading at this level. We want to do an intervention; we need to fix those problems.

BECK:  Sue Belish is a state school board member who helped craft the new legislation.   She is a former small school superintendent in the state and when she first heard lawmakers were pushing new reforms she was slightly concerned.  But outside the committee room she admitted that she likes this novel approach.

SUE BELISH:  What the new legislation would propose is that it’s not just a matter of the percent that are proficient.  But it’s what kind of growth did each school make, did kids in each school make?  So that’s a huge change.

BECK:  So what will it do?  The proposal addresses everything from more focused testing of students, to how teachers and administrators will be evaluated.  It sets up a process for measuring how students are performing academically and helping schools with poorly performing students improve.  House Education Committee Chairman Matt Teeters says it is much more complicated than he thought it would be, but he sees the changes as exciting.  But he adds that it will be a work in progress and stakeholders will be a key component.

MATT TEETERS: And really nobody is afraid of accountability I believe, but the difficult question is how do you equate that in a fair way that we all agree upon.  We’re hoping that most of those decisions will be made by practitioners with consensus from different groups.”

BECK: Teeters said it will likely require extra money for the whole plan to work.  Although he had expressed concern about the amount of money the state was spending on education last year, his tune has changed.

TEETERS: I think if you look at the amount of money we are spending in education, if we need a couple of million dollars to get this thing started, for the outcome we are going to receive  it’s really a very small investment.  I’m willing to defend that, I think it’s the right thing to do.

BECK: Teeters admits that he is excited about the legislation, although it make take two or three years to fully implement the plan.  The full legislature will consider the bill next month.  For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Bob Beck.