As kids and teachers head back to school, the future of education in our state is a boiling-hot topic.
And no one is more ready to plunge into the roiling waters of school controversy than Tim Slekar, the new dean of the school of education at Edgewood College.
Slekar, who just moved to Madison from Pittsburgh, has been blogging about the dangers of corporate-backed education reform for years at atthechalkface.com. He is also the cohost of the online chalkface weekly radio show on Sundays at 5 p.m. and a founder of United Opt Out, a group that encourages parents and teachers to refuse to participate in high-stakes standardized tests.
These tests, which seem to take more and more time away from real learning, are a sore subject with lots of Madison parents. Kids may not get much out of the tests, but their scores determine whether their schools are labeled "failing," and that's tied to funding.
The opt-out movement, while it has caught on in other cities around the country, has so far not come to Madison.
Slekar's appointment at Edgewood could change that pretty fast.
A fast-talking, energetic man who taught elementary school and coached football before he went into administration and higher ed, Slekar doesn't pull any punches. As soon as he moved into his new house in Madison, he put up his Pittsburgh Steelers flag.
The son of a laid-off steelworker and a schoolteacher, he credits the public schools with his own success. And he sees the corporate drive to privatize education and label public schools as "failing" as a major threat to democracy, class mobility and the American Dream.
"The problem isn't tests. I've given lots of tests as a teacher," says Slekar. "The problem is the high-stakes nature of the tests, that they are used to penalize people, and the sense of urgency and anxiety around them."
Parents and teachers who resist testing rightly see them as cheapening the rich experience kids get from their relationships with their teachers in school.
Slekar says there is no achievement gap, just an "opportunity gap." Poverty and lack of opportunity are the major drivers of educational disparities, he says. "It's not your fifth-grade teacher's fault."
The answer to better achievement for all kids is great early childhood education, universal access to good nutrition and health care, and a comprehensive effort to get great books in the hands of all kids, he says.
"Poor kids ought to get even more of everything rich kids get -- more music, more art, rich literature."
Instead, proponents of the corporate model of education reform are creating a system of public schools to which they wouldn't send their own kids, Slekar suggests. "Show me someone who says we should save money on teachers by putting kids in front of computers and giving them more tests, and I'll show you someone who spends $40,000 a year to send their own kid to private school with a real, live teacher."
Slekar opposes school report cards of the type Gov. Scott Walker recently implemented in Wisconsin. He's also against the Common Core standards Madison schools are adopting.
When teachers in Seattle's Garfield High School decided to join Opt Out and refuse to give the MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) test, Slekar wrote them a letter of support.
He says it was no surprise when Atlanta was rocked by a testing cheating scandal. "You tell people 'I'll give you a million dollars if your scores are good, or, if they're not, you're fired,' guess what happened," he says.
Here in Wisconsin, Slekar points to research that shows students in voucher schools have performed no better than their public-school peers. While some charter schools offer creative curriculum and are great, he says, the new school-reform movement is using charters as a way to drain money from the public school system and set up a separate, unaccountable system of schools that don't answer to school boards.
Behind the nationwide drive to discredit teachers and break up the public school system, Slekar points out, is a trio of foundations -- the Walton Family Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation.
These same groups are pushing the tests that produce data to "prove" public schools are failing.
"Parents and teachers who suspect that these tests don't serve kids well, and that they are designed to make schools fail, are absolutely right," Slekar says.
That's why he encourages people to opt out of the tests. It's a strategy that may seem risky to parents and teachers who worry about their schools receiving a failing grade.
"But that's short-term thinking," Slekar says. "We have to stop this drive to label all public schools as failing."
If that message catches on with parents in Madison, it could be a very interesting school year.
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.