Public Policy Forum Blog

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applied to schools

Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle states that one cannot simultaneously measure the location of a particle while also measuring the momentum of that particle. When you apply this principle to schools, it's a little disheartening--if we attempt to measure where we are now, we are no longer certain how fast we're improving. If the environment in which the measurement is taking place is also moving (think of the vast legal and budgetary changes at the state level), the uncertainty is all but overwhelming.

Thus, this year's analysis of public school data in southeast Wisconsin heeds Heisenberg and emphasizes the use of the 2010-11 data as a baseline. Knowing that all Wisconsin school districts will be in a state of flux over the next few years due to changes in contractual bargaining legislation, the state budget, a slow economic recovery, a new standardized testing system, and new standards for curriculum, in the future we hope to measure their improvements over time as these various "new normals" kick in. For now, we emphasize where they've been and where they are currently.

By analyzing trends in performance indicators such as WKCE reading and math scores, ACT scores, and graduation rates – and breaking down the numbers by minority group and gender – this year’s report provides a basic understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, and challenges of individual districts. Comparing these data with those from future years will provide insight into the impacts of the historic changes recently adopted at the state level.

This year's major findings include:
• The region trails the rest of the state in several grade levels and subjects when it comes to proficiency on state standardized tests. In addition, the data show a progressively wider disparity between the region and the state in all subjects at the higher grades, raising a red flag in the context of current efforts to drive educational reform toward college and career readiness.

• Measures of college preparation show mostly good news. For the third straight year, the most recent data show the average ACT score in the region held steady at 22.8 (even as the number of students tested rose by 6.3%), while the statewide average score dropped slightly. The region’s percentage of students passing Advanced Placement exams (13.6%) also is well above that of the rest of the state (10.7%). The region’s high school completion rate of 86.1% is below that of the state (89.9%), but increased more over the previous year than the statewide rate.

• Individual districts in southeast Wisconsin continue to compare favorably with state averages for attendance, truancy, and dropout rates, with 41 of the 50 districts achieving an attendance rate of 95% or better, and 36 posting truancy rates below 3% and high school dropout rates at 1% or lower. The region’s three largest districts – MPS, Kenosha and Racine Unified – lag well behind the rest of the region in all three indicators, however.

• Southeast Wisconsin school districts continue to rely more on property taxes and federal aid than those in the rest of the state. Meanwhile, regional spending allocations among categories such as instruction and administration mirror the rest of the state, but the region’s per-pupil spending of $12,422 exceeds the statewide average by nearly $1,000. Overall, per-pupil spending in the region rose slightly compared to the 2009-10 academic year.

• Enrollment in the region’s public schools tilted slightly upward for the first time in more than five years, which is primarily attributable to growth in 10 moderately-sized districts of between 2% and 7%. Amid this relatively steady overall enrollment, minority enrollment is accelerating. Minority enrollment in the region exceeded 40% in 2010-11 and grew 1.3%, whereas the last several years saw growth levels of below 1%.

In total, the data from 2010-11 continue to show a region whose largest and poorest school districts continue to struggle, and one in which the racial achievement gap remains large and static. While there is plenty of uncertainty about the direction and speed in which the schools will change over the next several years, it is certain that staying put is not an option for many districts.

The full report, as well as a poster-sized summary detailing data from individual districts, can be found here.

Underwriters of this year's edition include: Alverno College, Multiple Listing Service, Northwestern Mutual Foundation, Southeastern Wisconsin Schools Alliance, Stifel Nicolaus, and Waukesha County Technical College.

Anneliese Dickman