Education funding is so critical to the future of Wyoming that we can’t, and shouldn’t, stop discussing it until we solve it. So here come two more people with ideas for the legislators who are toiling away on this issue.

Both are close observers of the debate with much to offer from experience in finance and in Wyoming’s tax system: Gail Symons and Larry Wolfe.

Gail is a ranch owner from Sheridan and retired U.S. Naval Officer specializing in logistics and finance, now retired from General Electric with experience in supply chain and marketing process improvement. She is a member of Wyoming’s Commission on Efficiencies in State Government.

Larry is a lawyer in Cheyenne, who has been deeply involved in Wyoming’s tax system since the late 1980s as a minerals industry lawyer.  He was appointed by Governor Mead as a representative of the public on the Mineral Tax Task Force that submitted its report in 2016. Larry’s essay was originally his comment on the education “white paper” released in January that explored options before the 2017 session; he kindly permitted us to publish an updated version.

As Larry says at the end of his piece, legislators need courage, wisdom and concern for the future of the state to solve this problem. We all need to help with positive suggestions. The old question was why more money didn’t necessarily mean better outcomes. Now, the question is how less money can lead to better outcomes.

Take a look at these essays and see what you think. Post a comment in response. Maybe even offer to write a column for us on this topic yourself to move the conversation further.

-Pete Simpson

By Gail Symons

Gail Symons

What is the true purpose of education? Why was it deemed so critical that, from the beginning of statehood, the Wyoming Constitution gives it such stature? How is it that this is our collective responsibility? When all the dust and smoke, sturm und drang, opinions and positions are cleared away, the answer is that children are our most important asset. We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to ensure they each have the opportunity for sufficient individual growth and learning to emerge as adults fully engaged and contributing to their community.

The linchpins of the educational system that make that possible are students, teachers, principals and parents.

Students

By starting with the premise that the primary (perhaps sole) purpose of education is to foster the full potential of each student in becoming the most effective adult possible, priorities come into focus. It starts with asking what is an effective adult,  separate from what path the student takes in life? That translates to being employable, being able to raise and support a family, participating in our political processes and serving the community.

The three “R”s are as relevant now as they were a century ago. The form and delivery of written content has changed but the need to comprehend the written word and place it in context remains. Such mundane acts as completing a job application, registering to vote or ordering from a menu make even basic reading capabilities necessary. Translating ideas and information into written form engages the individual with others and provides interaction in the workplace, the community and social environs. Basic math abilities are at play when purchasing goods and services, paying bills, making correct change and cooking.

To those three “R”s I would add cRitical Thinking. In a world where the latest buzzword is “fake news” and endless sound bites convey shallow and non-contextual ideas, the ability to evaluate data, question sources, weigh information and even value differences is critical. Science, civics, social studies and literature all can serve to build that knowledge.

How far beyond the basics individuals need to go to acquire skills, knowledge and application is a function of their abilities and interests. That is the point at which our education system must effectively offer different options to provide the student with the capabilities that are right for them.

There is a fundamental flaw in the existing Wyoming “basket of goods” and specifically in the statewide graduation requirements that are patterned after the admission standards of the University of Wyoming. There has been a presumption that students are going to college after secondary school. Yet data indicates that no more than 20 percent of graduating seniors complete a four-year degree. Added to that is the pressure applied by the Hathaway Scholarship that puts a thumb on the scale to point students toward a college education.

I like to point out that while a law degree may provide a highly educated and successful career path, it is of no consequence to me when my toilet is backed up. In that scenario, an experienced plumber is infinitely more valuable than a lawyer. Those for whom being a plumber is the right path will have different education needs, particularly in high school, than those on a path to a law degree.

The bias towards post-secondary education is beginning to show signs of easing, and we can achieve a better balance. The Every Student Succeeds Act passed and signed in 2015, reduces federal control over the education system and restores authority to the state in critical areas. For accountability, four indicators are required with three being academic. In the recent Joint Education Committee meeting in Casper, the Wyoming Department of Education identified that the fourth indicator for our state will be postsecondary readiness. That readiness will be measured under three options. As before, Option 1 is completion of a college success curriculum. However, Option 2 is based on a career or technical pathway and Option 3 is military readiness. This, finally, is an approach that values diversity in careers.

Just as there is more to post-secondary readiness than college entrance, there is also more to being a well-rounded effective adult than literacy. Work ethics, teamwork, creativity and problem-solving are developed through extracurricular activities such as sports, debate, internships, music and affinity organizations.   The schools need to judiciously sponsor the broadest variety feasible.

Teachers

If capturing student potential depends on the core of education and individual growth opportunities, the key to attaining these are effective, motivated teachers. Now the question becomes, what is an effective teacher and how do we identify, develop, support and encourage them.

Three separate studies from 2011 and 2013 highlight the significance of effective teachers in student outcomes. Darling-Hammond (2011) found that the single most determining factor of learning is NOT socio-economic factors or funding levels, it is teacher quality. In addition, Goodman & Turner (2011) and Frye (2013) identified that the most effective teachers produce as much as five times the learning gains produced by the least effective teachers. This research was provided to me by Craig Dougherty, Superintendent of Sheridan School District 2.

When the District put these insights to use by instituting teacher learning circles 72.1 percent of SCSD2 students scored either “proficient” or “advanced” on Wyoming Department of Education reading evaluations. The district topped the results of the 24 largest districts and were surpassed only by two statewide.

The Basket of Goods was created as a result of Supreme Court rulings requiring an equivalent opportunity for quality education throughout the state. Given the previous research, it may be more appropriate to standardize the availability of effective teachers across the 48 school districts rather than the course of instruction. There is a world of difference between three science classes available and one science class available with a highly effective teacher. In evaluating the School Districts and the way in which they allocate education funds, a premium should be placed on cost per number of students (“Cost per Average Daily Membership” or ADM) for instruction as it indicates the commitment made to excellence in the classroom.

I recently came across the morning kindergarten class photo from 1961 at Linden School in Sheridan. There were over 30 children depicted. My friends all confirmed that their classes in other schools were similar. Most of those I recognized as having graduated in 1974 so the class size remained stable at 30:1. If class size were truly a critical factor in a quality education, then how would we account for 5 National Merit Scholars in a graduating class of less than 300 in that year?.

The answer has to be twofold: the capabilities of the teachers and the degree to which their time and effort could be directed to student learning. How much time do our teachers spend on administrative tasks, paperwork unrelated to lesson plans or grading, testing rather than evaluating? Are we creating an environment that continues to place learning at the forefront or have we diluted this by pushing for metrics or documentation?

There is no question that metrics drive behaviors; it is a human reality.  Successful measurement systems include consideration of desired outcomes AND the desired actions to achieve the outcomes. The law of unintended consequences is particularly at play here. If the aggregated results of a standardized test are the basis for evaluating teachers, schools and districts, then the natural reaction is to focus efforts on testing. When a school spends two weeks in preparation for testing to obtain the best possible scores, how does that translate to actually acquiring knowledge, rather than achieving a numeric value?

In addition, having the aggregated results from one year to the next be indicative of improvement is statistically unsound. The population of students in a 12th grade class one year is unrelated to the population the following year (disregarding any held back). A better indication would be pre-testing and post-testing the same group of students, without any preparation geared towards achieving higher scores. While the results can be appropriately used for additional purposes, the primary purpose should always be to assess individual growth and determine further learning needed.

Principals

Schools are the learning arena. Establishing a supporting environment is the responsibility of principals. The overall capability of the school is set by the leadership and administrative abilities of the principal.

Discussions on education effectiveness center primarily on student achievement and teacher effectiveness. Few conversations appear to address principal capability. The selection and development of these professionals should receive an appropriate level of attention. Much of the success in Sheridan County School District 2 has been credited to the support and development of principals who are in turn expected to drive improvement in teacher capability. To date, the offer by SCSD2 to conduct Principal Academies to leverage their success in other districts has gone unheeded.

Parents

Ultimately both the responsibility and right for children’s development and growth reside with the parents. What is the education system doing to encourage the highest level of involvement? How are partnerships being developed between the schools, teachers and parents to support students’ growth? What tools are made available to parents to continue the learning processes outside of school hours? How are expectations being set at home for positive outcomes?

Little can be done to legislate behaviors or force parents to be a productive part of the learning process. The school districts must have programs in place that serve to induce the parents to engage positively. Those may be outreach efforts, training or support. This is just as important to the student’s success as traditional classroom activities.

Summary

The economic downturn in Wyoming is forcing a broad review of all state programs and services including, and perhaps especially, education. Equating cost with quality was one thing in an age of surplus. In lean times, what constitutes equal opportunity for education excellence requires much more than just a change in calculations. Luckily, we now have decades of data to consult in identifying distinguishing characteristics of academic achievement. It is clear that a dollar spent on an effective teacher has a greater return on investment than a dollar spent elsewhere.

Two decisions in the funding model have had unintended consequences for which viable solutions must be found. The first is 100 percent reimbursement for transportation. There is no incentive for cost containment or efficiencies when there is no consequence to the districts. In the General Session this year, transportation costs were frozen, which at least limits further increase. However, incentives to find less costly transport must be found.

The second unintended consequence is in special education. Because of the way the state’s current funding model was written, Wyoming is the only state that receives ZERO federal Medicaid funding for special education. This may not be fixable, but the problem needs to be examined to see if there is any way to ensure federal Medicaid funding helps sustain Wyoming’s investment in special education.

Significantly, the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration found that only three of the 48 school districts are actually funding their districts consistent with the model. The Legislature should put restrictions on district “block grant” funds to ensure a consistent level of funding on classroom instruction. While that would, admittedly, decrease their flexibility, it will achieve a more equitable application.

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Further, region-based cost sharing and reductions need to be encouraged or even directed. The alternative school that is moving to Sheridan College, for example, will serve all three Sheridan county districts as well as Johnson County. One of the responsibilities of the Wyoming Department of Education should be coordination of best practices in cost savings and in more effective learning programs. District consolidations have been considered but the savings on administration would have a relatively lesser impact.

As identified previously, the size of the basket of goods does not appear to promote education outcomes yet does severely limit a focus on basic learning capabilities within the districts. Reducing the list of courses that must be made available in all schools by one-quarter to one-third needs to be considered. Any future additions should be accompanied by a concurrent decrease in existing courses. Cutting back to more limited testing and monitoring the amount of time spent both preparing for and administering tests will also improve quality of instruction and the school environment.

Increasing mill levies or other revenue-generating actions remain a possible although distinctly unpopular fallback. These must continue to be on the table as a possibility after all savings reductions, re-alignments and efficiencies have been exhausted.

All these changes can help get us to a student-focused system — which is the key to optimizing education at affordable cost.

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  1. This thoughtful article focuses our attention on specific actions that improve education within the fiscal realities we face. I hope the legislature is considering some of these changes.