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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.A call to action

Among its many points, CESA No. 1’s Board of Control Resolution notes that “regional cooperation and action are the keys to both educational transformation and economic development,” the board’s “member school districts over the past several years have seen diminished resources resulting in a severely reduced capacity to provide educational services using the current delivery model,” and that “all of these conditions have resulted in a crisis requiring systemic change in our districts’ financial condition, operational systems, overall public policy, as well as educational and instructional strategies.”

The resolution and resulting initiative will be led by CESA No. 1’s Center for Education Innovation and Regional Economic Development.

In particular, the initiative will focus on developing policies and implementation strategies that address member districts’ efforts to develop and implement policy recommendations that will help students compete in the 21st century, transform overall operation systems, and implement data-based decision making focused on results.

The white paper contrasts examples of typical current educational practices with examples of transformative practices, such as:

• Moving from age-based cohorts to learning or progress-based groupings.

• Changing classrooms with randomly assigned age mates into small, collaborative, flexible learning groups.

• Dropping standardized solutions in favor of customized learning plans and processes.

• Transforming largely face-to-face, teacher-directed instruction into electronic, digitally blended instructional approaches.

• Phasing out largely print-based instructional resources and implementing digital, highly customizable textbooks and online instructional and learning resources.

“School superintendents in Southeastern Wisconsin believe that there is no choice but to innovate and transform today’s schools if we are to meet the expectations society holds for the education of Wisconsin youth,” the white paper states.

The superintendents and CESA No. 1 Control Board developed a comprehensive list of policy recommendations, including:

• Develop or adopt learning standards for the State of Wisconsin that are future-focused, rigorous, comprehensive, and reflect the needs of next-generation learners.

• Establish Innovation Zones throughout the state to encourage and support innovation by offering opportunities to implement what is known from current and emerging research to significantly improve education, support accelerated learning, and develop models that can be tested and documented for replication, growth to scale over time, and long-term sustainability.

• Provide flexibility and targeted incentives to school districts within the Innovation Zones to design and implement transformative teaching and learning approaches.

• Support the expansion of transformative practices by (1) allowing full funding for public school choice students accepted in Innovation Zone schools; (2) creating legislation to allow districts to build comprehensive, flexible compensation plans for staff that align with state-of-the-art, research-based, and proven models; and (3) requiring Wisconsin educator preparation institutions to provide training in next-generation learning, including elective strategies and interventions to meet the needs of all learners.

The Control Board also established the CESA No. 1 Institute, which, beginning July 1, will sustain and enable the transformation efforts of member districts within the region.

In addition to launching the institute, CESA No. 1 superintendents will conduct surveys of innovative practices already occurring in the region. They also are working with the state’s public instruction department, CCSSO, and the Stupski Foundation to establish an innovation lab network.

Innovation Zones

Part of CESA No. 1’s plan includes establishing Innovation Zones, which Gavigan said are “focused, open-sourced, collaborative networks of schools, educators, communities, higher education, and other community business partners.”

Innovation Zones will establish sustainable and scalable quality education and innovation, all of which will be research-based. The zones will be piloted in specific geographical regions with an ultimate goal of being replicated for other schools outside of that geographic area.

Participants will be asked to sign a formal memorandum of understanding about the collaboration to prove their dedication, Gavigan said.

Each zone likely will work on one aspect of transformation—one zone might focus on personalized learning, for example, while another might work on curriculum—all while working together.

Teaching and professional development

Educator practices, and professional development to guide educators along the way, are two of the most important components in the transformation.

“The dynamic between the learner and the teacher is the most important dynamic that occurs,” Gavigan said. “At the heart of it is understanding how that dynamic works and emphasizing that as the starting point.”

Simply updating educational outcomes or adjusting specific instructional methods will not result in learners who are prepared to enter the 21st-century with necessary skills, he said.

“It’s our belief that no matter how much we try to facilitate or tweak the existing system, it’s out of alignment with the purposes, outcomes, and standards for public education that we now have,” Gavigan said.

CESA No. 1 leaders see two needs for professional development.

“Most of our current leadership has not been trained in a different educational delivery service system, nor have they been trained in terms of how to take an educational delivery system and transform it,” Gavigan said.

This led the CESA No. 1 Control Board to focus on professional development in terms of the processes and skills required to enact the educational transformation.

“We see the educator as the key to success,” Gavigan said. “You can tinker with systems [and] funding methodologies, but if something substantial is not changed with regard to the teacher-student interaction, we have not accomplished the transformation.”

Funding the change

The CESA No. 1 Control Board hopes to redirect existing funds to help finance the transformation, but Gavigan noted that, “as with most school districts across the country, the existing systems throughout our region’s public school districts are really strapped.”

In addition to the Stupski Foundation funding, Gavigan said CESA No. 1 hopes to build a network of social entrepreneurs willing to provide resources for the districts’ transformation.

“We’ve found that, whether it’s government agencies, foundations, or businesses, this work [attracts] a great deal of attention—mainly because almost everybody now, after several years of dismantling the public school system, has figured out that it’s not getting us anywhere, especially in terms of public performance. People are looking for promising alternatives,” Gavigan said.


Transforming Public Education: A Regional Call to Action


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