Wyoming lawmakers revisit school accountability law after Hill clashBy Gregory Nickerson February 26, 2013
The removal of Superintendent Cindy Hill from the Dept. of Education has enabled the legislature to move forward with an accountability law that revamps Wyoming’s school system.
In 2011, legislators passed the Wyoming Accountability in Education Act. In simplified terms, the law is Wyoming’s version of No Child Left Behind with two major differences: It offers more nuanced data from testing, and a commitment to support low-performing schools and teachers rather than punish them.
Lawmakers felt that Superintendent Hill didn’t clearly support the accountability measure, leading them to transfer many of the duties of her office to an appointed director this January.
“We have not had the cooperation from the Wyoming Department of Education on accountability,” said Sen. Hank Coe (R-Cody), chair of the Senate Education Committee. “The unfortunate thing is it was put into law and (the superintendent) just didn’t want to comply with what is law.”
Now that Superintendent Hill is pushed aside, the legislature has refocused its education efforts on the Accountability Act.
Lawmakers generally agree that standardized testing should be used to collect data for comparing schools around the state.
Gathering all that information requires a uniform approach dictated from the state level, but even small-government Wyoming lawmakers are willing to embrace it in hopes of improving student learning and identifying best practices.
There is no guarantee accountability will make schools better right away, but proponents say they plan to learn from what works and improve the process over time.
Legislative leaders feel an urgency to move forward with accountability, even if it’s still a work in progress.
“We’re talking about the future of our kids,” Coe said. “Every year that we don’t proceed with accountability is to the detriment of those kids. We owe it to them to try to provide the best education possible so they are career ready or college ready.”
Bang for the buck
Wyoming’s Accountability Act came out of the unique situation created by its mineral wealth. The state’s recent natural gas boom enabled lawmakers to pursue the ambitious goal of building the best school system in the nation.
Since 2006, Wyoming has been trying to spend its way to the top of the education heap. On a per capita basis, Wyoming spends more on K-12 education per capita that any other state in the nation, according to a 2012 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Each year, the state puts forward about $800 million to fund its schools and teachers, then lays down another $200 million for school construction.
That’s over a billion dollars spent on education every year, and nearly $18,000 spent on each of Wyoming’s 90,000 students.
All that money has given Wyoming some of the best school buildings and best-paid teachers in the nation, but according to student test scores, the state’s educational outcomes are middle of the pack. A 2012 Harvard study ranked Wyoming 24th for growth in test scores.
Wyoming lawmakers have increasingly wanted to see a better return for all the investment in education. They have put a major effort into designing an accountability system for testing student performance and using that data to improve schools.
Bill Schilling, chair of the Advisory Committee on Statewide Accountability, says Wyoming doesn’t want to be average in education. “We want to be number one. That’s what this is all about,” he said.
The 2011 Accountability Act passed just a few months after the November 2010 election of Cindy Hill as Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Hill ran on a campaign platform of localized accountability efforts, which clashed with the legislature’s goal of pursuing education reform across Wyoming’s 48 school districts.
Once in office, Hill worked on her own accountability program. In 2012, she traveled around the state to gather input from local communities on her model. That led many lawmakers to feel that she purposely obstructed efforts to implement the Accountability Act.
“The reason why we didn’t accomplish the work that needed to be done in the last year was because (Hill) intentionally prevented that work from going forward,” said Rep. Matt Teeters (R-Lingle), chair of the House Education Committee.
A philosophical disagreement over who sets state education policy stood at the center of the controversy. Since 1995, numerous decisions made by the Wyoming Supreme Court consolidated responsibility for education in the legislature. It did so based on the argument that all students deserved equal funding, equal facilities, and ultimately, equal opportunity in education.
“If there is one theme, it is that the state is responsible to deliver a common basket of services and afford equitable opportunity to every child,” said Sen. Hank Coe (R-Cody) chair of the Senate Education Committee.
The Supreme Court decisions gradually removed agenda-setting power from the state superintendent, making the position less executive and more administrative.
Legislators passed statewide accountability with the expectation that Hill would implement it. By contrast, Hill wanted to enact the policies she ran on in her campaign, so she developed her own accountability model within the Department of Education. For more on Hill’s approach, read her address to the 2013 legislature.
Ultimately, differences in how to pursue accountability became the wedge that divided the legislature and Hill. Members of the Joint Education Committee wrote a bill to transfer many of Hill’s duties to an appointed director who would administer the accountability plan as the legislature envisioned it. The bill passed both houses of the legislature and Gov. Mead appointed interim director Jim Rose on January 29, 2013.
What’s in the law?
Barring a victory in the lawsuit she filed against Gov. Mead, Hill’s accountability approach will take a back seat to the legislature’s plan that will move forward to full implementation by 2016.
That begs the question, what does the Accountability Act really aim to do?
As written in Wyoming Statute 21-2-204, the goals of the law include making Wyoming a national education leader and ensuring all students are fully prepared for college or careers. That means raising student achievement, improving teacher quality, maximizing efficiency and increasing credibility of schools.
The Accountability Act leaves local control for things like curriculum design, textbook choice, and teacher evaluation.
In the Accountability Act the legislature creates a system to test students, and then uses that data to rank schools. The same data can be used to identify schools with best practices, and share those with lower performing schools. That’s Phase I. The next phase will extend testing and support to school leaders and teachers.
Tests will measure students’ performance in four areas: achievement, growth, equity, and career and college readiness.
Achievement means performance on test scores, while growth is defined as improvement in test scores year to year. Equity measures the achievement of students who are starting at non-proficient status. Readiness looks at graduation rates and college entrance tests to see if students are prepared for life after high school.
The combined information of achievement, growth, equity, and readiness will be used to assign schools with one of four performance rankings ranging from not meeting expectations to exceeding expectations.
The performance rankings will help identify schools in need of more support. The Wyoming Department of Education will appoint liaisons to oversee monitor improvement plans in schools not meeting expectations.
Importantly, the accountability law takes a different path from some of the more punitive approaches used in other states. While some Wyoming principals could be fired for not bringing up school performance within two years, and teachers could be dismissed for two years of ineffective teaching, the emphasis will be on providing support to build expertise, rather than penalizing schools and teachers for poor performance.
“You can’t punish somebody into greatness. If you want somebody to improve you have to give them the tools to improve,” said Kathy Vetter, president of the Wyoming Education Association.
The accountability effort does not base everything on test scores.
For example, there will be five equally weighted domains for evaluating teachers: learner development; content knowledge, instructional practice; professional responsibility; and evidence of student learning. Some of those domains will be qualitative, while others will rely on test scores.
“The reality is that teaching and learning are more complex than crunching down a number,” said state school board member Sue Belish. “Not everything that can be measured counts, and not everything that counts can be measured.”
Standardized testing will eventually migrate to less time-intensive tests than the Proficiency Assessments for Wyoming Students (PAWS) test.
Phase I will be implemented in a statewide pilot this year, when assessment data will be tied back to districts and schools with minimal repercussions for poor performance. This phase is covered under House Bill 91.
Accountability efforts will progress down to the more individual level of superintendents, school principals and teachers in Phase II, which will be fully implemented in 2016-2017. Language in House Bill 72 defines that process.
Local control vs top-down
As accountability moves forward, some lawmakers have concerns that it advocates a top-down approach that exerts too much bureaucratic control on school districts.
“I’m a firm believer that the best decisions are made closest to where they are implemented,” said former teacher and K-12 principal Rep. Jerry Paxton (R-Encampment).
Wyoming has a strong culture of local control over schools, in part because the state funds each district with a block grant without dictating how the money should be spent.
Some Wyoming school districts used local control to create their own accountability systems aimed at improving teachers. However, the leaders behind those local efforts remained focused on individual school districts, not on a statewide accountability system.
As a result, legislators stepped in to develop statewide accountability. While some doubted the wisdom of lawmakers taking action on issues often left to local school boards, many lawmakers felt they had a duty to act.
“In a perfect world, I suppose all of this would come from the bottom up, but its not happening,” said Rep. Sue Wallis (R-Recluse).
The House and Senate Education Committees took up the issue, along with the Select Committee on Education Accountability. The legislative committees then sought input from the State Board of Education, consultants, and an advisory committee made up of teachers, principals, superintendents, and members from the business community.
Together the Select Committee and the advisory committee held 30 public meetings about accountability. In addition, legislators created a 30-person Professional Judgment Panel to set standards for school performance rankings.
The result of the effort is a system substantially created by citizen committee members, many who have direct experience in education.
“You don’t hatch this in isolation. You don’t let policy wonks sit in some insular environment and foist it on people. You make it open and interactive,” said Jim Rose, the interim director of the Wyoming Department of Education.
Even with the broad representation of all these committees, some lawmakers think the legislature hasn’t encouraged community involvement in accountability.
“As people are told more what to do from Cheyenne, the inevitable result is they become less responsible and less personally involved in it,” said Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander).
Getting local communities and school districts to embrace accountability could present a challenge, given that most of the policy work has happened in Cheyenne and at committee meetings in Casper.
“We can’t get it done from Cheyenne. It has to be done from local level and there has to be participation from school boards and teachers and parents,” Paxton said. “I think a good philosophy is empowering the school districts to be successful, more so than directing.”
He added that the most important people who make sure education happens don’t work in schools at all.
“The biggest element that we are overlooking is the parents. They should be the primary educator in the family,” Paxton said. “Parental responsibility is huge. And you can’t legislate that.”
Those involved with accountability realize that it is not the only way to make sure students excel.
Finland, for example, has no accountability system, yet its process for recruiting top university graduates to teach ensures that its schools rank among the best in the world.
Unfortunately, Wyoming schools can’t replicate Finland’s success simply by paying high salaries, though that might be part of the equation.
“If it was easy there would be an app for it. There would be a solution,” Belish said.
Wyoming can look to other states and countries for ideas, but in the end there is no assurance that the current accountability law will yield the desired results.
“If we don’t pilot it and try it, we won’t know the parts that do work,” said Fenton-Hughes.
As lawmakers move the Accountability Act forward, some parts of the law will continue to evolve, leading to frustration on the part of local schools that must live with the policy.
In Superintendent Hill’s address on the opening day of the 2013 legislature, she criticized the tweaking of the measurement tools used for accountability.
She noted 11 changes to testing regimes, including a recent change to give the ACT test to 11th graders rather than the PAWS test.
“Consider the perspective of those in the school districts,” Hill said. “They become frustrated when they shoot for achieving results on one measure, only to see that the measure has changed or has been discarded altogether.”
Having spent many years as a teacher and administrator, Paxton echoed that sentiment. “Putting something in place and letting it stay in place is important,” he said.
Ideally, Belish said she wished stakeholders could have designed a complete accountability system before putting it in place, rather than using an experimental process that will be more dynamic and disruptive.
Still, a measured effort that implements accountability over several years using trial and error will likely produce useful results and show a way forward.
“It’s not going to be perfect from the beginning, but if we really have an eye on how we make kids successful then we are going to get it right,” Belish said. “If we approach it from the idea that government is going to give you all the answers it’s not going to work. But there is a happy medium.”
Over the interim the Select Committee and its advisers will hold additional meetings to discuss modifying the Accountability Act. In particular, they will look at teacher evaluations. Meanwhile, the Professional Judgment Panel will revise their standards for school performance ranking.
“I’m excited about where we are, and I think we as Wyoming educators and citizens have a chance to shape it,” Belish said.
— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He is based in Cheyenne during the 2013 legislative session. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information on how to contact your legislator during the session, click here.
If you enjoyed this story and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.