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Madison school board candidates James Howard and Greg Packnett discuss 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.

In the race for Seat 4, incumbent James Howard is running against Greg Packnett, a Democratic legislative aide.

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?

James Howard
It's important to understand that the support or non-support for a charter school in the Madison Metropolitan School District is governed by board policy and law. School board policy directs the Board of Education at a minimum to consider any charter proposal that is brought before it.

In order for me to support a charter school proposal in our district, it would have to be consistent with board policy. It is very important that the charter school be governed by the school board and have school district employees. The charter school would have to also be financially sustainable. These criteria would have to be in place for the proposal to gain my support.

I do not support independent authorizing boards that would site charter schools in a district of that board's choosing without input from the local community. This form of authorization and charter school establishment would drain valuable resources from the already underfunded public schools. This approach to charter school authorization would also further diminish taxpayers' ability to have oversight into how local tax dollars are spent.

Greg Packnett
I could support additional charter schools if I felt that they provided an alternative educational experience that students couldn't otherwise get in the public schools.

Nuestro Mundo's bilingual immersion program is a good example of a charter school program that enriches the district as a whole, by providing more options under the oversight of the school board. That said, there are other examples of public school programs that provide alternatives without resorting to using charters -- Shabazz High School is an excellent example of how public schools can respond to students with different needs.

Any charter school proposal should be an instrumentality of the district, however, and I'm glad to see the board listened to public input and updated their charter school policy to reflect that priority.

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

James Howard
Education reform is a very broad topic area that means different things to different people. The specific topic of accountability can also mean something different to different individuals or groups.

It's important to note that sometimes we at the local level are directed by mandates that we have to follow. That's exactly the case and situation with the Madison Metropolitan School District. As a result of Wisconsin receiving a No Child Left Behind waiver from the federal government, the state is obligated to develop an accountability system that will cover teachers and administrators.

This state system will measure accountability based upon 50% student performance and 50% on something that at this time is unknown. The new system currently being developed by the Department of Public Instruction must be activated by the 2014 school year. This new accountability system will be the result of the many changes occurring in education, reflecting the many systematic transitions taking place over the next few years in response to state and federal mandates.

We must remember that these new accountability measures are to secure better outcomes for kids. I'm a supporter of accountability systems that are negotiated through collective bargaining. I believe that those that are to be held accountable should have input into the accountability system that will judge them. Therefore, the new accountability system should not be a mandated approach, but an approach developed through collaboration.

Greg Packnett
Standardized tests were not designed to evaluate teachers and shouldn't be put to that use. They are incapable of distinguishing between students that aren't succeeding because they have a bad teacher, and students who are not succeeding because they come from a difficult home environment, for example. Nor are they good at separating out different teachers' contributions to student learning.

There's a lot more that goes into achievement than subject matter knowledge; there are also skills like critical thinking, creative problem solving, perseverance, and so on. A student could learn any of these from any of their teachers, but a test wouldn't be able to tell us that.

Classroom observation is the best way that I've encountered for evaluating teachers. It allows the evaluator to see how well the teacher is engaging their students' attention, how prepared they are, how easily they get sidetracked, how they maintain control of their students, and so on. Most importantly, it judges teachers only on what they have control over, and doesn't punish them for having students with greater need in their classrooms. And it allows the evaluation to be used to give specific feedback to the teacher on concrete steps they can take to make improvements.

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