Excerpts from recent Wisconsin editorials
Posted May 16
The Gazette of Janesville, May 14
Step away from your phone and into the moment
Graduates, if you wouldn't mind putting down your smartphones (maybe just shut them off), we'd like to share a few thoughts about that next big step in your life.
But what we'd like to say is this: Don't worry so much about that next step. Try to appreciate where you're at right now, in this moment.
You belong to the generation labeled as millennial or maybe post-millennial if you're graduating high school. You live and breathe technology. It has become in many ways an extension of you.
Many of your elders, those in their 40s and 50s, find your technology dependence jarring. They never carried in their pockets 24/7 devices capable of reaching anyone, anywhere at any time. They relied on their parents' landlines to call friends.
In some ways, technology has empowered you. In other ways, technology has overpowered you.
How many of you have either received or sent a text while driving? And how many of you thought, or still think, it's no big deal? Technology has become so ubiquitous that many of you struggle to detach yourselves from it, even when not doing so creates a danger for yourselves and others.
But the real danger is not a physical one. It's a metaphysical one.
When you constantly check your phones to get updates, you're living in the next moment. You live for that next text, Facebook post or tweet, and, meanwhile, your head is down, staring at that screen.
Be the one to turn off your phone. Be that person who lives in the moment. Many graduation messages are about striving to reach your career goals and never giving up on your dreams. These things are important, but you have to be attentive of the journey on your way to your dreams.
Our message is about returning to the basics. When you're walking through a building or to your car, keep your head up. Make eye contact with the person crossing your path and smile. Notice the kids playing on the neighbor's swing set or walking a dog.
Study the plane flying above and ask your little brother, sister or cousin what type it is. And if they don't know, don't look it up on Google and don't snap a photo of it with your phone. Sit down with that little one and draw the plane based on your memories of it. Talk about that plane: What color was it? Did it have one propeller or two? Maybe ask an aunt or uncle to get their opinion.
Make the moment interpersonal.
If you decide to have children, make a promise to yourself to spend time with them. And we don't mean spending time in proximity. We mean engaging them, cuddling them and giving them your complete_not intermittent_attention.
There was a time not long ago when much of what we're saying didn't need to be said. It was assumed most of our interactions with each other would be face-to-face.
One of the great ironies of today's technological world is that we have the tools to communicate faster than ever, and yet many of us have become horrible communicators.
Much of the information we're absorbing every day is essentially useless. It often doesn't make us better people. It makes us a distracted people.
But technology doesn't have to be our master. You can become the masters of technology, aware of its power and how it affects you.
Graduates, you can dare to live in the moment.
Wisconsin State Journal, May 14
More schools should move to merit pay
Then-President Barack Obama came to Wright Middle School in Madison eight years ago calling for merit pay and other education reforms to improve student learning.
"We've got to do a better job of rewarding outstanding teachers," Obama said. "And I've got to be honest, we've got to do a better job of moving bad teachers out of the classroom, once they've been given an opportunity to do it right."
His declaration drew applause at Wright, one of the city's few charter schools. And a day after his 2009 speech, the Wisconsin Legislature voted to link student test scores to teacher evaluations as one measure of performance.
But all these years later, the Madison School District and many others across the state still pay teachers based on years of service and education level— an outdated system that doesn't improve student outcomes.
That needs to change, with new research by Vanderbilt University helping local and state education leaders justify pay for performance.
Vanderbilt education researchers Matthew Springer, Lam Pham and Tuan Nguyen synthesized 44 primary studies on the impact of teacher pay incentives on student test scores. They found "a modest, statistically significant, positive effect on student test scores," which they quantified as three additional weeks of learning per year in American schools (and four weeks when international studies were included).
Pay for performance also can "improve the composition of the workforce" by attracting and retaining effective instructors. And it can draw more talent to the most challenging schools.
More study is needed, the researchers cautioned. Yet they stressed that merit pay is more likely to improve student learning than traditional compensation models.
"We find that aggregating results from multiple studies across different cultural, economic and political contexts suggests that incentive pay, as argued by merit pay advocates, offers a promising strategy," the Vanderbilt study concludes.
Wisconsin school districts have more freedom than they did eight years ago to redesign compensation systems because Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-run Legislature have curtailed the ability of unions to object.
That said, many teachers have welcomed the opportunity to earn more money for their hard work and success. And the more buy-in districts can achieve from employees, the more likely morale and enthusiasm for improvement will increase.
The study found merit pay systems seemed to work best when teams of teachers were rewarded as a group.
Performance-based incentives shouldn't be viewed as a partisan issue. Both Obama, a Democrat, and Gov. Walker, a Republican, have favored merit pay, for example. Support is bipartisan and growing. Teachers should be treated and paid like the professionals they are, not as line workers who all earn the same money for the same years of service.
Wisconsin's stale compensation model is slowly but surely changing. Nearly 40 percent of school districts in the state offer some kind of performance-based pay, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel survey of school superintendents found last year.
The authoritative Vanderbilt study should convince more school leaders — including in Madison — to act.
La Crosse Tribune, May 14
DNR derelict in not alerting La Crosse County about tainted wells
"Clean air, clean water and healthy landscapes."
That's what Wisconsin should stand for.
In fact, those are the first words on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website — as we've pointed out in previous editorials expressing concern about the dangers of high-capacity wells and audits showing that the DNR has failed more than 90 percent of the time to enforce water-pollution limits.
Sadly, we need to keep expressing concerns about enforcement of clean water regulations, because the Tribune's report last week on elevated nitrate levels near a huge hog operation in La Crosse County was very troubling — and the DNR's response to the potential groundwater problem is embarrassing.
Babcock Genetics has a permit to raise more than 4,000 hogs in the town of Holland near Holmen.
Since at least 2005, according to a report by the Legislative Audit Bureau, the nitrate levels measured in test wells near the hog operation have exceeded limits set by the state — as much as five times that limit as recently as 2010.
While those levels have been improving since 2010, they still don't comply.
La Crosse County has notified neighboring landowners of potential groundwater contamination, and hundreds of town residents have responded by asking the county to test their water.
Maybe the most troubling part of all, however, was the DNR's response when La Crosse County officials sought state records documenting groundwater problems near that concentrated animal feeding operation.
Here's what DNR spokesman Jim Dick told the Tribune: "The DNR doesn't have a policy regarding notifying municipalities or private well owners in the vicinity when a CAFO violates a permit."
Let's pause on that: A state agency that collects data about environmental quality doesn't care enough about public health to alert people or the counties where they live about a potential problem with the water they drink.
Shouldn't the DNR, shouldn't someone with the state, care enough about the health of its citizens to alert them to potential problems with drinking water?
Or, is Wisconsin so entirely open for business that it simply doesn't care about people anymore?
If the state is keeping data on groundwater, why isn't it sharing it willingly with its own counties, its own people, in the spirit of public health?
Instead, the county had to file a request with the state for information about excessive nitrate levels.
The state provided no answer for a couple of months, and then, when it finally did respond, it was vague.
In response, the now-retired county health inspector filed four public-records requests to get answers.
All of this took months.
It's inexcusable. It's outrageous. And, it should prompt legislative review of DNR policy and practices.
The DNR and its leadership should be embarrassed and ashamed. Then again, if they can't be bothered to tell us when there's a potential environmental problem, we can only assume they don't care.
County health officials shouldn't be required to become experts on public-records law in order to find out whether there's a health hazard in their own county.
The state should be forthcoming and transparent — especially when it involves the health of its citizens.
The DNR should not force counties to play games and wait months for an answer.
Monica Kruse, who chairs the La Crosse County Board's Health and Human Services committee, told the Tribune: "I think political decisions are adversely affecting people's health."
That just can't be — not in Wisconsin, where the top of the DNR's website states: "Clean air, clean water, healthy landscapes. These are foundations of Wisconsin's economy, environment and quality of life. They are the assets that separate us from the rest of the pack."
Those are the DNR's words.
It's time the DNR live up to them for the health and safety of Wisconsin's citizens.