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State schools chief goes on offense against legislators

Jan 11, 2013 - By Randy Tucker, Staff Writer

Battling to preserve the authority of her position in the face of legislation aimed at stripping it from her, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill fired back sharply at her critics in the Wyoming Legislature.

Hill said it was the Legislature, not her office, that has undermined public education in the state by bouncing from one education policy priority to another and not allowing the elected state superintendent to do his or her job.

She also disputed claims by some lawmakers that Wyoming's schools have failed to keep pace with the added money poured into them, noting conspicuous successes on standardized testing. She said the negative drumbeat from a handful of legislators intent on rewriting her job description flies in the face of the evidence and has created "a false narrative" intended to obscure her department's progress.

"Despite this evidence of improvement... we hear that Wyoming schools are failing and that teachers are to blame. We have become mired in this false narrative," Hill said in remarks prepared for legislators.

"This fragile reality struggles to blossom under the cloud of blame from the political process, some in the press, and the education industry whose purpose is to sell services (consultants) and programs (vendors) benefitting from the perception that schools are failing."

The Legislature is considering a bill to remove management authority of the Wyoming Department of Education from Hill, who is an elected official, and putting in the hands of an appointed departmental manager who would be appointed by the governor (see related story).

Hill defeated incumbent Republican superintendent Jim McBride by a wide margin in the 2010 primary election, then trounced Democrat Mike Massie in the general election. She took office two years ago this week.

Hill pointed to the state's top-10 rankings in proficiency for students during her tenure. At the third-grade level in the 2012 PAWS test, 90.39 percent of third grade students scored proficient or advanced, she reminded legislators.

That trend is reflected in Wyoming students scoring above the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) over the past decade, she added. Currently Wyoming ranks 11th in eighth-grade science and 12th in eighth-grade reading as reported by NAEP.

She noted as well that the PAWS test itself has been administered largely without difficulty since 2011 after years of technical difficulties and embarrassing challenges of its accuracy and administration under her predecessors. Voters had made improvements in PAWS an election priority.

Hill said the constant bad-mouthing of public education by some legislators in the state not only is inaccurate but damaging.

"What is the impact on the teacher who is working hard? What is the impact on the teacher who is working hard, who shows improved results, and yet, who is subjected to continued criticism for 'failing' our children?" she said.

"The motivation to work hard and to improve quickly dissipates in this environment. Simply put, you cannot shame people into performing, and you certainly do not want to punish people who are showing significant strides in performance."

Hill said her department has been forced to try to hit an endlessly moving target as legislators with little knowledge of educational processes keep changing the educational mandate year after year, then blame the superintendent if consistent progress is not observed.

She urged the Legislature to adopt an overriding policy, then let the superintendent and the WDE have a chance to implement and evaluate it over time.

She said the Legislature has failed to follow its own directives on education. The Management Audit Committee of the Legislature in 2010 advised lawmakers to "keep the assessment constant, (but) since that time various committees, primarily the Select Committee on Education, have mandated the following changes," she said, referring to various state mandate: "Writing is in; writing is out, writing is held at the same time as PAWS; SAWS (Student Assessment of Writing Skills) is a separate administration from PAWS held at a different time. Writing is in for grades 3-8; writing is changed to grades 3, 5, 7, PAWS writing is out; SAWS is in. ACT writing is in. Constructed response is in; constructed response is out. MAP is in, Compass is in, 11th grade PAWS is out; ACT is in. WorkKeys is in; WorkKeys is out, Body of Evidence is in, Body of Evidence is out; ACT suite is in for grades 9, 10, 11.'

Hill said the inconsistency is not of her doing, yet she has been held responsible for its effects.

"This constant pendulum of legislative mandates erodes educational focus, creates frustration, uncertainty and an inability to meet an ever changing target.

"Consider the perspective of those in the school districts," Hill added."They want to succeed, but they are waiting for clarity and certainty about the objective and that the measure will not change.

"They become frustrated when they shoot for achieving results on one measure, only to see that the measure has changed or has been discarded altogether," precisely when teachers and administrators are learning how to meet it.

A longer-term approach is required, Hill urged

"If we want to become the best educational system in the action, the Legislature must (1) set a measurable goal and not change it for five to seven years, (2) commit to transparency of data and results, and (3) establish a cohesive system of instructional support," she said.

She said she welcomed accountability in schools, and had demanded it during her days as a teacher and school administrator, but stressed that teaching must be reinstated as the core motive of Wyoming schools.

"During the past 40 years, Wyoming lost its focus on instruction. As a result of the lure of federal funds and programs, the Wyoming Department of Education converted personnel from instructional experts into program managers focused on reporting on the use of federal money. Over time, the Department became a compliance-oriented organization. The focus on instruction dimmed," Hill said.

"During this same time period the results of the equity lawsuit, the arrival of the federally mandated No Child Left Behind act and the increased demand for assessment dimmed the focus of the WDE further from teaching children to testing them.

"During the assessment movement, the attention in schools became about how to measure the progress of children rather than whether children were actually learning," Hill said.

Hill said reversing years of entrenchment has been difficult, but that progress is being made, and that voters elected her to implement change in the WDE.

"The purpose of education is not to build new buildings or to come up with the best test, or to lead in administrative salaries. The importance of education is what's going on inside the classroom, at the level of student and teacher."

The superintendent disagreed emphatically with accusations by lawmakers backing the WDE reorganization bill that she has not met legislative deadlines under the to the Wyoming Accountability in Education Act.

"The good news is that the Department accomplished this accountability work without any additional funding from the legislature and without increasing the size of government. The Department has met every deadline of all the tasks required by the Wyoming Accountability in Education Act," Hill said, inviting lawmakers to show which deadlines she has failed to meet.

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Legislature, Wyoming