Reform ideas missing the mark
December 30, 2008
By Jay Bullock
A column I’ve wanted to write for a long time includes a whiny paragraph that goes something like this:
Look, Milwaukee has done everything you wanted us to do to our schools: We have tried small schools, big schools, K-5s, 6-8s, K-8s, 6-12s, K-12s, phonics, whole language, arts immersion, arts-on-alternate-Tuesdays, charter schools, voucher schools, bilingual schools, language immersion schools, no foreign language at all, year-round schools, block schedules, traditional schedules, centralized planning, decentralized planning, recentralized planning, schools focused on math or science or water or business, neighborhood schools, city-wide schools, teacher-led schools, multiplexes, outposts, IB, AP, LEAP, PLTW, FTF, ROTC-what more can you possibly want us to do?
“What more” is not an idle question, given the perpetual parade of MPS reform efforts. I dread what will be coming this month, as the new state Legislature revs up to meddle and the results of audits by the mayor and the district are released. The parade will continue.
One reform idea, offered by state Senator Ted Kanavas (R-Brookfield), is to divide and conquer, breaking the school system into eight small districts in the name of “accountability” and “flexibility.” “Flexibility” is one thing MPS does not lack-consider the list above and tell me we’re not willing to try new things.
In his op-eds and press releases, Kanavas never explains why size affects accountability, except to note the startling fact MPS Superintendent William Andrekopoulos probably doesn’t know the names of all 200-some principals in the district. How that correlates to student achievement is never quite explained.
Milwaukee Alderman Bob Donovan offered a seven-page reform plan last fall, including appointing a “Chancellor of Education,” who would coordinate all the schools in the city-MPS, private schools, and schools chartered outside of MPS. He and Ted Kanavas should talk, as I think they might have a lively conversation about whether this chancellor could possibly hold all those schools accountable.
Then there’s the City Hall takeover, putting Mayor Tom Barrett and the Milwaukee Common Council in charge of the schools. While the mayor and Common Council may not be any better or worse at running things than Andrekopoulos and the Milwaukee Board of School Directors, the odds that giving them a second large organization to oversee will improve either seem slim to me.
The trouble with all of these is that they miss a fundamental point: The problems of the Milwaukee Public Schools are largely not school problems, but Milwaukee problems. It is in the schools where those problems become manifest.
Schools with high concentrations of poor students perform badly, across the board, 40 years of research has shown. The effects of poverty-from household instability to hunger to poor health care-affect my students’ ability to learn much more than whether the superintendent knows my principal’s name.
Every legislator, alderman, or armchair superintendent interested in seeing improvements in MPS should be interested in improvements to Milwaukee first. Find ways to lift our students out of poverty, and you have found ways to lift our test scores.
We have already pumped a virtual arsenal of silver bullets into MPS, and none has hit the mark. It’s time to start looking outside the schools for the next reform target.
Jay Bullock is an English teacher at Bay View High School who blogs at folkbum.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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