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Wednesday, December 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 35.0° F  Overcast
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Madison school board candidate TJ Mertz discusses charter schools, teacher evaluation

Five candidates are competing for three seats on the Madison school board, with the general election on April 2, 2013.

The political context for the races is explosive, given Gov. Scott Walker's revolutionary proposals for education in Wisconsin: cuts to public school funding, an expansion of the voucher program, and a revamping of teachers' evaluations and bargaining rights.

In Madison, the issues are particularly complex, with the intense disagreements over the district's achievement gap between white and minority students.

TJ Mertz, an Edgewood College history instructor and education blogger, is running unopposed after Sarah Manski dropped out of the race for Seat 5 following the February primary. Her name will appear on the ballot, but she is moving to California. Mertz will replace retiring school board member Maya Cole.

In this competitive series of elections, there are numerous candidate forums and listening sessions under way, and we thought we'd pose our own questions to candidates.

This week, we ask the candidates about charter schools, whether they'd like to see their expansion in the district, and if so, how they should operate within the district. Another question focuses on teacher evaluation, and how the candidates think it should be conducted with regards to student test scores.

Would you like to see more charter schools in the district? What type of oversight should be in place for these schools?

TJ Mertz
Expanding charter schools is not part of my agenda. In general, I see charters as a distraction from the work of improving educational opportunities for all of our students. We have good charters in our district and need to nurture those, but our energy should be devoted to strengthening our current alternative programs and making district-wide improvements in Madison schools.

Unfortunately, over the past couple of years, the largely oversold potential for charters schools has led many to see them as the only or best way to bring creativity and innovation to our schools. This can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I want us as a community to promote creativity and innovation throughout our district.

The Board of Education has an obligation to consider charter school proposals brought before it. When proposals come forth, I would begin by evaluating them on the following criteria:

  1. Does this realistically address student needs that MMSD is not meeting?
  2. Could MMSD adapt the positive parts of the proposal in district schools instead of creating a charter?
  3. What would be the effects, especially financially, on all the schools in our district?

The Board has recently moved forward a new charter school policy, which -- thanks in part to their responsiveness to public feedback -- is very good. Among other things, the draft policy does not allow for non-instrumentality charter schools to be approved. This is a strong statement about charter oversight, with which I agree.

Unfortunately, this and most other aspects of the pending (and existing) district charter policy may soon be rendered moot by provisions in Scott Walker's budget. It severely limits local control over district charters and creates an alternate mechanism for a politically appointed state board to create local charter authorizers, with powers equivalent to elected boards of education. Those in Madison who believe in local control must be part of the statewide effort to prevent these changes.

What is the proper way to evaluate teachers? Do you believe they should be evaluated on the basis of student test scores?

TJ Mertz
Student scores on standardized tests should not be part of teacher evaluations. The tests are too limited (in both subjects and scope), too dependent on student demographics, too unstable, and altogether a poor measure of teacher quality. Even the best "value added" analyses do not overcome these problems. Additionally, using standardized tests to evaluate teachers ignores the collaborative reality of teaching and learning. I will oppose every attempt by MMSD to use standardized test scores in any part of teacher evaluations.

For the same reasons, standardized tests are of limited value in assessing student learning and progress. When used carefully and in conjunction with other information, they have some utility as snapshots of students, schools, and the district -- and can contribute to teaching, learning and program evaluation.

The limitations and unsuitability of these tests should be kept in mind when considered as measures for most of the stated mission of our district: "Our mission is to cultivate the potential in every student to thrive as a global citizen by inspiring a love of learning and civic engagement, by challenging and supporting every student to achieve academic excellence, and by embracing the full richness and diversity of our community."

The goal of any evaluation system should be to provide feedback as a way of improving teaching. Starting next year, MMSD will be required to perform new state evaluations, a partially standardized test-based "Educator Effectiveness" system. However, we are not mandated to use these evaluations in any way. I have heard from those who participated in pilot studies that the logistical demands of fulfilling these mandates will take much time and energy, and limit the amount of productive time devoted to improvement.

However, there are parts of the system -- such as the use of Charlotte Danielson's "framework for teaching" and the use of peer and mentor review -- that have some merit; others -- such as the locally developed "Student Learning Objectives" -- have potential. MMSD should employ these elements of the evaluation system and build on them, while discarding the standardized test-based portions.

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