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 email@example.com.
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.
Jay Bullock’s testimony in response to MPS school board’s Student Achievement and School Improvement Committee recommendations to improve BVH&MS
January 7, 2013
MPS officials have initiated a process to improve Bay View Middle & High School called “Believe in Bay View.” MPS announced their recommendations last week.
One of the initial steps of the process was holding public meetings where BHM&HS stakeholders could “vote” on a list of improvements devised by MPS. (The vote involved placing a colored sticker on a poster board headed by one of the suggested improvements (or changes) for the school.)
The recommendation was shaped largely by the input of those attending the Believe in Bay View meetings as well as the steering committee, which included students, parents, staff, administrators, neighbors and community leaders.
The following text is Jay Bullock’s testimony in response to MPS’ recommendations. Bullock teaches English at Bay View High School and writes the Hall Monitor column for Bay View Compass.
Written testimony submitted to the Milwaukee Board of School Directors Student Achievement and School Improvement Committee, January 8, 2013
To: Chair Miller, Vice-Chair Falk, Director Holman, Director Voeltner, Director Woodward
cc: Dr. Thornton, Dr. Ellwood, Mr. Leinfelder
After fifteen years as a teacher in, observer of, and commentator on this district, I want to say first that I am very pleased and impressed with the process that brought us to this point. The time, attention, and care this Board and this administration, particularly Director Holman and Dr. Ellwood, have spent over the past eighteen months on Bay View Middle and High School demonstrates a level of commitment far greater than what I, my colleagues, and this community could ever have hoped for. It is clear that “Believe in Bay View” is not an empty slogan, but rather a pledge of support at the highest levels of this district.
I support the proposal before the Board, with two strong exceptions, which I will detail shortly. My support, and my reservations, are rooted in my own belief in Bay View, and deeply informed by my own experience in this process and in this district.
I have been involved in this process for almost two years, starting with Parents for Bay View Schools in 2011 and its attempts to build community support for a stronger Bay View High School. In September 2011, the group invited Superintendent Thornton to meet with the community on a Saturday morning and both sides, administration and community, made a commitment that day to work hard for a change at Bay View. We were heartened and excited by Dr. Thornton’s support for SpringBoard at Bay View, the kind of name-brand, high-quality, college-prep program that neighbors, students, and staff were asking for.
I also served this past fall on the Believe in Bay View steering committee. Again, as a long-time observer and critic of this district, I am impressed at the level of transparency and commitment to the full school community that the Believe in Bay View process demonstrated. The work done by Dr. Ellwood, her staff, and the volunteers who helped lead community listening sessions to ensure that every voice was heard and every option was explored is unprecedented in my experience. What has happened here, as with what happened with the recent merger of 81st and 68th Street Schools, shows that this administration and this Board care about process and community as much as they do results, and that is a welcome change.
I say a welcome change because this is, as they say, not my first rodeo: Seven years ago, I went through much the same course of events as Madison University High School was a target for “reform” by the administration. I sat on the committee that wrote the charter-school proposal, I flew to Kansas City, Kansas, to learn all about (and become an advocate for) First Things First, and I worked closely with MPS administration to shepherd that process. But then, unlike now, the planning process was closed to all but a handful of people, with little involvement of students, parents, or community; the recommendations of teachers like me, ultimately, were ignored by members of the administration who thought they knew better; and in the end, the reform effort at Madison was a disaster. The two worst years of my teaching career were my last two years at Madison, and, after a decade of commitment to that building, I transferred out. (Many of my Madison colleagues did too; there are five of us now at Bay View!)
The Believe in Bay View process to date has been 180 degrees different from that at Madison, and I do not wish to see this Board or this administration harm the end of the process by repeating some of the same mistakes.
First, I am disappointed by the absence of SpringBoard from this proposal. While I recognize that SpringBoard is a 6-12 curriculum almost everywhere it is implemented, it does not have to be. Further, the steering committee made some strong recommendations for how to use SpringBoard to connect Bay View High School to its neighborhood feeder schools, to create a connection for neighborhood students between their neighborhood middle-grades experience and their and their neighborhood high school. A multi-school student learning community could develop, as students from different schools engage in joint activities and similar experiences. Further, a plan that implemented SpringBoard in several neighborhood schools presents a unique opportunity for a multi-school professional learning community, as teachers from Bay View High School would work and train closely with their counterparts in nearby middle schools. The potential in that idea is exciting, and, I think, supports this administration’s belief that MPS must be One Team: Today, I don’t work closely with colleagues from any other school; tomorrow, with SpringBoard, I would.
But more importantly, I worry that abandoning plans for SpringBoard would be seen as breaking the promise this administration and this Board made last year. When the community within and around Bay View rose up as one and said, this is what we want, this administration and this Board said, we hear you, and we agree. Without SpringBoard, all the work that Parents for Bay View Schools did seems wasted, and it becomes yet another data point in a series we all know well showing MPS failing to follow through on its commitments.
Second, I am deeply troubled by the part of the proposal that blocks entry of any new ninth graders to Bay View next fall. While doing that—stopping new enrollment for one year to allow time for “planning” and “rebuilding”—was far from the only mistake MPS made in its reform of Madison University High School, it was probably the most damaging. With the removal of ninth grade from Madison, Madison lost its IB program, its award-winning electronics program, its nursing assistant certification program, its choral music program, one of its two foreign languages, some of its coaches and athletic programs, and many great, young teachers who were most willing to commit to reform. When older students saw the devastation—their favorite teachers or programs gone—they left, too, and we lost more staff on Third Friday. The professional and student learning communities were decimated and, in my opinion, simply could not recover well enough to be the strong forces necessary to support the implementation of First Things First the next year, when enrollment returned to normal and half the adults and students in that building were brand new.
The idea did not die there; the stop-enrollment-to-rebuild plan has been tried again and again in MPS since, and I cannot think of a single school that today is better for having done it. Where the idea originates, and why it keeps being proposed, is a mystery to me.
Indeed, I am not entirely sure where the idea came from in this proposal. While the Believe in Bay View steering committee, not to mention the students, parents, neighbors, and staff, were in near-unanimous agreement about ending or phasing out the middle school grades at Bay View, no such consensus developed around the idea of stopping ninth grade enrollment. As you can see from the data provided to you, “Reduced Student Population” was not a popular choice among those who participated in the process, especially among the community members this process was specifically designed to reach. Phasing out the middle school will cause a slight decline in enrollment, but the bulk of the 500-student cut proposed here comes from the ninth grade.
Further, when the steering committee was presented with the idea of no new ninth grade, we spent very little time discussing it and those who spoke (including me) spoke generally against it. We had the chance to vote with our “dots”—that whole gallery walk thing where we put stickers next to ideas we like on chart paper—and as I recall there was not great support from the dots, either. (I imagine the chart papers are rolled up somewhere and can be checked, but this is my memory.) The steering committee simply was not excited about the idea.
The administration’s justifications for a year without ninth grade seem wholly unrelated. The year would be spent planning and training teachers for the new program, as well as aggressively marketing the new program to the community. These are not things that preclude having a ninth grade. In fact, it seems counterproductive to me to cut enrollment and staff in a year designated for planning and training. The following year, when enrollment would presumably start to return to normal levels, the school will need to hire new staff who, though they’d have to “commit” to the program, would not have had a stake in developing it or a single minute of training in how to implement it.
If the administration’s goal for no new ninth grade is to create a calmer building climate, the same goal could be achieved through careful counseling of our current students prior to their “recommitment,” and enforcement now of those soft entrance requirements, which can be developed quickly before Three Choice begins next month.
Finally, eliminating ninth grade for a year, again, feels like MPS is breaking its promises. When Bay View High School merged with Fritsche Middle School, the promise was that students and the community would have a single 6-12 school. Our eighth graders, who were the first sixth grade class after that merger, were sold on the idea of Bay View as a middle and high school. They and their parents and their teachers were promised that this merger—controversial then, to be sure—would produce a school that didn’t just have seven grades within in, but that because it had seven grades within it could provide a complete and comprehensive schooling experience. Both schools before the merger saw steep drops in enrollment and threats to their programs and were told that merging the two would be the only way to save music, Project Lead the Way, arts, foreign language, and more. Now all of those are threatened by the current proposal. (Staff were told last week, for example, that our National Academy Foundation certification and grant funding is predicated on our being able to offer four years of academy classes—without ninth grade, it would be lost.)
Phasing out the middle school is one thing—it’s an acknowledgment that, as tried, the merger didn’t quite work as planned (a missed opportunity, I think, but that ship has sailed). But to tell our current eighth graders that they cannot stay, and to tell our current staff that their jobs and their futures are uncertain because we have to “plan” for a year, is cruel and unnecessary.
Although I very strongly support almost all of the proposal as written, I encourage you to reconsider SpringBoard and ninth grade before you vote. Thank you for your time.
English Teacher, Bay View Middle and High School
January 2, 2013
Milwaukee Public Schools must write a strategic plan every five years, as required by school board policy.
The 2007 plan was called “Working Together, Achieving More,” and it was the result of months of collaboration between MPS, its teachers union, the Greater Milwaukee Committee (which largely funded the process), and Milwaukee’s African American Education Council.
The published document states that more than 1,000 people offered input to the plan and that the school board unanimously adopted it in July 2007. It was, at that time, and since, the single most collaborative and transparent plan that MPS had ever produced.
And it was a masterpiece, bursting with optimism, leaving no lofty dream on the editing floor. “This document is the beginning of an unprecedented journey,” it promised. It was the “blueprint” for turning MPS “into one of the finest school districts in the nation.”
It wouldn’t be easy, we were told, because “we cannot achieve results without doing things differently.”
Indeed, the document acknowledged complaints that previous reform efforts failed to be implemented across the whole district and that they weren’t sustained very long.
If you are looking around now and thinking, Wait, it’s five years later—it’s supposed to be different now?, then you, too, probably work for MPS.
And if you do work for MPS, you just might also be thinking, Wait, we have a strategic plan?
My (very, very) informal survey of MPS staff and teachers I know or work with suggests that few of them know of the plan, or that it had the fancy title “Working Together, Achieving More,” or that the plan demanded that everyone be knowledgeable about it. “This is an action plan for every school, every principal, every teacher, and every staff member.” (Italicized emphasis is in the original document.)
It is true that the text of every item the board votes on has a clause to justify the existence of the strategic plan, but for everyday staff members, let alone students or parents, there’s no sense that there is an overall plan. Unprecedented collaboration and transparency has gone for naught.
That might be because “Working Together, Achieving More” has failed to produce increased achievement. Of eight goals the plan set for MPS, and of dozens of “Measurable Objectives and Key Outcome Measures” to track progress, MPS has failed to live up to almost all of them.
Some failures are obvious, like the plan’s number one goal, that MPS students would meet and exceed Wisconsin’s academic standards. They don’t, especially on the new, stricter standards adopted this past fall.
To see more of the failures, you need to dig deeper, into those “measurable objectives:
•Cut achievement gaps between minority and white students in half? Not yet.
•Collaborate with New Leaders for New Schools to cultivate a solid crop of school principals? Nope—that group fled from MPS’s dysfunction.
•Boost new teacher retention? Try several straight years of layoffs of mostly new teachers.
•Lobby for and get a new, fairer state funding formula? I refer you my December 2012 column. (bayviewcompass.com/archives/12827)
I will give MPS credit for one thing that “Working Together, Achieving More” got right, besides its collaborative and transparent creation. Goal number eight was to build “partnerships to support student achievement.” This was done well by the district. Most notably, MPS has a partnership with the General Electric Foundation, which gives the district $20 million to improve the teaching of math and science.
The rest of the news is not all bad, either. Graduation rates are up, although not to the 75% four-year-rate demanded by the plan; test scores are inching higher, especially in math; and MPS has worked hard to standardize disparate curricula and expand successful programs like Montessori. But the district is still bleeding students to charter and choice schools, still desperately underfunded, still teaching students who struggle with basic skills and family issues.
Five years isn’t enough to change a district the size of Milwaukee, and certainly not enough to meet the mile-high goals MPS set five years ago. But as it moves forward on the path to a new strategic plan—MPS kicked it off with an event on December 1, attended by 150 or so other community members and myself—MPS must remember this. The failure of the 2007 plan lies not in its impossible ambition or its soaring rhetoric, but because, on the ground, many of its called-for reforms didn’t make it to the whole district, plans were abandoned rather than sustained, students and staff feel jerked around and powerless, and there is not a lot that is really being done differently.
Five years ago the district made a public promise to be different, and it didn’t live up to it. This time, the district has a chance to do it right.
Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View Middle and High School, blogs at schoolmattersmke.com, and tweets as @folkbum. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
December 10, 2012
By Jay Bullock
Thank goodness the election is over, so now we can move on to something completely different: the election.
I know, it hardly seems fair that we have no time to breathe or pretend that other things matter for a while, but when it comes to the future of public schools, it’s time to start talking about the spring 2013 election.
I say this because of the “post-Act 10 world” we’re living in. Act 10 was the bill passed by the state Legislature in 2011, which, among other things, made it harder for public employees like teachers to have a voice in working conditions or compensation. Act 10 was followed shortly after by a harsh 2011-2013 state budget which not only cut funding for schools but severely limited districts’ ability to supplement missing state funding.
As for the April election, four-ninths of the Milwaukee Board of School Directors is up for grabs. None of the Bay View-specific seats are on the ballot—neither District 8 member Meagan Holman nor Citywide member Terry Falk will face election again until 2015. But two seats in the districts adjacent to Bay View are on the ballot, those of District 7 member David Voeltner and District 5 member Larry Miller (the board’s vice president).
Voeltner and Miller represent the city’s southwest and east sides, respectively. Both have provided reliably pro-student voices and votes on the board, fighting, for example, superintendent Gregory Thornton’s inclination to increase the number of charter schools in the district.
Also up are two north side seats, those of Annie Woodward and Peter Blewett. Blewett is not running for re-election.
The way that MPS responds to post-Act 10 realities to support—or not support—its students will be determined by the make-up of the board, which means interested parties on all sides will be ready for battle this spring. Pay attention, in particular, to the fight for Blewett’s open seat, and don’t be surprised if Voeltner faces a strong challenge.
Also important is the race for state superintendent. The current officeholder, Tony Evers, has put forward a plan to rewrite the state’s school-funding formula in a way that is much more fair to urban and poor districts that don’t have the resources now to meet the needs of their students. His plan would send needed state funding to these districts.
Evers’ plan, called “Fair Funding for Our Future,” tackles the funding problem in several ways, starting with setting a minimum level of per-pupil funding and restoring the pledge for the state to pay two-thirds of school districts’ costs. Further, by adding a “poverty factor” to the state funding formula, Evers’ plan does not continue to over-burden property-poor communities who cannot fund schools adequately via local property taxes. He attempted to get his plan put in place in the last budget.
His plan is not popular with the people who currently write the state budget. In fact, it is 180 degrees from the school-funding plan announced by Governor Scott Walker at the Reagan Presidential Library in California last month, where Walker stated he wanted to tie funding to performance. Walker’s plan is a sure way to further punish underfunded districts—rather than provide a fair level of funding to all students.
In that same California speech, Walker outlined plans to radically expand both vouchers for private schools and charter schools across the state.
As I write, no one has emerged to challenge Evers, but given recent politics in Wisconsin, there seems little doubt that someone much closer to Walker’s position—low taxes, punitive funding, sucking public money away into private schools—will challenge Evers. Re-electing Evers, who has Wisconsin’s schools foremost in his mind, is critical.
Finally, a Wisconsin Supreme Court race will also be on the April ballot. Let’s be frank: A whole lot of the past two years’ of Wisconsin politics has ultimately ended up in court. A whole lot more probably will, and it is entirely possible that the court will soon see school funding cases.
Or see them again. In 2000’s Vincent v. Voight ruling, the Wisconsin Supreme Court declined to declare the state’s twisted school funding system unconstitutional, but it left the door open to a challenge if future plaintiffs could clearly show that funding reached “inadequate” levels.
Put these pieces together and get what? The possibility that a strong, student-centered MPS board, backed by a fair-funding advocate in the state superintendent’s office, might be able to convince a student-sympathetic Supreme Court that the starvation budgets of the last two years—and the foreseeable future under Walker and his allies—are absolutely inadequate.
I am convinced we have to be thinking about the election.
Note: Just before this issue went to press, State Representative Don Pridemore (R-Hartford) filed paperwork to explore a campaign for the State Superintendent of Public Instruction seat, currently occupied by Tony Evers.
Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View Middle and High School, blogs at schoolmattersmke.com, tweets as @folkbum, and can be emailed at email@example.com