About outcomes, and measuring

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Leadership shift creates an opportunity for deep change, but it's later than we think.

ANOTHER YEAR, another round of state academic test results and the conclusion remains: The School District of Beloit just is not getting the job done.

The district got worse in math and language arts. It did better in science and social science. Well, at least that's 50-50.

Not really.

The news nugget is how the district compares to its counterparts around Wisconsin. The answer is, miserably.

In Wisconsin 43 percent of students score proficient or advanced in language arts; in Beloit, 20 percent. In math, the state score is 45 percent; for Beloit, 19 percent. In science, 51 percent statewide, 21 percent Beloit; in social studies, 51 percent state, 27 percent Beloit.

IN RESPONSE, district officials point to a collection of serious initiatives within the schools intended to bring about improvement. These initiatives are real, supported by committed people both inside and outside the district, and deserve respect.

Nevertheless, this is also true. Year after year the Beloit Daily News has been reporting in deep detail about the state test scores and how Beloit compares to Wisconsin averages and, year after year, the district is a distant also-ran.

Likewise, year after year, officials in the school district have responded to our inquiries by talking about all the programs and initiatives in operation to produce improvement.

At some point, when the results are the same, the credibility of district responses sounds ever-more hollow.

LET'S MAKE THIS CLEAR: We are not pointing the finger of blame at any particular official or group within the district. We have no doubt there are administrators trying hard and committed to improvement. There are hundreds of teachers who go to work every day and do their best. Obviously, there's no one reporting for duty each day wishing to see students fail.

Yet we believe this also is clear: Outcomes matter more than good intentions.

We know this comparison rubs some folks wrong, but in the private sector it's always about outcomes. One can have all good intentions, but if measurements clearly show the job isn't getting done, accountability and consequences can be swift.

IN THE BELOIT DISTRICT, there's a new sheriff in town. After a period of turmoil there's new leadership and experienced new school board members. In less than a year, the district will bring in a new superintendent and, likely, new administrative team members. If ever there was a time for reviewing the connection between measurements, expectations, outcomes and accountability, this is it.

In our view, that should mean at each board meeting administrative leadership should be expected to detail steps being taken to move the academic needle in a positive direction - and show results.

It should mean the board reaches out and listens to the people on the front lines - teachers in the buildings - to hear what is impeding their ability to get kids to learn, and what they need.

It should mean a renewed emphasis on removing impediments, including disruptive troublemakers if that's necessary. We believe in second chances, even third chances. But not at the expense of students in the classrooms who are there to learn.

And here's one thought certain to spike a few tempers. Revamp the district's compensation system so performance becomes critical to pay. Get rid of the notion that everybody gets an annual bump - especially the same bump. Pay more for proven, measured positive results. Encourage people to be stars by rewarding measured over-achievers with cash. Don't be afraid to get rid of failing employees. Act 10 gave boards broad authority. Use it.

THIS ALSO IS NEEDED: A heightened sense of urgency.

We have written often about the drag the district can become for Beloit's population growth. Beloit employers have created thousands of new jobs in the past two decades, yet the population remains stuck. Change the success rate in the school district on par with state averages and people will choose to live here.

Moreover, the clock is ticking. Every year Beloit bleeds students to Beloit Turner, Clinton and elsewhere through statutory open enrollment. With Wisconsin getting seriously into the private-school voucher program, the district is bleeding more students that way. And don't forget, a new private school is gearing up to open in Beloit with plans to seek scores of state vouchers to offer. From where do you suppose they expect to draw students? Well, guess.

Every time a family votes with its student's enrollment status, the Beloit district loses thousands in state aid. Do that long enough and a district could wind up with only the hard cases left at broken, diminished public schools.

THIS IS fixable. Beloiters must believe that.

But getting there, in our opinion, requires a dramatic shift in culture that focuses relentlessly on outcomes, not efforts. Yes, we know. That means a correspondingly relentless focus on holding accountable all the people responsible for making a difference. That's hard. And worth it.

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