“Forward” our Motto?

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The MacIver Institute, Wisconsin’s new think-tank, released a report today by yours truly comparing the NAEP scores of Wisconsin and Florida. Let’s just say that UW-Madison would have probably fared better against the national champion Florida Gators in football last year.


Florida spends considerably less per student than Wisconsin and has a student profile considerably more challenging. Despite that fact, Florida surpassed Wisconsin overall on 4th grade reading (although within the margin of error) on 4th Grade Reading scores in 2007.

Most impressively, this gain was driven by much larger gains among traditionally underperforming student groups. The figure above shows the progress among Free and Reduced lunch kids in Florida and Wisconsin. In 1998, Florida’s low-income students were an average of 13 points behind their peers in Wisconsin. In 2007 however they had raced 8 points ahead.

Among African American students, Florida and Wisconsin once shared space near the bottom in reading achievement. Wisconsin is still there. Florida’s African Americans students now outscore their peers in Wisconsin by 17 points.


wisconsin-african-americanOne finds the same pattern among children with disabilities. In 1998, Wisconsin students with disabilities scored 18 points higher than those in Florida. In 2007, it was 4 points lower.


The problem isn’t that Wisconsin’s scores are low, it is that they are flat.   When the Fordham Foundation found that Wisconsin had the lowest NCLB standards in the country it hinted that the state had not been vigorous in pursuit of broad K-12 reform.

Wisconsin of course was a trailblazer in parental choice with the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. The learner has surpassed the master however with two statewide parental choice programs- one for low-income children, and one for children with disabilities. If anyone can explain why a low-income child in Milwaukee deserves an opportunity to attend a private school, but a similar child in Racine does not, I’d love to hear why. Florida also has a stronger charter school law.

Rather than sporting the lowest NCLB standards in the country, Florida doggedly pursued top-down accountability with the FCAT and grading schools A to F, and creating real consequences for school failure.

Florida embraced genuine alternative teacher certification, Wisconsin has not.

I am open to correction by my Cheesehead friends, but my distant view from the far-away desert leads me to wonder if Wisconsin may have become complacent when it comes to education reform. Coasting on their demographics, avoiding the tough calls and controversy necessary to improve public schools.

If so, perhaps inspiration can be drawn from the state song:

On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin!
Grand old Badger State!
We, thy loyal sons and daughters,
Hail thee, good and great.
On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin!
Champion of the right,
“Forward”, our motto,
God will give thee might!

Time will tell whether progressive Wisconsin will take this lying down. Will “Forward” or “comfortably stalled” be a better fitting motto for Wisconin in the next decade?

3 Responses to “Forward” our Motto?

  1. Patrick says:

    Same thing in Nevada too: http://npri.org/publications/failure-is-no-longer-an-option (also a study by Matt Ladner) except Florida’s low-income Hispanic students beat the average of all students in Nevada.

  2. […] The accountability testing movement accomplished a lot of good in the 1990s. If you look outside the Beltway to states and cities, you’ll see why in 2001 people like me thought NCLB would end up doing a lot more good than it actually did. NCLB was drawing inspiration from state and local reforms that had really worked. In places like Florida, where test-based accountability systems were well implemented and the politicians were willing to stand up to the blob, they got great results. […]

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