February 28, 2014
By Jay Bullock
A friend of mine tweeted a couple of weeks ago how he and his preschool-aged daughter were learning about the winter Olympics. They were watching the games together on TV, reading books together about the different sports, and making their own book together about the games. He posted a bunch adorable pictures that his daughter drew of the athletes.
I am not worried about whether that little girl is going to grow up smart, interested in learning, and good in school.
On the other hand, I have children in my high school classes right now who themselves have preschool-aged children of their own. I ask them, what are you reading to your daughter? What kind of questions are you asking your son? When was the last time you guys went to the library? How often do you two play together?
The answers I get are never something as awesome making books about the Olympics; they are usually just about watching TV or leaving the children alone with their toys. (My follow-up question is, do you need books? I mean, I try to help when I can.)
I know that my students are not the only poor young parents in this city, in this state, or, for that matter, in this country, who are raising their children very differently from my middle-class Twitter friend who has the time and resources to do more than plant his daughter in front of a TV.
The students of poor, young parents are the children I worry about. They will not come to school ready to learn, with a history of learning behind them.
I also, consequently, worry about my colleagues, the teachers who, in a year or two or five will have those TV watchers, those non-book-readers in their classrooms. This is because, if some state legislators have their way, in the name of “accountability,” those teachers could lose their jobs when those children score badly on state proficiency tests.
I have no idea what version of the “school accountability” bill, if any, will be under consideration or already passed by the time this column is published. In the last couple of months, a number of different versions of the bill have circulated in both the state assembly and state senate. None of them show any mercy on teachers and schools whose students don’t come to school ready to learn, who don’t have support at home for what the teachers are trying to do at school.
All the versions of the school accountability bill I’ve seen so far this year basically define accountability as shutting down a school and removing any public school staff from the building, then handing it over to private charter operators.
The bills do include language whereby schools would be judged on a “value-added” formula, which tries to account for the significant differences in socioeconomic status, when comparing schools across the state. But that only goes so far; the bills do nothing to actually address the significant differences in socioeconomic status we see across the state.
Indeed, recent proposed legislation that would raise Wisconsin’s minimum wage — to name one — has gone nowhere. Wisconsin has also famously rejected the expansion of Medicaid that came with the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), which would help this state’s poor families make ends meet. Unlike neighboring Minnesota, Wisconsin has not made new investments in early-childhood education and all-day kindergarten, something poor families can’t afford on their own.
We also lag behind our neighbors and the rest of the nation in the current economic recovery, creating jobs at a relative snail’s pace and leaving poor areas of the state struggling. Instead we are debating closing schools and limiting opportunities to vote, not helping people out of poverty.
And don’t even get me started on resources for the schools themselves. At a February 13 committee hearing on an assembly version of the school accountability bill, committee chair Rep. Steve Kestell (R-Elkhart Lake) had to keep reminding testifying witnesses and fellow committee members that this was not the time to debate school funding or the kind of resources the state offers to schools that have students in the greatest need. Since the last debate we had over school funding ended with literally billions of dollars less in state aid to schools, I guess I’m kind of glad they’re not at it again, but still, when do we get to talk about giving schools help instead of ultimatums?
The school accountability bill might sound like a good idea, but I think it raises the question, accountability for whom? As education reform skeptic Diane Ravitch has pointed out, we can’t fire parents and we can’t fire poverty, so we fire teachers instead.
It might make sense to start firing the legislators, though. Let’s see how they like accountability.
January 31, 2014
By Jay Bullock
In December, after the deadline for my January Compass column, Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Gregory Thornton put out a list of his “Top 13 in 2013,” and immediately I hated him for it. Not because the list was bad — it was a series of highlights from MPS’ year, like a record number of scholarship dollars earned by graduates and improvements in MPS’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, better known as “the nation’s report card.”
Rather, I hated him because a year-end list is genius. I am a lazy, um, wait, no — a busy columnist and did not have the foresight to just do my own year-end list, instead turning in a hard-wrought, deeply considered essay about “the value of practice.”
But that’s okay! There’s always another deadline!
A “14 in 2014” would be a bit long for this column, though, so I will set my sights on a less ambitious but equally alliterative goal: Four for ’14 — four things I’d like to see MPS or the state do this year to improve our schools.
1. Less testing, please. I’m writing this column just before semester exams in January. Since the start of school in September, I have lost days of teaching time to the following: MAP testing (the Measures of Academic Progress test, which you might remember as the test that Seattle teachers refused to administer a couple of years ago), WKCE testing (for the state), PSAT testing, and MAP testing (again). A few students here and there have been out for one other test or another, such as Language! testing for special education students, ACCESS testing for English Language Learners, and the ASVAB for students who want to go into the military. In lower grades, the onslaught of testing can be even greater.
I’m also being asked to give class time to online activities like MY Access!, a writing tool that rewards students for wooden quantity rather than creative quality, and Odyssey Learning, a collection of skill-builders unrelated to the curriculum content of the classes I teach.
I like to think I’m good at what I do. Let me do more of it, MPS.
2. More good PR moves, please. One of the single best things MPS has done in the last year is crank up the positive PR machine and polish up its public face. The district’s “portal” website, which for years was a staggeringly useless embarrassment, has been revamped for the 21st century with a sleek design and vastly improved usability, including on mobile devices. Individual schools’ sites have been upgraded too, putting out more good news to their communities than ever, and the district’s press release machine has also really stepped up in the last year, and I think recent media coverage reflects this.
When Dr. Thornton put out his “Top 13 in 2013,” all the good news was legit, and schools have been doing a lot of great work for years. In 2014, MPS has the chance to make breaking through the noise with its good news about the district the new normal instead of the exception.
3. Put back some of what was taken away from schools. In January, the state of Wisconsin announced a projected $900 million-ish surplus for the end of the biennial budget in mid-2015. That alternately sounds like a lot — I will never have that much! — and not much at all, since the state plans to spend $68 billion-with-a-B in those two years.
In the infamous 2011-2013 biennial budget, the state legislature cut $1.6 billion in funding that public schools expected, and on top of that, they knee-capped districts’ ability to raise their own revenue to make up for the shortfall. The more-infamous Act 10, passed in 2011, gave districts some flexibility to recoup lost revenue by paying employees less, but for the most part, that didn’t cover it. The current budget wasn’t much friendlier to schools, and districts across the state are getting by with a lot less than they projected a few years ago.
Now, $900 million isn’t going to put every lost teacher back into the classroom or reopen every closed school. And with bargaining and teacher raises limited by Act 10, it wouldn’t do much of anything for our paychecks. But even if part of it could be sent to schools for the coming school year, to cut class sizes or make capital improvements in districts’ aging facilities, districts could breathe a sigh of relief and look forward to planning with a larger budget for once.
4. No to charter school expansion. Republicans in the state legislature have proposed Assembly Bill 549, which could greatly increase the number of charter schools in the state. Like the Milwaukee (and now statewide) voucher program, the bill would put expansion in the hands of nonelected entities, mostly UW system schools and technical colleges.
But worse than that, the bill, which seems to be motivated by the notion that charter schools, with their relative freedom from some rules and regulations, are inherently better, a dubious notion based on national studies and the results of charter expansion here in Milwaukee, would prevent school districts from running charter schools themselves. So, you know, charters are just great, unless they are staffed by union teachers, basically.
That would force MPS to close or dramatically change some of its best or most innovative schools, like ALBA — home to four of People magazine’s teachers of the year — and also one of Bay View’s gems, Humboldt Park Charter School. This is bad policy.
“Four for ’14 — four things I’d like to see happen this year to improve MPS and schools statewide.”
Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View Middle and High School. Find him on Twitter @folkbum.
January 2, 2014
By Jay Bullock
Inspired by the late Roger Ebert, I have been regularly entering the cartoon caption contest from the New Yorker. Each week, one of the magazine’s cartoonists draws a characteristically obtuse panel and readers submit snappy captions. Editors pick three finalists and readers vote online for the winning entry, which later runs in the magazine’s hard copy.
Ebert, for the last couple of years of his life, submitted a caption every week. He won only once. You might think a professional writer could do better, but he kept plugging away right up until he died in April 2013. The New Yorker’s cartoon editor wrote a moving tribute that featured some of Ebert’s best — and hilarious — losing entries.
I am not sure why Ebert entered with such religious regularity, but I know why I do: practice.
It is certainly not for the fame and glory of winning; I don’t think I actually know anyone who even subscribes, and I am sure there is no prize money.
So, practice. The wordless cartoons are a puzzle — depicting a doctor listening to Superman’s heart with a stethoscope, a guy brushing his teeth whose reflection in the mirror is Abraham Lincoln. For me, solving the puzzles is rewarding, sure, but I like to think that it’s also practice for ‘solving life’ — plugging away at the hard stuff until it gets easier. There is a measure of joy for me in getting better at something.
Practice is a big word in the Milwaukee Public Schools right now because, as I wrote a couple of months ago, the district is moving headlong into standards-based grading for students at all levels, including high school. One of the key rules laid down for us teachers is that practice assignments should not “count” towards a student’s grade.
These practice assignments, the problems at the back of the book or the questions at the end if a chapter, are supposed to guide teachers. Did students get it? Do they need a refresher? Are they ready to move on or should I just start over? They don’t suggest the sum of what students know and can do.
I’m okay with not counting those problems or questions toward the students’ grades; if the work is mostly for my benefit, rather than theirs, the accountability needs to be on me, not them. Waiting until the test or the essay or the project at the end of the unit to assign a grade makes sense, as that’s when the students can really show off what they know.
But not every teacher agrees with me. A teacher workgroup put together by the union to mediate this with MPS disagrees. A pair of experts from the University of Kentucky flown in for a day-long professional development session recently told 300 of us that they disagree. My colleagues, in informal discussion, also disagree.
Practice should count, teachers say, for any number of reasons, ranging from “this is how we’ve always done it” to “if the assignments don’t count, students won’t do them.”
I am sympathetic to their position, not least because, man, this year my students are simply not keeping up with the practice assignments. I mean, no group of kids is ever perfect. In umpteen years of teaching, I’ve never gotten 100% compliance from even my best classes. But this year, even when my students trip over themselves to complete one of those big project-y essay-ish things at the end of a unit, many are falling hard because the practice work went undone that should have laid the foundation for them.
For example, in December, we had a chance to work with a professional fashion designer on a project where my students designed allegorical or symbolic costumes for characters they created who possessed a vice. (A great example: One student designed a martini glass-shaped dress with room for a hip flask for her alcoholic character.) And in the design lab on the project workdays, the students were awesome! They were super engaged, even the ones who normally aren’t!
But because practice work went undone, many of them walked away with pretty pictures that held, at best, a tenuous relationship to allegory and the design of the project. Weeks of work teaching them about allegory and storytelling and characters that piled up, with no attempts to complete it in my students’ folders. Doing the big project-y part at the end was fun, but many students still can’t tell me how allegory works in, say, Poe or Hawthorne, let alone anything beyond the basics of their drawings.
Practice. You can’t win the game, run the marathon, play the solo, write the great cartoon caption, or design a meaningful allegorical costume without practice.
There are some of my students who do get that, and who labor over the practice assignments just as much as the ones that count. They’re the ones who are most successful in class right now, and who will undoubtedly some day run that marathon (or whatever their personal challenge is) without someone like me pushing them along.
And some of my students would have been failing my class even if the practice assignments counted, no matter how much I pushed. There are always some of those.
The ones that kill me, though, are the ones in the middle, who both need to practice and who could be great if they took their assignments seriously — but who just don’t do the practice work. In the olden days (as in, just last year), if they didn’t do the practice assignments, there was immediate feedback, pointing to their grade that might have caused them to reconsider. Now, not practicing doesn’t drag on them sometimes until weeks later.
I am not sure I know the answer to this puzzle; it is a drawing that hasn’t yet inspired a caption. I do know that in the fight MPS is about to have in its schools over practice — will it count or will it not — I’m on the side of not counting it. It’s important for students to do that work, yes, but practice isn’t the game or the marathon or the solo or the final project, and to treat it as equal to those is wrong.
In the meantime, I’m going to keep trying to get my students to see the value of practice. I’m not going to win every time, but if I don’t practice I know that I never will.
Jay Bullock practices teaching English at Bay View Middle and High School and practices Twitter @folkbum.
December 1, 2013
By Jay Bullock
I have, in a folder on my MacBook, a collection of half-started documents that, if I were a different person, would become various chapters in my book on teaching in an urban school district. (Working title: The Grand Everything Theory Of Urban Teaching, or GET OUT.)
Among the snippets is the Yogi Berra-esque “Teaching is 90 percent performance, and the other half is preparation.”
Teaching, that chapter would go, is a lot like doing a one-man show. Or, rather, five different one-man shows with different scripts every single day for 180 days, with critics who basically never see the show, yet critique it, and an audience who is both required by law to be there and dangerously short on breaks for intermission.
Which is not to say that teachers should be the stars of their classrooms, all eyes on them all the time. That might work for old Dr. Stodgy’s philosophy lectures down at the university, but not contemporary schooling.
Still, it is not possible to be a good teacher without a knack, natural or developed, for performance.
I was thinking about this a couple of weeks ago as I attended a writers retreat — actually, a songwriters retreat, since I do more of that than, obviously, writing this unfinished book. It was a great recharge of the batteries, and chance to hang out and make music with a bunch of awesome people.
Among those people were the professional songwriters there to teach workshops, people who perform probably 250 nights a year and who, arguably, know what they are doing. They should have all 140 percent of both performance and preparation down pat.
Yet almost without exception, the pros started their workshops with some variation on, “I am so incredibly nervous right now.” Most pulled it off anyway, offering a great hour of advice and instruction. But some didn’t.
Doing what you do well — in the specific case of these workshops, being a songwriter — is very different from teaching someone else to do what you do well. Rather than go through your routine, you have to step outside of it and describe it, you have to get clinical and technical and even critical about it. Rather than hide behind whatever persona you have projected, like engineer or artist or historian or chemist or songwriter, you raise the curtain and try to explain what all the levers and buttons do.
So it’s not just about mere preparation, if you want to do this well, like making sure you remember the names of presidents in the right order. It’s about taking what’s inside you apart piece by piece and putting it back together every day, so students can see what it’s like to be that engineer or artist or historian or chemist or, in my case, a writer.
In other words, teaching is deeply introspective at the same time, as it demands strong extroversion and performance.
This revelation was new to me, sitting in the retreat, a chapter I had not previously started writing for my book: “There may not be another profession in the whole world that is so schizophrenic — and so hard to prepare for because of it.”
I don’t expect my book to replace the college and university process of preparing new teachers for life in the classroom, not least because I’m pretty sure I’ll never get it finished. But I do keep reminding myself, as I collect these scraps and revelations, that almost every teacher I talk to feels that their teacher-prep programs didn’t adequately prepare them for the day-to-day reality of being in the classroom. There is no university course that can teach you as much as a single morning in a middle school will. That first day will begin with “I am so incredibly nervous right now,” but actually teaching is the only way to find the right balance of introspection and performance — and to know the hard work of preparing every day’s show.
I’m not going to solve the teacher-preparation dilemma in a 600-word column, either. I will, however, leave you with this thought, another unfinished chapter from the book: “Those who can, do. Those who teach, do more.” We have to — it requires at least 140 percent.
November 1, 2013
By Jay Bullock
When I first heard about the plan to turn Dover Street School, 619 East Dover St., into housing for teachers — “Dover Dorms” as my brain started calling it — I thought it was ridiculous. I’ve been in that building, and it would take an unimaginable amount of work to make it habitable by anything other than the spiders.
It’s out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, for example, with no elevator, bathrooms only in the basement, and the gymnasium, such as it is, on the top floor. There’s poor electrical availability, 20th-century internet connections, and enough asbestos to kill a small village.
Milwaukee Public Schools board member Meagan Holman told me an old estimate of what it would take to bring it up to code as a school was at least $800,000 — probably it’s more now — so imagine what it would take to turn it into living space.
Which is not to say it isn’t a beautiful old building. It’s got 125 years of great educational history in it and an iconic red schoolhouse look. But to make it useful as anything other than a memory would take more resources than MPS or Milwaukee taxpayers generally would likely want to put into it.
That’s probably why even though several dozen groups have looked at or toured the space in the last couple of years, according to Gina Spang, the MPS director of facilities and management, none have offered to buy the building until the Dover Dorms idea surfaced.
But the more I learn about the proposal, the more I like it. And the more obvious it is we’re not talking about dorms.
The idea comes from Teachtown MKE, a partnership created by the Greater Milwaukee Committee in 2012 in response to the expected ginormous wave of retirements and hiring that MPS would see for the 2013-2014 school year, causing the district to predict it would have to hire as many as 700 new teachers. District Superintendent Gregory Thornton asked the GMC for help, and Teachtown MKE was born.
According to Danya Strait, GMC’s event and communications director, Teachtown MKE connects Milwaukee’s education groups — MPS, Teach for America, Schools that Can, City Year, and the area’s teacher-preparation programs — with corporate funders like Harley-Davidson, Northwestern Mutual, BMO Harris, the Pettit Foundation, and others.
Teachtown MKE is designed to attract, welcome, and support teachers new to Milwaukee. It does this with a welcome package of memberships to, and goodies from, Milwaukee’s cultural centers like the art museum and zoo, and with help finding housing, organized social events, and professional development opportunities.
This past summer they welcomed 648 new teachers to Milwaukee, including 496 to MPS alone, and helped find 109 of them a place to live.
Strait said that GMC first discussed the issue of educator housing with MPS this past March, when they brought MPS an idea that has been successful in Baltimore in two related housing developments, Miller’s Court and Union Mill. In each instance, developers took abandoned industrial buildings and renovated them into one- and two-bedroom apartments leased exclusively to teachers.
Other cities, like Philadelphia, are already copying the model, hoping that good teachers will make it their home. Further, GMC says that teacher retention is up in Baltimore because of those developments, though that is not something I could confirm independently.
The Baltimore developments offer some things that Dover probably couldn’t — retail space and office space for non-profits, for example, but other things that might be a part of the proposed project include common space for hanging out and a copy and print center. When I did a very informal survey of some of the young first-year teachers I know, none of them had an interest in living with other teachers, until I mentioned the copy center — the convenience of getting copies made was enough to make them rethink the idea.
But Dover might offer another important element: location. Young professionals moving into Milwaukee routinely say that Bay View is their neighborhood of choice, according to GMC’s project director Leah Fiasca. I can’t say I blame them, and I bet if you’re holding this newspaper in your hands you probably can’t blame them either.
Still, Dover is old and needs a lot of work. That, I think, is what really pushes me to support Dover Dorms. I mean, I would love to have that space open and available for MPS’s students. And I, a teacher heavily involved in the ongoing redesign of Bay View High School a block from Dover Street School, envision the space being used for our expanded “creativity and innovation” programming. But I am not willing to commit a million or two of our budget dollars to make that happen.
A private developer would hopefully take on that cost with Dover Dorms. I say hopefully, because there has not yet been a real plan proposed, and the current analog, what MPS wants to do with the old Malcolm X building on the north side, has MPS selling the building but paying for renovations. Those renovations would be to educational space that MPS would subsequently use, so that case is not a perfect analog, but it’s what there is.
Moreover, turning the building into housing would put the property back on the tax rolls. As I wrote in this column nearly three years ago, that should always be MPS’s top priority if they’re going to sell excess property.
So I say go ahead, do Dover Dorms. Create some space for new teachers to live and copy things, and return the property to the tax rolls. Just don’t let me name it.
October 1, 2013
By Jay Bullock
In September, a poll the National Education Association commissioned of its members showed, to my disbelief, that 76% of teachers supported the Common Core State Standards, 50% “wholeheartedly” and another 26% “with some reservations.”
The Common Core is a collection of statements about what students should know and be able to do in math and language arts at every grade level, kindergarten to high school. The standards were developed by a coalition of states, sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. They were formally unveiled in 2010 and have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. (Minnesota adopted only the language arts standards, not the math.)
The poll results surprised me because as states have begun testing using those standards, a serious backlash has developed against the Common Core; some of the 45 states are rethinking their decisions. The tests, if you look at places like New York or Minnesota, show steep drops in the number of students who score as proficient or advanced. (Wisconsin saw a similar result on last year’s test, not because the test was new, but because the bar for “proficient” was raised in anticipation of the new tests.)
Different people dislike the Common Core for different reasons. Conservative groups, for example, call the standards “ObamaCore” (though he didn’t create them) and dislike their national scope. Liberals see the standards as a way to funnel tax money to for-profit companies that sell tests and textbooks. Some non-partisan education experts like Diane Ravitch say the need for more rigorous “standards” is unfounded, and that in general, American students are doing better now than in previous decades and their performance on international tests is not as dire as commonly believed.
For me, the critique that rings most true is that the Common Core is not just rigorous, but in some cases unrealistic or impossible. The dramatic drop in test scores in New York and Minnesota is a harbinger of more to come as more states start testing on the Common Core. Wisconsin will begin testing next school year, as the “Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium,” of which we and 36 other states are a part, debuts its test.
Moreover, there are plenty of early-childhood education experts, like members of the Defending the Early Years coalition, who find that the Common Core’s standards for young children are not developmentally appropriate. It is not appropriate to ask all students do things that are not appropriate for their level of brain/cognitive development. This includes, for example, for kindergarten math, that five year olds should “construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others,” and for language arts, “participate in shared research and writing projects.”
As I’ve written before about Montessori and about the “soft skills” children need to develop when they are young, this insistence on making kindergarten into “elementary school lite” ignores the actual needs of children and more than a century of research about how kids learn.
As a high school English teacher, I look at my standards and see skills I did not learn until college, if I ever really did at all, and I think I turned out okay. And I’m not just talking about the standards that require using the internet, which wasn’t around when I was that age. I’m talking about standards that require my students to “delineate and evaluate the reasoning in seminal U.S. texts, including the application of constitutional principles and use of legal reasoning and the premises, purposes, and arguments in works of public advocacy.”
“Hey, Michelle, you want to go the Homecoming dance with me”? “Sorry, Billy, but I have to blog about how the Gettysburg Address’ tolerance of hypocritical Jeffersonian liberalism influenced John Dewey’s early polemics and then stay up late to respond to comments.”
It’s not just the specifics — it’s also the sheer volume. There are 51 individual standards in the Common Core that my students and I are responsible for. That is roughly one for every three days of instruction I have. If you can’t imagine how much that is, I’ve included a picture of my bulletin board, so the magnitude becomes tangible.
This school year the Common Core is also getting a lot more re al for students, teachers, and parents in Milwaukee as MPS moves toward standards-based grading. All MPS elementary and middle schools are grading soley on standards this year, and high schools will be doing so next year—describing students’ abilities rather than assigning a letter grade. (High schools are still using letter grades this year, but with some changes, such as missing work no longer counting against a student’s grade, and basically not grading homework at all.)
Will I have to state the proficiency level of all my students on all those standards next year? I don’t know. MPS isn’t saying what the high school report cards will look like yet.
And I guess that’s it in a nutshell—there’s a lot of stuff yet to shake out. This Common Core business, like standards-based grading, is just getting started, and the way we all think about teaching and learning and schooling in this country will probably be very different in five or 10 years. But for now, I am surprised at how many of my colleagues seem ready for it. I’m not sure I am.
Jay Bullock teaches all 51 standards to his English classes at Bay View Middle and High School, and tweets his complaints about them as @folkbum.
August 30, 2013
By Jay Bullock
In July, I sat on a panel at the Government Researcher’s Association annual conference, held this year in Milwaukee. The panel was about the last two decades of school “reform” in Milwaukee, and I told the assembled economists and other researchers about one major negative result of Milwaukee’s education reforms.
Like the classic false dichotomy of “America, love it or leave it,” I explained, we’ve taught Milwaukee parents and students that there’s no option anywhere in between loving your school or moving to a new one.
Data reported by the Milwaukee Public Schools, as well as by those studying voucher schools, show that every year up to a third of Milwaukee’s students are changing schools when they should not be.
This is bad. Academic studies of student mobility show that students who change schools are significantly more likely to be behind in their schooling and score below proficiency on state tests. Moving a large number of students into a school can even drag down the achievement of students who don’t move, as teachers slow instruction to deal with their lately arrived students.
In addition to that, I said at the panel, there’s no school spirit anymore. Because turnover is so high among students, the community is disrupted and the pride students used to have is gone. “What does it mean to be a Redcat?” I can ask my students at Bay View High School, and they don’t know, and often don’t care.
After the panel, someone asked me if I’d read Albert O. Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, a book that, she said, addresses the ideas I’d raised about school community. I had not. Expecting to find a recent book about school reform, I googled the title and instead found that Hirschman wrote the book in 1970, about a general principle of economics he thought other economists had missed.
It was the principle that between love it (keep buying a product) and leave it (buy a competing product), there is a middle ground—voice, he called it. Loving it or leaving it, Hirschman wrote, was “neat” and “impersonal” and therefore friendly to economists. Alternatively, voice is the condition that develops when dissatisfied customers instead decide to stick around and try to change what they don’t like, demanding improved products and services. Voice is messy, so until Hirschman’s book, economists tended to ignore it, including economists who promoted the idea of school vouchers in the first place.
To get to my school, I drive past the old Fritsche building on Howell Avenue, now home to Milwaukee Parkside School for the Arts. Over the past couple of months, the building’s exterior has come to life.
This renaissance is not the school’s doing; it is the result of customer voice. Erin Dentice, mom of two children at Parkside, went to former principal Jeff Krupar (retired at end of 2012-13 academic year) to say the school’s playground was not green enough. Rather than turn her away, Krupar listened to her voice and then some.
“He mentioned giving the school some curb appeal,” Dentice said. “The project took off from there.” With the help of Home Depot, Custom Grown Greenhouses, McKay Nursery, and other parent volunteers, Dentice was able to create tangible and beneficial change at the school.
Both Tippecanoe and Dover, the schools that combined this year to form Parkside, have student mobility rates below the MPS average. (My school was well above MPS average; it’s also rare to see parents doing anything like landscaping our grounds.) This project is a strong indication of Parkside’s future success at stopping parents’ and students’ exit from the school by keeping them involved and listening to their voice, if their new principal is as receptive as Krupar, who retired at the end of the 2012-2013 school year.
The parents involved echoed one more of Hirschman’s ideas about exit and voice related to schools: Even if you exit one school, he argued, education is still a public good you can never fully opt out of so you might as well use your voice.
Parkside parent Erika Joslin, for example, isn’t done giving back to the school. “I plan to do as much as I am able to,” she said. “I do not see school as a place I drop my kid off but as an important part of our life and community.” Dentice said the landscape project was “my way of showing my faith in the school, its students, and staff.”
The inverse is true, too; even parents who don’t use their own voice benefit from parents who do. As Ryan Spellecy, father of two at Parkside, said, “While the parents might not be involved, for whatever reason, their kids can still benefit from an engaged and motivated parent base.”
The lesson here is twofold. One is that MPS needs to stop letting parents exit so frequently—the movement is disruptive; the other is that MPS needs to solicit and heed its community’s voice. These are related. In 1970 Hirschman wrote that “the presence of the exit option can sharply reduce the probability that the voice option will be taken up widely and effectively.”
Wide and effective voice is what Milwaukee needs far more than the choice to exit.
Jay Bullock is a big believer in voice and teaches English at Bay View Middle and High School. Follow him on Twitter @folkbum.
May 1, 2013
By Jay Bullock
I avoided reading Jal Mehta’s April 12 New York Times op-ed for the better part of a week. The title, “Teachers: Will We Ever Learn?” sounded to me like it would be blaming teachers for yet another something.
Finally, after enough people I respect tweeted the link, I read it. It turns out, Mehta, an assistant professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, was not blaming teachers for anything at all.
“Teaching requires a professional model,” Mehta wrote, “like we have in medicine, law, engineering, accounting, architecture, and many other fields. In these professions, consistency of quality is created less by holding individual practitioners accountable and more by building a body of knowledge, carefully training people in that knowledge, requiring them to show expertise before they become licensed, and then using their professions’ standards to guide their work.”
This was poignant for me. I have been having a small crisis of identity lately. I have been starting to wonder whether I, in my role as teacher, am actually the professional I thought I was, or the professional I thought I would be when I was growing up as a reasonably smart kid in the latter days of the 20th century.
Why? Because my job is starting to feel like it could (and maybe should) be done, not by a professional, but by a trained monkey. That certainly seems to be the attitude of a lot of the people controlling this job, from Washington, DC on down.
Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s K-12 school reform initiative, demands that states that want additional school funding will qualify for it only when they overhaul their teacher evaluation policies, cranking the “holding individual practitioners accountable” idea ‘up to 11.’ This includes significant reliance on student test scores.
The last month or so has been full of revelations about some of the consequences of such a policy: alleged major cheating scandals in Washington, DC and Atlanta, including indictments of school officials.
Wisconsin has adopted a teacher evaluation model where 50% of the score is based on “student outcomes,” which, to be fair, are not just the school’s state-test scores. Test scores that track academic progress at the district level may also be part of the tabulation. The cranked-up teacher evaluations, nationally and locally, also include more frequent and more intense classroom observations, walks-through, and pop-ins, which have done much less to compel better practice and much more to impel panic.
If you don’t believe me, you can test this with two words, which I promise will elicit a fight-or-flight response from any MPS teacher you know: clipboard police.
Recently I asked my students to do some moderately complex math, and since I don’t have a cabinet full of calculators in my English classroom, I gave them permission to use their cellphone calculators, though that technically violates MPS’s no-phones-in-class policy. And that’s when an assistant principal “popped in.” Upon seeing her and without thinking, I totally snapped at a student in front of me, who was using his phone to do math, following my advice and permission.
I’ve been guiltily reliving that moment for weeks; it was decidedly unprofessional of me.
But it’s not just me. Take my friend Liz, an awesome veteran kindergarten teacher. Over the past year or two she’s gone from telling us stories about how adorable her students are and how much fun she has teaching them, to stories full of worry: How is she going to fit all the new Common Core State Standards in? Will her students will be able to sit still for MAP testing? What does the “math coach” think of her lessons?
I could fill a year’s worth of columns with stories like this, though, of course, the people in charge, like the state’s leaders in Madison, keep giving me other material for this column.
It is not only through the union-busting Act 10, but also through school-busting state budgets, that Wisconsin’s legislators have certainly signaled that educators are not, or do not need to be, considered professionals. They make it clear that they think we don’t deserve job protections or wages that allow new teachers to pay off student loans that paid for years of their professional training.
And based on a blatant misreading of the state’s new school “report cards”—a new way of reporting a school’s data to the public that debuted last fall—lawmakers are arguing that thousands more students need to be taken away from “failing” public schools and put into private schools with public money where the teachers have even fewer job protections and even lower wages.
Let’s think about the kind of signal that sends to teachers who really are starting to think that trained monkeys might be better suited for this role.
And what does this message signal to the relatively smart kids of the early 21st century?
Jal Mehta wasn’t asking “When will teachers learn?” He was asking, “When will the rest of us learn to treat teachers better?”
The answer, I hope, is soon.
Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View Middle and High School. Tweet links at him @folkbum or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read Mehta’s op ed: http://goo.gl/amE06
April 1, 2013
On Monday, March 4, Milwaukee Public Schools board member Meagan Holman, who represents the Bay View Neighborhood and its schools, announced that two schools, Bay View Middle and High School and Humboldt Park School, would pair up to offer the SpringBoard pre-Advanced Placement program beginning in the 2013-2014 school year.
SpringBoard, the official pre-AP program offered by the AP’s parent company, the College Board, is for grades 6-12, and provides a specialized curriculum in mathematics and language arts.
In early 2012, MPS announced its intention to bring SpringBoard to five schools, including Bay View Middle and High School starting in 2013. This followed pressure from Bay View area parents, who petitioned the district for a rigorous college-prep program for the high school.
The status of SpringBoard for Bay View became an unknown when the district decided to reform the high school and to phase out the school’s middle grades earlier this year. SpringBoard is designed to be a seven-year program, and without the middle grades at Bay View, district leaders seemed ready to drop the plan.
However, Holman amended the reform proposal approved by the Milwaukee Board of School Directors to keep the option of SpringBoard for Bay View open, and MPS now plans to offer the classes at Bay View—for next year’s 7th and 8th grade students—and also at Humboldt Park, which could act as a feeder for the high school in future years.
Holman issued a statement that said, “The addition of the SpringBoard program at Humboldt Park and the middle grades at Bay View High School is a critical piece of the changes that neighbors have been demanding.”
Holman is encouraged by the program, but also by the idea of a community of schools in the Bay View neighborhood. “We need to view the entire Bay View area as a laboratory, a professional learning community of K3-12th grade thinkers and dreamers who will do amazing things for our city,” she said.
March 1, 2013
By Jay Bullock
Economy slumping? Let people grow and sell hemp! Fossil fuels running out? Put hemp oil in your cars! Sick of importing clothes made by child labor? Wear hemp fibers produced here in the U. S. of A.! Your girlfriend dumped you? Well, you get the idea.
I cannot help but think of the Cannabis Club’s insistence that hemp could save the world whenever I hear anyone argue that any single thing is the answer to all kinds of questions.
So you can understand why I might have been skeptical when, in President Obama’s State of the Union address, he not only called for universal preschool, but went on to say, “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on, by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”
Yet I was not skeptical—I am a universal preschool convert from way back—and everything Obama suggested about the advantages of high-quality preschool is true and supported by decades of evidence. Universal preschool is not going to fuel your SUV when the oil sands run dry, but it would significantly change the lives of the next generation of children.
Over the last 35 years, the Carolina Abecedarian project, one of the nation’s longest-running and best-studied preschool programs, has consistently found that even into college, children who had quality preschool had better scholastic achievement and higher IQ scores than children who did not. Similar academic results show up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which has had universal public preschool for more than two decades.
The Perry Preschool Project in Michigan found that when children from poor, minority communities attended a quality preschool, they, on average, earned higher incomes, committed fewer crimes, and had more stable families decades later as adults than children who did not go to preschool.
These results come not because rote drilling of children on their numbers and letters and shapes is good for them—it isn’t. For example, the Common Core State Standards, which Wisconsin recently adopted, have come under fire from psychologists and early childhood educators for demanding children, as young as five, write compare-contrast essays and do research projects.
Instead they should be playing and learning how to be curious, regulate their own behavior, and get along with other children—developing what Nobel Prize-winning economist Jay Heckman, of the University of Chicago, calls non-cognitive skills. Heckman is one of those who has looked at the Perry Preschool data. He provided the analysis Obama cited, that every dollar spent on quality preschool saves between seven and twelve dollars later on. Heckman is also one of the stars of journalist Paul Tough’s recent book How Children Succeed.
Last fall Tough spoke at Marquette University Law School about his book. He made the connection between the non-cognitive skills—curiosity, self-control, the ability to work and play well with others—and academic success.
“When kids have the underpinnings of the non-cognitive skills on the first day of kindergarten,” Tough told the audience, “it’s going to make it easier to develop their cognitive skills.” That is, when it comes time to learn their letters and numbers and shapes, sharing the crayons and engaging in imaginative play with a bunch of other kids is really good preparation.
Further, navigating life—not just high school and college—is considerably easier with those non-cognitive skills in hand.
In Milwaukee, as I have written in these pages many times, we see this evidence every day in the Milwaukee Public Schools’ Montessori programs. These students, who begin in a quality program at three years old, are consistently among the highest-achievers in the district, outpacing even those students who were in Head Start before kindergarten.
All this compelling evidence is why Obama is right to push preschool right now. Even though preschool is often left to parents, the government has a role. The best interests of our nation are served by opening spots in high-quality public preschool programs that everyone can access. As Paul Tough said at Marquette last fall, “We have this model in our heads that the public role in the lives of kids starts on the first day of kindergarten, but increasingly the science is suggesting that’s a really bad model.”
It’s time to listen to the science. It’s time to support development of non-cognitive skills in all our children. It’s time for quality, universal preschool.
Jay Bullock is an English teacher at Bay View Middle and High School. Follow him on Twitter @folkbum or email him at MPSHallMonitor@gmail.com.
February 1, 2013
By Jay Bullock
Sometime in the spring of 2006—I’ve mostly blocked it out—the previous Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent visited my colleagues and me at Madison University High School, where I was teaching at the time. “You guys suck,” he said.
I’m paraphrasing, but that was the idea.
He went on to lay out for us a “reform” plan: new curriculum coming in—bought from an outside vendor; one year with no ninth grade—so we could “plan” and “rebuild”; and all teachers would have to agree to play along or we’d be out.
We had no say in any of this, mostly. I say mostly because they wanted six teacher volunteers to sit on a committee, write a proposal to turn Madison into a charter school, and lead the transition. As a squeaky wheel, I was specifically asked to be on that committee, something (probably) about keeping your enemies closer.
Despite promises to the contrary, further community, staff, and student input were negligible; the whole process was opaque and secretive.
The whole process was also a disappointment to me personally and a disaster for Madison. The great ideas we teachers had to protect and help our students were stripped from the proposal before it hit the school board. The year without ninth grade and the funds those students would have brought, decimated our staff and killed teacher and student morale. The worst two years of my teaching career were my last two years at Madison under this “reform.”
When, what we teachers asked for was dropped in favor of what the administration wanted all along, it sure made it seem like the end result had been a forgone conclusion. I just felt kind of dirty and used and not a little nauseated. It put me in mind of what they always say about policy and sausage—those are two things you never want to see made.
Last fall and winter, perhaps despite my better judgment, I took another tour of the sausage factory. Much to my surprise—and to my unfathomable delight—this time I leave the tour group in a much better mood.
The day before Halloween, I got an email from Cynthia Ellwood, the regional executive specialist who oversees MPS schools on the city’s east side and in Bay View, inviting me to serve on a “steering committee” for something called “Believe in Bay View.” As a moderately public figure, who had been very vocal following the late-October “brawl” (as most of the media called it) at Bay View Middle and High School where I teach now, I figured I was getting the squeaky-wheel treatment again. I would join another for-show committee of just a few people who were there to provide a participatory veneer over a forgone conclusion.
Indeed, my fellow teachers at Bay View—no strangers to sausage-making and forgone conclusions in the wake of the merger of the high school with Fritsche Middle School—blithely made predictions of what would happen, reporting rumors to, stated as fact, with the implication that I shouldn’t bother.
But I bothered. I went to the first steering committee meeting in early November. What I found was far from a small group of rubber-stampers. Instead, the committee was 50 (!) people who represented any stakeholder constituency you could name: students, parents, teachers, district folks, the alderman, a staffer for the mayor, neighbors, local business owners, alumni, general malcontents, and a partridge in a pear tree.
The next few weeks were a blur of more open and public meetings. Thinking about how to make the school a better place, the district put everything on the table from a radically smaller school, to school uniforms, to International Baccalaureate, and they asked the public, “What do you think?”
People answered, including those at special sessions for school staff and current students, and MPS took their feedback seriously.
The steering committee listened to what people said and tried to craft a proposal that was serious and true to the collective advice those constituencies gave us. Every bit of that recommendation—phasing out the middle school, bringing in a new way to handle student discipline, changing the focus of the school to “creativity and innovation,” and asking current students and staff to “recommit” to this new vision—was included in the proposal that passed a school board committee in January, two months to the day after that first steering committee meeting. (Read more on the proposal to the board here.)
And unlike, say, hearings about the merger of Fritsche and Bay View, discussion and testimony at that committee meeting in January was upbeat, genial, and inspiring. There was no angry mob there blaming the board or furious with the administration for jerking them around, lying to them, or seriously failing to keep their promises. I attribute this to the way “Believe in Bay View” was conducted in the open, in the light, with no forgone conclusions or phony inclusion of stakeholders.
Credit for this 180-degree difference in process goes to board member Meagan Holman, who represents Bay View and has made improving the neighborhood’s high school a key part of her mission, and to Cynthia Ellwood. Ellwood shepherded the “Believe in Bay View” project and bent over backwards to make sure that every part of it was above-board and truly representative of the community’s will.
The work isn’t over—the sausage may be made, to keep stuffing the metaphor, but now we have to cook it.
Actually making Bay View High School a place that lives up to the process that birthed it is the hard part, and that’s just begun.
Feb. 1 update: MPS board approves plan to transform Bay View high school.
Jay Bullock is a squeaky wheel and an English teacher at Bay View Middle and High School. Follow him on twitter @folkbum or email him at MPSHallMonitor@gmail.com.
January 10, 2013
by Jay Bullock
At its Committee on Student Achievement and School Improvement (SASI) meeting Tuesday, January 8, the Milwaukee Board of School Directors moved another step closer to a redesign of Bay View Middle and High School, recommending significant changes to both the school’s structure and its curriculum.
The Milwaukee Public Schools spent the last couple of months in a process called “Believe in Bay View,” which aimed to bring together community members, school staff, current and prospective parents, students, and district personnel to find consensus on a path for improving the struggling school. After weeks of community input, a steering committee proposed that the school become a “school of innovation and creativity.”
At the SASI meeting, district officials explained that the school would transform its STEM offerings—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—to STEAM, adding arts; and add a vaguely defined program that would encourage students to identify a question or a need and pull from multiple subjects and skills to achieve a goal.
Current students and staff would have to “re-commit” to the school’s new curriculum and practices, including the school-wide implementation of a restorative justice program to deal with discipline and school climate.
The initial proposal included both a phase out of the middle grades—no new sixth graders admitted next fall, and so on—as well as one year with no new ninth graders admitted. The middle school phase-out remained in the final proposal, but board member Meagan Holman, who represents the Bay View community, successfully offered an amendment to keep a reduced enrollment of ninth grade.
SpringBoard was not in the proposal. SpringBoard is the College Board’s official pre-Advanced Placement curriculum, which in 2012 was promised to Bay View, and to four other schools. Superintendent Gregory Thornton explained at the meeting that SpringBoard, on top of a new curriculum, might be too much change. “With the present direction we’re going in,” he said, “we may not have the capacity to do all the things we want to do. I would rather do less, better.”
Holman’s amendment kept open the door for SpringBoard, though, calling for the district to explore bringing SpringBoard to neighborhood middle schools to then feed into the high school, which would offer the program as well.
Around two dozen parents, community members, school staff, and others offered oral or written testimony generally in support of the changes.
The full board needs to vote to approve the proposed changes for them to become official; it will meet Thursday, January 31.