Wisconsin agency aims to transform education’s core

A group of 45 Wisconsin superintendents hopes to transform the state's educational practices.
A group of 45 Wisconsin superintendents hopes to transform their educational practices.

With support from all of its 45 superintendents, a Wisconsin regional service agency is determined to reinvent the very nature of public education so that all students are equipped with the 21st-century skills necessary to compete and succeed in a global workplace.

Among its many innovative strategies for transforming teaching and learning, the service agency is moving from age-based groups of students to progress-based groupings; dropping standardized practices in favor of customized learning plans; phasing out print textbooks in favor of dynamic digital resources; and shifting from teacher-led instruction to a blend of face-to-face and online approaches.

Southeastern Wisconsin’s Cooperative Educational Service Agency (CESA) No. 1 is one of 12 state regional service agencies and covers 45 school districts encompassing about a third of the state’s student population. It includes Milwaukee Public Schools, the largest urban district in the state, as well as the smallest K-12 schools.

“Our starting point was that public education as we knew it was in danger of becoming totally dysfunctional,” said Tim Gavigan, executive director of CESA No. 1.

“Rather than tweaking the existing system, we went back to affirm the core purposes of public education, separate those out from the systemic decisions made along the way 200 years ago—and those enduring core purposes guided our work.”

That spurred a mobilization of a regional collaborative effort to address the issue, and superintendents realized that public education must be totally transformed to have the kind of lasting impact that the superintendents sought.

The superintendents approached the CESA No. 1 Control Board, an elected board from all 45 districts, asking for support, and from that meeting emerged a resolution to enact the transformation.

Group leaders organized into learning communities and took a series of workshops, including some led by national education consultants, to educate themselves on the current status of local and national education, as well as promising transformational education practices.

Those workshops led the superintendents to develop “Transforming Public Education: A Regional Call to Action,” a white paper that establishes background and actions for true educational change.

State Superintendent Tony Evers endorsed CESA No. 1’s efforts, provided technical support, and applied for a partnership grant with the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the Stupski Foundation.

In remarks last fall, Evers said the state needs “strong teachers and strong school leaders” and must “invest in innovation that works, provide students with multiple pathways, and connect rigorous standards to real-world experiences.”

A system that only values testing is “hurtful for children,” Evers added, saying the state must “move forward in a more positive direction.”

At the CESA No. 1 annual board delegates meeting in late May, James Rickabaugh, superintendent of the Whitefish Bay School District, said outdated school design and lack of funding are two major components in the white paper.

“The schools we have were designed for a different era with a different mission,” he said.

And there is not enough money to support current educational practices while advancing teaching and learning to incorporate 21st-century skills.

“The lesson of the stimulus funds is that the money goes to stability, not necessarily innovation,” he said. Even if schools had enough money to stabilize educational systems and then innovate, they would still be “innovating within the current [outdated] design,” he added.

“We don’t have the capacity in the schools, as they’re designed, to educate all students at high levels in a way that would make them internationally competitive,” Rickabaugh said.

CESA No. 1 will focus on research-based and emerging best practices to combine the core enduring principles of education with innovative ideas that will create ethical citizens and critical thinkers, he said.

Laura Ascione

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