By Jay Bullock Special to Published Aug 30, 2016 at 12:56 PM Photography: Bobby Tanzilo

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Later this week, Wisconsin's children start back to school. In honor of that, this week's column takes a look at some recent school-related fictions and attempts to explain the actual facts.

1. FICTION: Teachers can be replaced by VCRs

FACT: On August 18, Wisconsin's senior Senator, Ron Johnson, told a WisPolitics forum audience that we need "disruptive technology for our higher education system" in order to eliminate the "higher education cartel." "Disruptive technology" is often code for "cheaper" or "without actual workers." Think Uber – driverless Uber, even – but for college professors.

There are so many things wrong here, starting with Johnson's calling the country's university system a "cartel," as if college professors are drug dealers and deans kingpins. Johnson goes on to blast professors for not working 40 hours a week, a common right wing talking point despite overwhelming evidence that professors actually work more like 60 hours a week.

But what drew headlines was Johnson's suggestion that universities and K-12 schools should take the Khan Academy approach: "If you want to teach the Civil War across the country, are you better off having, I don’t know, tens of thousands of history teachers that kind of know the subject, or would you be better off popping in 14 hours of 'Ken Burns Civil War' tape and then have those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done?"

Ken Burns, needless to say, was not in favor of the idea, tweeting out that he's "here to support teachers, not replace them." And despite invoking its name, Johnson also seems to fundamentally misunderstand the Khan Academy model of teaching. Sal Khan himself is emphatic that teaching-by-video has limitations, and his videos are not for replacing teachers but helping teachers use classroom time more effectively.

That's why the brick-and-mortar Khan Academy has, you know, teachers. "We view the virtual as something that can empower the physical," Khan says. "If students can get lectures at their own time and pace, they can get exercises, they can have a programming platform, that doesn't mean that the classroom gets replaced; it means the classroom gets liberated." The videos, he explains, are "valuable, but I'd never say they somehow constitute a complete education."

Sorry, Sen. Johnson, but you're peddling fiction rather than fact.

2: FICTION: Wisconsin's Act 10 has been great for teachers

FACT: Act 10, for those of you new to Wisconsin or just waking up from a five-year nap, was the contentious Wisconsin law that stripped most public-sector unions of almost all their power to bargain collectively for things like pay, benefits, working conditions and more. The law was transparently aimed at teachers' unions, the most effective and vociferous opponents of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and legislative Republicans; State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald told Fox News viewers that he expected Act 10 to make re-electing President Obama more difficult without the unions' spending on advertising and organizing.

But those in favor of the bill kept promising us teachers that being freed from the talons of our union bosses would be in our best interest. Of course, that is not true; teachers across the board have taken pay cuts, and the legislature's school funding cuts have meant a declining teacher workforce that has is generally less experienced and lower paid, with many districts facing massive teacher shortages.

This has led to two unintended consequences in the news right now. One is that competition among districts has led to teacher "poaching," to use a term WI State Superintendent Tony Evers used at a Wisconsin Public Education Network conference last week. While the free-marketeers on the right see this as "opportunity" for teachers, it's actually a tremendously dangerous and troubling thing for districts, schools, students and teachers left behind after such poaching.

I've written about teacher retention before, and about the academic and financial toll losing teachers takes on schools. But just as bad is the effect on teachers ourselves; no one has expressed more eloquently what Act 10 did to Wisconsin teachers than my friend and former Wisconsin teacher of the year Claudia Felske: "The new paradigm? Frozen pay scales, lack of bargaining rights, privatization (vouchers and charters) have all contributed to suspicion in the faculty lounge, decreased collegiality, and a greater tendency to view co-workers as transitory acquaintances rather than lifelong friends. All of this has greatly affected morale and job satisfaction."

Even worse that poaching is news from UW researcher Peter Goff that, post-Act 10, male teachers are earning more than female teachers in Wisconsin.

Teaching used to be one of the most reliably gender gap-free professions in the country. In general, women earn less than 80 percent of the salary that men do in the same professions. But in teaching, primarily to its historically strong unions, pay was equitable. Indeed, teachers unions and tenure began in part as a way to protect the jobs and salaries of women. During the Act 10 debate, many people pointed out that the bill was an attack aimed squarely at women-dominated professions like teaching and nursing, further evidence that Republicans have long engaged in a "war on women."

But Wisconsin's women now no longer have teaching as a bulwark against wage discrimination, thanks to the changes forced on unions, tenure and bargaining in Act 10 – further evidence that Act 10 has, in fact, been very bad for teachers.

3. FICTION: The drop in Wisconsin's ACT scores means ... something bad!

FACT: Depending on the source, the news last week about lower ACT scores among Wisconsin graduates was evidence our schools were miserably failing our students, or our state was failing its schools through underfunding and the damage done by Act 10. Either way, Wisconsin has fallen to – gasp – average on its ACT scores, and last week, there was a minor panic about it.

I don't know, first of all, why these scores are "news," since we did this already when the scores were first reported in January. As I said then, the lower scores are hardly a harbinger of doom or a reason to panic. The class of 2016 was the first class where every graduate in Wisconsin was required to take the ACT, and the pool of test-takers expanded from only those thinking they were college-bound to everyone – about 20,000 more students – the scores were bound to fall.

The scores are also not out of line with what we see in other test results. According to the DPI press release last week, 41% of our high-school graduates are "college-ready" in reading; the most recent state test scores showed 51% of students in grades 3-8 were "proficient" or higher in reading. If we take "college-ready" to mean something above merely proficient, then I would argue the two scores are comparable (even though the state's proficiency bar is set artificially high – I mean, do you really believe half of our state's kids are reading below grade level?)

But I would also argue that there's good news in the more complete release of results last week. For example, composite scores among those who planned to get a four-year degree (20.9 out of 36) or a graduate degree (23.9) are not that different from the previous year's overall state average composite score of 22.2. In other words, if you analyzed the class of 2016's ACT scores using a similar sample to who took the test in previous years, you're not really seeing a drop at all.

Another bright spot: It should now be clear that perhaps some of the legislature's laser-like focus on the Milwaukee Public Schools should be directed elsewhere. MPS has been giving the ACT to all of its graduates for years – since the class of 2010 – and now that the whole state is taking it, it's clear that MPS and its students' scores aren't as much of a drag on the whole state as some might claim. In fact, MPS's ACT scores have been inching up steadily since that class of 2010 (15.8 out of 36) to the class of 2015 (16.2). District-level scores aren't public yet for the class of 2016 through DPI's online reporting, though they have been given to districts.

MPS educates something like three-quarters of the state's African American students, and their scores, like the district's as a whole, have been improving, and the gap between white and black students shrank from 5.1 composite points in 2010 to 4.8 point in 2015. For the class of 2015, when all of MPS's students took the ACT but it was not required of the rest of the state, the state's composite score for black students was 16.3; that fell to 15.9 for the class of 2016 and the gap for the whole state between black and white students was 5.6 composite points. In other words, MPS has been making progress closing the gap while the rest of the state, we know now, has not been giving enough attention to that gap.

To be clear, I'm not saying MPS's scores are worth celebrating – in all groups, the district's scores still lag behind the state's. However, MPS's steady improvement on the ACT, compared to what we now see across the state in an apples-to-apples comparison, should make plain that MPS needs support for the reforms and efforts already in place, rather than attacks and plans to break up or harm the state's largest school system.

There's one last point to make about the ACT in Wisconsin. A couple of weeks ago in this space, I alluded to how Wisconsin districts are forbidden by law from starting school before September 1. This is not the case around the country – I have an aunt who teaches in Florida who sees students three weeks before I do here in Milwaukee – and indeed schools all over are considering ways to shorten summer break. As that article notes, one important consideration is tests like the ACT and Advanced Placement exams given on the same day to all students nation-wide. My AP students are competing with students in other states who get a three- or four-week head start on them.

The same is true for the ACT. Other states that require all students to take the test, like our neighbors in Minnesota, let schools start before September 1. It also doesn't help that Wisconsin chooses an early ACT test date. In 2017, our state's juniors will take the ACT on February 28, while a number of other states are opting for the ACT's April 19 date. The late start and the early test date put Wisconsin students at an eight or nine week disadvantage compared to students in other states.

So maybe it's not fiction at all that the new ACT scores represent something bad; it's just that what I take away from these scores is that Wisconsin needs to reconsider its school calendar.

And that's all we have room for in this edition of fact versus fiction. See you next time!

Jay Bullock Special to
Jay Bullock is a high school English teacher in Milwaukee, columnist for the Bay View Compass, singer-songwriter and occasional improv comedian.