HALL MONITOR — Don’t Make Milwaukee Lake Woebegon

October 1, 2017

By Jay Bullock

When Garrison Keillor retired from A Prairie Home Companion last year, his News from Lake Woebegon segment retired with him.

In that fictional Minnesota town, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

It always drove me crazy when I heard that slogan. You simply can’t call everyone above average. Half of any group will always be below average. Average also has a specific meaning when describing academic

Last month I wrote about the mandates handed down to teachers from the Milwaukee Public Schools administration. One is to publicly post student scores from the STAR “universal screener” test, such as the percentile rank for every student.

Percentile rank shows, after Johnny takes the STAR, that Johnny reads or does math better than some percent of all students who take the test. If Johnny’s at the 80th percentile, he’s smarter than 80 percent of students his age. If Johnny’s at the 50th percentile he’s, well, average.

MPS uses percentile ranks to create “target” scores. Students can be above, at, or below the target based on their percentile rank.

You have perhaps guessed the punch line: To be “on target,” students must be well above average, at least in the 60th percentile for reading and at least in the 75th percentile in math. In fact, students can no longer be “above target” in math at all. A student scoring at the 100th percentile, better than pretty much any other child taking the STAR nationwide, is merely “on target.”

MPS told teachers these unrealistic targets will “better predict proficiency” on the state achievement tests — Wisconsin Forward Exam and ACT Aspire.
I hate to say it, but this almost makes sense, given the state’s massive recent shift of proficiency goalposts.

States started moving proficiency goalposts in the late 2000s as they realized that the 100 percent proficiency demanded by 2002’s “No Child Left Behind Act” was impossible.

Because states feared punitive measures for missing universal proficiency, they applied for waivers from the U.S. Department of Education. That process demanded states adopt stricter proficiency standards. In 2012, Wisconsin opted, like many other states, to use standards defined by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), or “the nation’s report card”.

This was a mistake.

We can debate whether Wisconsin’s previous proficiency standards were too high or too low, but according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) we were, again, average.

Since the switch, however, barely half of Wisconsin’s students score proficient or higher on annual state tests. Regardless of your opinion of MPS or public education in general, it is simply ridiculous to think half of Wisconsin kids can’t read or do math at grade level, especially when we continue to score well versus other states on measures like the ACT.

At the time of the shift, both NAEP and individual states used the word “proficient.” But they did not mean the same thing. States typically defined proficient as at grade level, a bit above average but not in the top tier. In other words, grades of A and B. Maybe a C+.

But NAEP called that same level of achievement “basic.” “Proficient was akin to a solid A,” according to Diane Ravitch, former NAEP board member and current education-reform skeptic.

NCES data show that before states started moving goalposts, not a single state’s definition of “proficient” met the NAEP standard of “proficient” in math. In reading, just a handful did.

When it began in the 1970s, NAEP didn’t label student achievement at all and only began to do so under pressure in the 1990s. The process of defining levels like basic or proficient was plagued by scandal. Repeated reviews, including one by the non-partisan General Accounting Office in 1993, declared NAEP measures of proficiency should not be used as a model
or reference point by anyone else.

But here we are, describing virtually every MPS student as “below target” because of those NAEP definitions.

Oh, come on, Jay, you say. Doesn’t the below target label light a fire under these kids?


In fact, recent research indicates that the more we tell underprivileged students they are failures, and that this failure is because of their own action (or inaction) rather than larger systemic issues, the more likely they are to see a decline in self-esteem and an increase in risky behavior.

We tell successful students, you know, the children in Lake Woebegon, or, in Milwaukee’s wealthier suburbs, that success comes from hard work and “grit.” Those students see no problem with that. They and their families are generally successful. The meritocracy is working as intended!

But a study published this summer in the journal Child Development reports that when told the same thing, struggling students attribute failure to their own flaws: I didn’t work hard enough, maybe, or I guess I don’t have grit. This leaves them less likely to bother trying because they internalize these messages and think they’ll just fail anyway.

In June the study’s lead author told The Atlantic “there’s this element of people think of me this way anyway, so this must be who I am.”

Yes, student effort does affect student achievement. But decades of research shows the best predictor of achievement is not “grit” but the zipcode children are born in. Centuries of American segregation and economic inequality weigh more heavily than grit on MPS students’ achievement.

Neither my students nor I can fix segregation and economic inequality. Why, then, force my students to feel that much more marginalized? I am not asking we lie; students below grade level should be identified and helped to improve.

But we should also be able to tell our grade-level students that they’re successful, rather than telling them they are “below target.” Don’t try to make Milwaukee Lake Woebegon.

Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View High School. Email him at mpshallmonitor@gmail.com.

HALL MONITOR — A Signature Euphemism; a Daft Solution

September 1, 2017

By Jay Bullock

Im so lucky! My school is a “signature school” in the Milwaukee Public Schools this year!

In 20 years of teaching I’ve seen my share of reform efforts and euphemisms. But “signature school,” as a way of indicating schools that failed to meet expectations on the last state report card, may be the craziest.

The designation entitles us to some bonus resources, like a “hotline” for administrators to call in emergencies (not, sadly, a Commissioner Gordon-style red phone) and “resources gathered to counter inequitable patterns,” whatever that means.

During a full week of professional development before students returned, teachers in “signature schools” were presented with a hefty list of “Classroom Set-up Expectations.”

These elicited actual laughs from my colleagues. A classroom library with a carpeted area, so students can sit at our feet? Where does that fit among the 40 desks for my sophomores? Posted weekly lesson plans? Come on, I have to adjust my lessons on the fly almost every day!

Let us not forget the in-class “cool down space,” complete with noise-canceling headphones, lavender-scented pillows, and “a small trampoline.” I am not making this up.

What’s not funny is mandatory posting of achievement, attendance, and discipline data on a “data dashboard,” updated hourly and prominently displayed outside the door of every “signature school” classroom.

This dashboard is clearly designed so central office personnel can see at a glance whether a classroom, and its teacher, are failing because getting to know us and our kids by investing real time among us simply takes too long.

The shame (guilt, stigma — pick your noun) associated with bad data on our dashboards is somehow supposed to motivate teachers and students to do better.

Here’s the thing, we have pretty clear evidence that data walls don’t work.

They originated with University of Chicago’s David Kerbow, who saw data visualization as a way for teachers and administrators to identify problems early. Private data walls in the office or staff lounge provide school adults with big-picture insight and prompt good discussion about what has worked, what hasn’t, and what to try next. They should be a tool for informing next steps, not for judging students or staff.

Importantly, there was never any intention to have “data walls” in view of students or the public. But why should that deter education reformers?

Despite the experiences of places like Holyoke, Mass., that had probably the most famous uproar in 2014, worthless public “data walls” have steadily spread among low-performing schools and districts nationwide.

Yet, we do know what does work. Let’s set aside policing-style classroom set-ups and shaming teachers and students, and instead focus on research-based solutions for “signature schools.”

So what works?


Our must-post data comes from the district’s “universal screener” test, STAR. A screening test is not a test of student achievement; it is, as the label suggests, used to identify early students who need remediation and intervention.

STAR covers only math and literacy, and only in some grade levels. It is not aligned to district curriculum and it is given
just three times a year. My sophomores took the STAR test on August 28 and will not test again until January. Of what value is that January score to anyone visiting my class in, say, November? What use is STAR data posted outside of, say, an art class, ever?

No reputable researcher or organization anywhere recommends using screener data this way, including state and
national Response to Intervention (RtI) groups.

Better achievement happens when teachers track and celebrate individual student growth over time on specific
key skills, which can’t be reflected in a single number. Such growth should be monitored constantly, not checked a few times a year.

As noted by the Achievement Network, a national nonprofit that partners with schools to boost academics, “This is not just about looking at the numbers, but looking at student work that illuminates specific needs of students.” No data dashboard can do that.


Evidence is overwhelming that attendance improves when schools make personal connections to students and families, including through dedicated mentors. Some MPS high schools benefit from City Year, an Americorps-funded program that places recent college grads in the role of mentor and interventionist for ninth-grade students only.

This is a start, but not enough, especially
as City Year interventions miss the vast majority of MPS students and don’t quite go far enough with those they do reach.

According to a guide for schools from Hanover Research, mentors should do more than make a few calls home and see students at school. They should “meet with parents and occasionally participate in home visits for students with attendance or behavior issues.” Mentors should “monitor student progress and work alongside families and communities to improve attendance.”


We must post how long it has been since we wrote a discipline referral, like the signs in factories that read, “This plant has worked x days without an accidental injury.”

There is research to suggest that such workplace signs indeed help minimize
injury, but only after extensive safety training and building a shared sense of community responsibility among workers.

Posting referral data may well work when students have a shared sense of responsibility for each other. Simply posting it won’t do the difficult work of creating such a community.

MPS has made some baby steps with Restorative Practices and trauma-sensitive training. But how do creating tension, competition, and division through these artificial, meaningless “data dashboards” build a caring, connected community?

Real change requires complicated and undoubtedly expensive work. A “data dashboard” is easy and cheap, but utterly useless to anyone except those who want to make snap judgments about students and their teachers.

Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View High School. Email him at mpshallmonitor@gmail.com.

Hall Monitor — The MPS Budget and the Resource Gap walked into a bar

June 1, 2017

By Jay Bullock

(something about taking square aim at WisGOP)

I’m not telling you something you don’t already know — the Milwaukee Public Schools budget is awful.

No one involved is happy about it. Superintendent Darienne Driver’s budget proposal and commentary lash out at state legislators forcing her to eviscerate programs. The district’s construction budget, for example, will be cut by a whopping 92 percent!

Board members are raising their voices at board meetings. Teachers are packing hearings demanding raises promised long ago. School principals are making gut-wrenching decisions about which staff can stay and which must go.

Most frustrating of all, students are looking at another year in a school system in a city that cannot hope to begin to bridge the gap between what’s available to them compared to what’s available to children living, in some cases, just blocks away in the suburbs.

This is my most common refrain. I feel like I should just get it printed on a sandwich board, “end-is-nigh-style”, and stand on a street corner screaming it. That might be as effective as all my previous warnings.

I have warned: Let’s talk about the much-storied 53206 zip code. The average annual household income is $32,000 — not a lot of money for raising a child.

Up in River Hills, 53217, home of State Senator Alberta Darling, a long-time opponent of MPS, the average household income is $282,000.

The difference between the two — a cool quarter mil, by my math — is what I call the Resource Gap. Imagine the experiences all that money buys: camps, music lessons, tutors, high-quality preschool, family vacations to foreign countries, rooms upon rooms upon rooms of books  to read. Multiply that by 18, the years between birth and graduation…

I am not saying schools have to be the place where the Resource Gap is redressed. I’m just saying, in this column at the end of this school term, just as I said in my September column,  schools are the place where we expect the gap to be made up. Year after year we are told that there’s no reason why children in Milwaukee can’t succeed at the same rates as their suburban peers.

I don’t know how I can make that more plain.

The state budget is not finished. For all I know, Republican Governor Scott Walker and the Republicans on the state’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, including Sen. Darling, will see the light and change the provisions that hit MPS so hard.

For example, the revenue cap, the grand total amount a district can collect from state aid and  local property taxes, remains flat. That means even though there may be some increases in state funding for MPS, those must be offset by reducing property taxes.

It is, for want of a better word, diabolical. It serves the short-term interest of property taxpayers at the long-term expense of our children. Yay for the local homeowner and his extra hundred dollars at the end of the year; boo for the 96 teachers and 98 educational assistants not in MPS classrooms come fall.

Superintendent Darienne Driver’s budget comments pull no punches. “Revenue is not keeping pace with inflation,” she wrote in her budget brief. “Stable revenues are not enough to sustain the district’s operations. (They) will not allow the district to continue prior year operations at even a modest increase to keep up with costs.”

Thus, cuts. Thus, broken promises on raises. Thus, an end to almost all capital improvements around the district.

Thus, another giant wedge driving the Resource Gap wider.

And Dr. Driver knows it. Her budget brief says, “Meeting the MPS vision is challenging within an environment of stagnant revenues, growing educational options, increased need for quality programming aimed at serving Milwaukee’s diverse student population, and regaining public confidence that the school district can provide students with a quality education.”

This is, on its face, an inarguable fact. Milwaukee’s kids deserve the same high-quality programs Alberta Darling’s neighbors have in their schools. MPS must regain the trust of Milwaukee families if it wants to increase enrollment. MPS is facing more competition from more directions than ever before.

All of that factors into the Resource Gap, or, as Driver calls it, “the need for quality programming aimed at serving Milwaukee’s diverse [poor and minority] student population.”

But it’s also a broadside aimed directly at Walker and Darling and the rest. The time for pinning failure on us is long past, Driver is saying. We can’t keep doing more with less. We will not go down without pointing out, to everyone who will listen, whose responsibility this really is, whose decisions are really the ones leaving Milwaukee’s children with less and less and less every year.

To be fair, the budget woes of MPS are hardly unique. District officials, school board members, and parent groups from every corner of Wisconsin have inundated budget hearings to voice complaints. Over the last three years, nearly 200 school district referenda have been on ballots around the state, most of them passing.

MPS has not gone to referendum, knowing the whole problem here is that Milwaukee families lack the resources in the first place.

As this goes to press, the Legislature has a few weeks left to finalize the state budget and how it affects MPS. If you, like me, believe the Resource Gap is real and that we have a moral and civic obligation to do something about it, here’s the phone number, 1-800-362-9472.

Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View High School and wants to hear about your calls to Madison: mpshallmonitor@gmail.com

It’s the freshmen, it’s always the freshmen

May 1, 2017

By Jay Bullock

Recently, Milwaukee Public Schools Regional Superintendent Orlando Ramos was reported to be a finalist for several school district superintendent positions around the country.

Most MPS “regionals” supervise geographical areas — East, Southwest, Central, and Northwest. Not Ramos. He heads the High School region, which means he has the worst job in MPS.

As the person who oversees MPS high schools, Ramos is accountable for students at the end of 12 years’ worth of MPS education, but he controls only four of them.

The headline statistic that Ramos (and often MPS) is judged on is the district’s graduation rate.

With 83 percent of students graduating after their fourth year of high school in 2014-15, America as a whole was at an historic high, according to federal data. Just 20 years ago, that number was 71 percent. (Data from the 2015-2016 year is not yet available.)

For MPS, the 2014-15 graduation rate was only 59 percent. Worse, in Wisconsin, the gap between the white and black graduation rates is 27 percentage points, the widest in the nation, according to the Feds. In MPS, where the majority of Wisconsin’s black students attend school, the gap is 23 points: only 56 percent of black students in MPS graduate in four years, compared 69 percent of white students.

MPS does better with its six-year rate, giving students two more years to finish high school or an alternate program like GED. In 2014-15, our six-year rate was 72 percent, still terrible but closer to a respectable number.

MPS is not alone. Urban districts nationwide struggle with graduation rates and gaps, especially between black and white graduates, though obviously many urban districts were able to overcome some challenges that MPS hasn’t.

For example, an April article in Education Week detailed how the Chicago Public Schools system was able to boost its graduation rate from fewer than half in 2007 to 70 percent in 2014-15.

Working with researchers from the University of Chicago, CPS identified six keys to boosting graduation rates: Ease the transition from 8th to 9th grade. Boost attendance. Reduce out-of-school suspensions. Hold high standards for grades and achievement. Build school communities that take collective responsibility for student success. Use early-warning indicators to identify students who are off-track as soon as possible.

I can sum that all up in a single word: freshmen.

True, the “ease the transitions” plank of that platform explicitly refers to 9th graders. But the others all do implicitly, and I’ll return to Milwaukee to explain how, beginning with attendance.

While MPS has an overall 89 percent attendance rate, meaning eight of every nine students are in school on any given day, absences are not spread equally among all students.

In Milwaukee, 46 percent of students are habitually truant, meaning they miss 10 days or more in a year. At that point, likely graduation rates fall quickly to below 60 percent. At 20 days absent — just one absence every other week — graduation rates fall below 50 percent.

The worst attendance rate in MPS, a tepid 78 percent, belongs to freshmen, and fully 65 percent of freshmen are habitually truant.

The University of Chicago researchers note that “missing as few as five days per semester can make a student less likely to graduate from high school.”

Ninth grade also leads in suspensions. In 2014-15, 11 percent of all MPS students were suspended at least once. But 22 percent of freshmen were suspended, double the average. Freshmen also comprised 40 percent of all expelled students.

And so on. MPS freshmen come into high school well below grade level. On 2015-2016 state tests, only 11 percent of MPS 8th graders were proficient or higher in math (compared to 36 percent statewide) and 19 percent in English (40 percent statewide). It’s hard to have high standards for freshmen when so many struggle to meet the lower standards of middle school.

Freshmen grade point averages are also worse than those of their peers. In the most recent year that I could find data for, 2011-12 when MPS self-published a district report card, freshmen earned a sad 1.52 GPA on a four-point scale. The average for seniors, by comparison, was a 2.2. (Current data were not available from MPS by press time)

MPS 9th grade has higher enrollment than any other grade K-12 school. As the low GPAs, poor attendance, and high suspension rates suggest, many students repeat 9th grade. The exact number isn’t available in state data, but compared to 8th-grade enrollment, it looks like around 2,000 of the district’s nearly 7,000 freshmen are there for the second or third time. Freshmen, then, make up almost two-thirds of all MPS students held back a grade in a given year.

What’s the Answer?

Chicago has improved its success rate by paying attention to the factors listed above, and implementing freshmen families or academies, meaning a small group of teachers shares the 9th-grade class and can work more proactively, and faster, to intervene when students start falling behind. Some MPS schools do that now — including Bay View High School — and more will institute the program next fall.

MPS has made other changes, such as moving the start of high school to mid-August in order to minimize the “summer slide.”

But Chicago also does something desperately needed here. According to the University of Chicago group supporting changes in CPS, “students with low attendance and grades in middle school [are] flagged for early intervention before entering high school” (my italics).

In addition to sending kids on to high school without anything like 8th-grade mastery, MPS middle schools and K-8s have no good way to communicate all the red flags and supports needed for members of a high school’s incoming class.

Every year I watch as high-risk students sit in class — for more than a month — until the first round of district screening tests are completed.

Then, finally, five or six wasted weeks into the school year, students are placed in intervention classes or referred for special education services. That is, assuming the school even has those supports available, having not been informed beforehand that they would be needed.

This is why Orlando Ramos has the worst job in MPS. Sure, he can take credit for great MPS schools that always graduate world-class scholars and make it into various national top-schools lists. But he also has to manage the ongoing mess that is Milwaukee’s freshman class, with no ability to influence who makes up that class or what happens to them before they enter his region.

The district’s high school region is just two years old, and maybe the reorganization that created it will yield results eventually. For now, though, you couldn’t pay me enough to take on an impossible task like that.

Note: Unless otherwise stated, all data in this column are from the most recent statistics on the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction website.

Jay Bullock, who teaches English at Bay View High School, has approximately the 9,728th worst job in MPS. Email him at MPSHallMonitor@gmail.com.

PAREN(t)HESIS — Right sizing, decluttering

March 1, 2017

By Jill Rothenbueler Maher

The first signs of spring include the robins’ return, joggers out in force in our parks and on the Oak Leaf trail, and my own inklings of spring cleaning.

I have found that an easy way to keep things tidy at home is to have less stuff. I think that the architecture in Bay View lends itself to a more minimalist lifestyle than the suburbs because our older homes have small closets, our floor plans are unlikely to include a dedicated playroom for kids, and our garages are small, too.

Some of my friends swear by certain philosophers of decluttering such as Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing and Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up. Kondo even specifies a certain way to fold clothing for maximum efficiency. Instead of following a specific author, I get my inspiration from my uber-organized mom. When my grade school friends came over, some would tease me that our house was tidy and quiet, reminding them of a library. She and my dad, now in their retirement years, still keep their home like that.

Intergenerational relationships can be especially tricky when it comes to clutter, especially the clutter of too many toys. Parents tell their own parents to stop buying so many toys but grandparents enjoy the gift giving. Once I sat on a plane next to a grandmother who told me she was bummed out that her adult son asked her to stop bringing so many McDonald’s Happy Meal toys and similar little gadgets when she visited her grandson. I replied that it felt like every parent my age was having the same conversation with their own parents, and the commonality seemed to reassure her.

Conflict over clutter can also be a sore spot within marriages and parenting relationships. When I read the comments to articles about clutter, inevitably some people mention how their views differ from that of a spouse or partner. The fundamental disagreement seems to cause lots of tension. Spending on toys that clutter the house can lead to that famous topic of marital disharmony, money!

In our house, we seem to do fairly well with Saturday sweeps that result in a pile for Goodwill donation and a stack of books for one of the area’s abundant Little Free Libraries. Peer pressure helps too, like when friends talk about decluttering success. And there’s the peer pressure of other people coming over, like when my husband and I host a party or my daughter has a friend sleep over. And as winter wanes, there are less snow pants, scarves, and mittens hovering about to clutter up the entryways.

Just like exercise routines, decluttering routines are probably best when they’re a regular part of every week. I clean out the questionable, ready-to-expire food from the refrigerator on most Sundays. Seems like a perfect time to also spend a few minutes decluttering our home—and clearing our minds in the process.

The author is a freelance writer and mother of one. Reach her with comments or suggestions at jill@bayviewcompass.com.

HALL MONITOR — Still too much testing

February 28, 2017

By Jay Bullock

It’s that time of year again, when all over the nation, teachers look out at their students and think, “Yippee! It’s standardized test time!”

As if. I don’t know a single teacher anywhere whose idea of a productive school day is watching, hawk-like, over students as they bubble in answers with the much-beloved Number Two Pencil or, more and more these days, peck out answers on a Chromebook keyboard. We would much rather be, you know, teaching.

Last month, the Milwaukee Board of School Directors got a report on how much testing happens in MPS schools — a sprawling chart of how many standardized tests are given, to how many students, and for what quantity of total time.

Not counting Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams, MPS students take nine different standardized tests between September and May. There is hardly a date on the MPS calendar that isn’t in one testing window or another.

This is too much. MPS pleads that these tests are the result of federal or state mandates, but not all are, and the ones that are don’t have to be so taxing.

Eighth- and tenth-graders have it the worst, spending, respectively, 14.3 hours and 13.6 hours per school year taking some kind of standardized test. Coming in a close third are, surprisingly, fourth graders, who also spend more than 13 hours a year taking tests.

Even kindergarten students take five hours of standardized tests a year. Seriously. Kindergarten.

This may not seem like a lot; those of you who aced your math ACT have already figured out that even the highest figures represent only about two school days of testing. True! However, standardized testing doesn’t happen for two days in a row.

Rather, testing is spread out over the school year, creating not two consecutive days of lost instructional time, but repeated disruptions that ripple through classes and entire schools.

For example, on February 28 this year, every eleventh-grade student in the state took the ACT, which is now the state’s accountability test for high schools. In MPS, that meant not just five hours of testing for juniors, but a lost day of school for all the other high school students, who stayed home that day.

It also meant hours of registration time, as guidance counselors walked every junior through bubbling in their names and other information on answer sheets, time that students were out of class and counselors weren’t counseling.

As always, teachers felt pressure to do ACT prep as test day approached. I know I sure did. It took needed time away from subject matter. And since last year, high schools are under a directive to convert as many classroom assessments as possible to the ACT Writing test format: a timed, 40-minute argument writing task. For many of us, that has meant twisting and contorting what formerly were engaging, authentic assessments and projects, into a form devoid of any pleasure or creativity. Because of ACT.

None of that was represented in the chart the board saw last month, nor were the corresponding curriculum corruptions that affected every grade level and that were caused by testing. Also absent was data that represented repeated testing of students in various academic intervention classes, where those students can take the same test 15, 20, or more times in a year. That’s enough to beat the spirit out of any student.

The report was in part spurred by changes to federal guidelines under the Obama administration, which in its last couple of years came around to the idea that testing is not necessarily the best, and should never be, the only measure of student, teacher, school, or district achievement. Obama’s Department of Education launched a plan in 2015 to reduce time spent on tests — genuinely good news.

But who knows where that initiative goes now under President Trump and his public-school-hating Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. DeVos has long supported groups like the American Federation for Children, who count on test data to argue for the expansion of school vouchers and the disruption of public education as a whole.

The board committee receiving the report spent, if you can believe this, 10 whole minutes on this critical issue. Most of that time involved the district’s director of assessment explaining how there will be a more detailed report of MPS testing practices later. Only one member of the public spoke.

Even normally garrulous Director Terry Falk, who requested this study of standardized testing in MPS, had very little to say on the matter. “I’m not getting the phone calls on testing that I would have gotten a year ago,” he said. Teacher complaints about time spent testing, he said, is a “residual reaction” to the slightly greater number of hours of testing students spent a couple of years ago.

Okay, okay, I will admit this: The testing report was the final item on the agenda of a long night that included heated discussions of things like closing schools and mandating school uniforms. I can appreciate that board members entering their sixth hour of meetings in an evening can start to lose attention and concentration. It’s almost as if being trapped for hours doing a repetitive, restrictive task can be bad for you…

I feel like there’s a lesson in that, somewhere.

Jay Bullock teaches English and proctors standardized tests at Bay View High School and tweets as @folkbum. 

HALL MONITOR — Uniformity, or spirit?

February 1, 2017

By Jay Bullock

Word on the street is that Milwaukee Public Schools will bring a second big reform item to its board for approval later this month.

The first, approved in December, was a change to the high school calendar so students would begin mid-August and finish by Memorial Day.

This second reform, part of a suite of ideas Superintendent Darienne Driver unveiled last fall, is mandating uniforms in all MPS schools. Driver has said MPS loses some students every year to private or charter schools because parents want their children in schools with uniforms because parents often see uniforms as a sign of a safe school.

Not every parent feels that way. At Bay View High School this August, we got calls from parents asking if we required uniforms, hoping to transfer their children out of Pulaski or Bradley Tech where those schools instituted a uniform policy this year.

Should the uniform policy pass, any MPS school could opt out through its school governance council, the board of teachers, parents, and administrators that sets priorities and reviews school budgets. Schools would also have latitude to say what, specifically, is meant by “uniform.” In any case, approval of the plan would likely send seismic ripples through the hearts and minds of the city’s parents, children, and, I suppose, Walmarts.

I kind of like the plan. Readers of this column will remember that I am pretty excited by Driver’s term to date, and readers of my other writing online will remember my initial support for the reform ideas she proposed.

But I want to use this space to qualify my support of the uniform plan, to explain the “kind of” in the last paragraph. It starts with an argument I have made many times, including here in the Compass — see my September 2013 column “Students in Motion,” for example.

It goes like this: Milwaukee’s decades-old status as the nation’s broadest education marketplace has served two generations of students, now parents themselves, who lack investment in a school community. Consequently their children lack school spirit.

When a Milwaukee parent can send a child to any one of 300-plus schools in a half-dozen communities, the incentive to find one and love it, own it, and really commit to it is very low. For a child, when teachers don’t impress you or administration holds too strict a line, the incentive to switch schools is very high.

Every year in Milwaukee, data tell us, about a third of students change schools when they don’t need to. It might be mid-year; it might be between fourth and fifth grade. It might be because parents have moved across town; it might be because a student was caught with a knife in his pocket. It might be because of low grades; it might be because a school just can’t meet a student’s special education needs.

Never is it because some other school’s got spirit, no matter what the cheerleaders may chant at a basketball game.

Uniforms could possibly  change that.

Research on uniforms in public schools shows mixed results — decreased academic success sometimes, increased attendance other times, and ambiguous effects on teacher retention and morale. This is partly because every district is different, but mostly because not many public schools or districts require uniforms.

Uniforms are, indeed, associated with certain kinds of private schools — religious schools and fancy prep schools, for example. In schools like that, the uniform often takes on a metaphorical meaning, not merely a sartorial one. That is, those schools expect their students to act, think, and simply be more uniform.

I expect nothing of the sort from the students in my MPS classroom. I oppose, as a general pedagogical matter, bland uniformity among what should be a group of vibrant and quirky and unique individual students.

But spirit? I want that! I want the students who walk my halls and grace my classroom to feel like they belong there.

What if, instead of mandating uniforms, we challenged students to don school-spirit wear instead?

School-branded t-shirts, hoodies, old football jerseys, and tee shirts in school colors could be the ideal middle ground between uniformity and free expression. And it could enhance students’ sense of school spirit and pride.

A lot of teachers have favorite places in their schools — staff lounges, classrooms with great views of the lake or sunsets, the doors to the parking lot.

I have a favorite spot at Bay View High School — a few square inches on the bottom step of the stairway just outside my classroom door. The terrazzo tread has borne a hundred years of adolescent footsteps and what was once a sharp right angle at the intersection of rise and run has worn to a soft curve.

Making all of my students wear the same polo shirt every day won’t do anything to help them feel the weight of history that I see on that stair every day. I don’t entirely know if mandatory “spirit wear” will do the trick, either, but I look forward to giving it a try.

Jay Bullock appreciates the quirky kids in his English classes at Bay View High School and tweets as @folkbum.

Renewing the call for politics in the classroom

January 7, 2017

Jay1headshotOne year ago in this column, I suggested that Milwaukee Public Schools should ease its stance on politics in the classroom, instead encouraging teachers and students alike to have reasonable, open dialogue on issues of the day. Research shows, I noted, schools can close some of the achievement gap by teaching culturally relevant and responsive material that would engage students with issues they care about.

In this age of social media, I argued, it is far likelier that students are seeing, reading, and commenting on news of the day, and MPS would be smart to channel that outside-of-school engagement into in-school learning activities. In fact, considering the studies following November’s election that show adolescents are much more likely than adults to fall for “fake news,” it’s probably more important than ever that critical thinking about current events be central to the curriculum.

I wasn’t talking about me, as the nature of my moonlighting, writing about politics and policy here and online, means I am extra careful about what I say and do in my own classes. But last month, things got much more personal.

Over my objection, Bay View High School, where I teach, used that January 2016 column as a source text for its Bay View Redcats Write Day, where students dedicate a full day to plan, write, and revise a single written argument. The topic was whether those seen as leaders in a community, including teachers, celebrities, and clergy, should be activists for social justice.

Other source texts included a video about Father James Groppi, BVHS alum and activist in Milwaukee’s fight against housing discrimination, and an op-ed about how when celebrities protest, they become the story, not their chosen issue.

The starting point for the op-ed was NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his “taking a knee” during the national anthem this season to protest treatment of African Americans, particularly police killings of black men.

Just before Write Day, however, things got really weird. Kaepernick himself retweeted a picture of the BVHS girls basketball team also taking a knee during the national anthem at a home game. That photo ended up being seen hundreds of thousands of times on social media. The girls quickly drew both praise and criticism after a local news station ran a story on their action, with little thought given to why they protested.

To be clear, although I teach members of the team, I had no hand in their decision to protest. However, I could not have asked for a more perfect opportunity to test my theory. A lot of the criticism was just nasty hatred spewed toward the girls — “They have a right to be stupid.” “Disgusting little [expletives]!” “So sick of these scum bags.” “The inmates are running the asylum.” Some focused specifically on the fact that they were “representing” the school and as such should refrain from making political statements.

Alumni from various eras posted things like, “This is not my Bay View.” They demanded the girls be removed from the team and the coach disciplined, often accompanied by a threat to withhold donations to the school for allowing the protests to happen. Bay View residents said things like, “This doesn’t represent the Bay View community,” with three exclamation points and several crying emoji.

“What are the limits of what a person can do or say while acting as a representative of a bigger entity?” one person asked on a neighborhood Facebook group. They continued, “Bay View High School should not be expected to blindly allow nine students to be their local, state, or national voice, unless the message supports the mission of the school.”

This is why I wrote last year’s column in the first place. Many people believe that everyone walking through the schoolhouse door, especially teachers, but now, apparently, students must also shed all political or ideological thinking so they don’t “represent” the school in a way that might offend others.

That’s simply not possible: Our beliefs are not something we can hang up in a locker with our coats, and it is dangerous and counterproductive to try stifling the interests and energy of students when they actively engage in serious thought, debate, or protest. Critical thinking and reasoned argument is the mission of the school. Literally. It’s in our mission statement this year!

MPS and BVHS have not disciplined the girls for speaking out. That’s the right call and a call that should be extended to MPS adults who also advocate for social justice.

I still contend active politicking should be restricted. Teachers should refrain from trying to sway students’ votes and should not copy leaflets in the their lounge.

But MPS policy should not force the human beings in its schools who are teaching and learning — and playing basketball — to check their politics at the door.

Jay Bullock teaches English — and several members of the girls basketball team at Bay View High School. Email him at mpshallmonitor@gmail.com.  

HALL MONITOR — Election results endanger MPS

December 1, 2016

By Jay Bullock

Jay1headshotThe last month or so has been a bit of a roller coaster.

It started well, with a bold initiative put forth by the Milwaukee Public Schools to capitalize on its recent successes. The plan would not only revise the district’s calendar and school uniform policies but also give MPS sole oversight of all charter schools in the city.

The month ended with the election of an expanded anti-public schools majority in the state Legislature and Donald Trump as president.

The election results will almost certainly quash the great bulk of the district’s plan, as all proposed changes except school uniforms would require approval from a state Legislature more hostile to Milwaukee and MPS than ever before. And it’s not just these proposed changes that are under threat; it’s the ability of MPS and other districts in the state that serve disadvantaged students to do their job well.

First, there’s what might happen at the federal level in the Trump administration. In a campaign filled with emails, rape culture, and other non-issue issues, education never managed to make it to the front pages. It barely even managed to make it to the debates, let alone the candidates’ stump speeches. But from the Trump statements available, he seems to hold fairly commonplace Republican ideas about schooling, mostly centered around increasing “competition” through expanded private school vouchers and more public charter schools, and letting banks skim interest off student loans again.

Early in the transition, there was speculation Trump would appoint former primary opponent, prominent neurosurgeon, and weirdo, Ben Carson as Secretary of Education. As I write, there’s talk that it may be the noted union-buster Michelle Rhee. As bad as it would be for Trump to appoint a Carson, Rhee, or someone similar, that’s not the worst-case scenario.

Worst case, Trump and Republicans in Congress finally make good on their long-threatened elimination of the Department of Education altogether. That would be devastating.

DOE has an $89 billion budget, according to its published data, which covers everything from grants and loans for college students to Title I funds directed to high-poverty K-12 schools. If DOE is abolished, it’s likely that funding overall would be reduced and much of what remains will be given to states in block grants rather than being given directly to needy schools and students.

MPS receives more than $200 million annually in federal funding, more than one-sixth of its overall budget. Almost half of that is Title I funding. More than four of every five MPS students live in poverty. Any reduction in that number, either through federal cuts or withholding of newly block-granted funds by state legislators, would have a dramatic and lasting impact on the ability of our public schools to adequately teach the neediest children.

At the state level, anti-MPS legislators will certainly be emboldened to take bigger, more dangerous swipes at the state’s largest school district. Because of the way the state calculates its district report cards, and with some help from gains in MPS student achievement, the district has avoided what would have been a deathblow. Legislators had put in place provisions that would have stripped MPS of students, property, and funding, and giving those assets wholesale to private operators.

So what might await us in the next budget? If legislators’ public statements are to be believed, it could be anything from that same privatization plan, rewritten to apply to MPS — despite its improved status, to a total break-up of the system into smaller, easier-to-destroy pieces.

There is no firewall, no remaining line of defense. The Legislature’s Democrats and moderate Republicans could not stop anti-MPS legislation two years ago, and last month’s elections pulled the Legislature further from moderation, removing any hope that common sense support for Milwaukee children and schools will prevail.

So if the last month was a roller coaster of ups and (mostly) downs, brace yourselves. The big drop is coming—and it will not end well for us.

Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View High School, hates roller coasters, and tweets as @folkbum.

HALL MONITOR — With MPS on the way up, time to boost high schools too

November 2, 2016

By Jay Bullock

Jay1headshotIn September, I was pessimistic about education in general and urban education in particular. In October, I was optimistic about the Milwaukee Public Schools, vindicated by an announcement two weeks later that MPS was no longer labeled failing by the state.

Time to swing my pendulum back the other way, to pessimism.

The state’s announcement that MPS was no longer at the bottom should not lead anyone to complacency; while the improvement is surely due to better student achievement, it’s also because the state now adds student growth in addition to student achievement, expanding ways for low-performing students to count in a district’s favor rather than against it. So MPS has more work to do, especially when it comes to its high schools.

I write about high schools more than anything else, in part because it’s where I work and have some expertise. But I also do so because high school is both the place in K-12 education where a district’s failures become most manifest and the toughest level to reform successfully.

An example. As MPS crowed about its newfound not-failing status, it bragged most heavily about boosts to elementary achievement. While an op-ed penned by Superintendent Darienne Driver did note increases in a key high school metric — number of students in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes — no AP or IB exam results were listed. Why? State data show that while college-prep enrollment is rising in MPS, achievement on the exams is not.

Another example. In September, the University of Wisconsin system reported how many of its 2015-2016 freshman class, the ones who graduated from public and private Wisconsin high schools in 2015, needed remedial English or math classes. Up to four-fifths of graduates from some MPS schools needed at least one remedial class.

The MPS class of 2015 was the first to graduate under Driver. If, as I suggested last month, her presence atop of the district is itself a driver of success (no pun intended), students graduating from here on out will, I hope, have more success.

There are some early positive signs for high schools, from improved ACT scores to better attendance rates. MPS has partnered with local chefs for a culinary arts training program, including at Bay View High School, and one high school is part of the district’s “community schools” initiative getting extra support for students and families.

But there are some worries, too. MPS is still having a devil of a time attracting high school math, science, and special education teachers; half the 60-plus teacher job openings listed on the MPS website as I write are for just those three categories.

As a recent excellent investigation into the effects of Act 10 (the 2011 Wisconsin law that stripped public employee unions of most rights to bargain over salary, benefits, and working conditions) by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found, MPS is at a huge disadvantage today. MPS can’t afford “signing bonuses” or bigger salaries for high-needs areas. It’s more likely MPS teachers get poached away from MPS than the other way around.

It doesn’t help that teachers who sign on or stay in MPS are burning out under odious paperwork loads and seemingly endless meetings. Our time to prep and plan and decompress away from students is filled with mundane or insulting “professional development.”

Last year I wrote that teacher retention could be boosted if MPS would start listening to its teachers — a message that I’m not sure landed. The district recently sought input from teachers on the quality of all that professional development, but scheduled the focus groups on parent-teacher conference nights and at times guaranteeing high school teachers could not attend.

And for all the great work MPS has done at bringing back arts and music, we are starving for librarians and guidance counselors. MPS really pushes the idea of college, and foists the PSAT test on every student twice, in addition to the state-mandated ACT test. That UW report showing so many MPS students need remedial classes suggests we should do more to make sure students are not just good at taking tests but also at making better college-related decisions. That takes a bigger investment in counselors and counseling time.

I’m not saying we throw up our hands and surrender; the recent good news indicates we should keep pushing. But without help for high schools, too, the successes MPS is seeing in lower grades are simply not sustainable.

Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View High School and shows his usual pessimism on Twitter as @folkbum.

HALL MONITOR — We have failed our children, and the consequences are spreading

September 1, 2016

By Jay Bullock

Jay1headshotAfter a summer with fire and an uprising in Milwaukee, I’m going to open this first column of the school year with a paradox. There has never been a better time in American history to be a child, but we have utterly failed in our responsibilities to our children.

Let me explain. Today, the median American child is doing great. In general, test scores are up, as are expectations for students, graduation rates, and college attendance rates. Childhood mortality is down, as are juvenile crime, teen pregnancies, and rates of adolescent smoking, drinking, and drug abuse. We’re raising, by any metric, the smartest and healthiest generation of American children ever.

But not every child is the median child. As in almost every other aspect of American life, there exists a clear dichotomy. On the one hand, children in America’s wealthier families and communities experience tremendous advantage and success. On the other, America’s poorer families and communities fall further and further behind.

According to a study last year by the Urban Institute, nearly 40 percent of all American children will live in poverty for at least one year before the age of 18. That number is 75 percent for African American children.

Each year data show more than two million American children experience a period of homelessness and more than 15 million face food insecurity. Again, these hit minority children at a much higher rate.

Children who spend any time at all in poverty are significantly less likely to finish high school. Unlike the median American child, they will not be graduating or going to college in record numbers.

That alone should explain why I believe we failed our children, but it is much worse than that. This failure is not just real and consequential, it is baked into the very fabric of American civic and political life.

Decades ago this country entered into a kind of tacit agreement with itself. We looked around and saw poverty, racial and economic segregation, a crime epidemic, blighted cities and backward small towns, and a host of other social ills that needed curing. And we decided, through some kind of subliminal consensus, that we would solve those social ills through education.

America’s public schools, we agreed, could handle this work.

The evidence is everywhere. “Education is the only way out of poverty!” — how often have you heard someone declare that? Those who make this claim are surely earnest. As poverty falls, they believe, other problems will also begin to vanish — an educated populace is an employed, law-abiding, healthy, socially responsible populace.

But at this point in our grand experiment to let schooling fix everything, it should be clear that it doesn’t actually work that way, that, instead, we need policy solutions that work outside the classroom rather than within it.

Or, if we insist on keeping to the plan, schools must be given adequate resources to overcome barriers like poverty that make educating America’s poorer children much more difficult.


 Source: U. S. Dept. of Education  goo.gl/WZb7be 


There was a time when the plan to use schools to fix our problems was still moderately new, when the country did invest heavily in school funding. Starting around 1980 and continuing through the go-go economy of the 1990s, average per-pupil funding more than doubled when adjusted for inflation. Much of that came from increased federal Title I spending that was targeted for schools with high-poverty populations.

This made a difference. According to a new report by the Shanker Institute, spending levels affect student achievement. “In direct tests of the relationship between financial resources and student outcomes,” they report, “money matters.” School funding is key in everything from student-teacher ratios to upkeep of buildings. A Cornell University study this year found that building conditions strongly influence student achievement.

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, known as “the nation’s report card,” math and reading scores increased significantly through the 1980s and 1990s, especially among younger students. Achievement gaps between wealthy, white students and other groups closed.

Since 2000, though, per-pupil funding has fallen across the nation. On NAEP tests, the gaps have stopped narrowing.

According to an August report by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, here in Wisconsin, three-quarters of school districts are receiving less state aid now than prior to the recent financial crisis, forcing record numbers of districts to place funding referenda on the ballot. High-poverty areas like Milwaukee don’t have that option and are falling further behind wealthier neighbors.

Milwaukee is not alone. This summer we saw racial tensions here boil over into sometimes-violent unrest, as has happened in cities nationwide over the last few years. While sparked specifically by police actions in minority communities, underlying all of the protests, including Milwaukee’s, is the incontrovertible fact that these communities have not just been mistreated, but actively starved of resources.

And because we still have our expectation that schools and schools alone must do the work of fixing society’s problems, blame for the persistence of these issues is placed squarely upon underfunded districts like the Milwaukee Public Schools. You can’t swing a badger by the tail in the state capitol building without hitting one of the legislators who has attacked MPS and threatened to strip the district of even more resources.

Therein lies our great failure: At a time when the average American child is better off than ever, we have abandoned our obligations to those children who most need our help.

If we are going to keep expecting America’s schools to solve America’s problems, we have to give schools the resources to do it, and quickly. We have only just begun to see how the consequences of our failure to do so are spreading beyond test scores and classrooms and into the streets.

Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View High School and thinks his Twitter jokes are funny:

HALL MONITOR — Does WILL have a way to destroy MPS?

April 30, 2016

By Jay Bullock

Jay1headshotWhat if I told you the biggest threat to the future of the Milwaukee Public Schools was not declining enrollment, or endemic demographic challenges facing the community, or even restrictive revenue caps imposed by the state?

What if I told you the biggest threat to MPS was, instead, a handful of lawyers you’ve never heard of, holed up in a nondescript office suite on the city’s East Side?

I am guessing you wouldn’t believe me, but there’s no doubt in my mind this is true.

The lawyers work for the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, or WILL. The group was founded shortly after Governor Scott Walker was inaugurated and the conservative movement discovered it needed a blunt legal instrument to beat opponents into submission to the new regime. That regime was exemplified by Act 10, Walker’s signature legislation stripping most public employees of their long-standing rights to bargain collectively over things like pay and working conditions.

WILL has repeatedly threatened and sued public entities in an attempt to enforce its conservative ideology. They’ve filed suits over everything from Obamacare (they’re against it) to street preaching (they’re for it).

But they hold a special place in their cold hearts for public schools. WILL has been involved in lawsuits against districts from Kenosha to Madison, from Brookfield to Appleton. They have sued the Milwaukee Area Technical College and they have already sued MPS.

Their latest attack is about who controls the fate of empty MPS buildings. These buildings are owned by the City of Milwaukee. Therefore, all of us who pay taxes and live here have a vested interest in what happens to them. My position was, is, and will forever remain, that these buildings are public property and should be put to the best possible public use, either as truly public schools or returned to the tax rolls as commercial or residential property.

WILL disagrees. It has repeatedly bullied MPS over its empty buildings. WILL led the public scolding, for example, when MPS refused to sell the Malcolm X building to the St. Marcus voucher program. Over the last few months, it turned its focus on the city, sending threatening letters to the Common Council in the wake of a new state law.

Last spring as the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee finalized the state’s budget, Republican leaders submitted the dreaded Motion 457. That motion provided for some high profile rearranging of Wisconsin’s public school systems, notably creating a statewide special education voucher system. And it established the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program that, as I have written here before, could by itself bankrupt MPS within a few years. The intent of OSPP, as expressed by its authors, was to empower an unelected commissioner to take both empty schools as well as schools full of children and staff—along with the attached funding—away from the control of MPS.

There is also a low-profile provision in Motion 457 that allows direct competitors of MPS to divide the district’s empty infrastructure the way conquering armies divide the spoils after war. Except there was no war; there was not even a public hearing or a poll or a referendum. Every representative from the city of Milwaukee voted against this measure, which mandates that empty or underused buildings would be sold by the city. Despite the city’s legislators’ opposition, it is now the law.

Among those who asked the Milwaukee Common Council for the right to use some of its currently-empty MPS buildings was Dr. Darienne Driver, MPS Superintendent. In the same section of the state budget establishing OSPP, power is given to Commissioner Dr. Demond Means, for a lack of a better phrase, to take over some of Milwaukee’s public schools and empty buildings. But it also explicitly grants Dr. Driver similar authority, which by my reading would include that same right to take empty MPS buildings.

Yet WILL wrote to the city in March and claimed that Driver had no right to ask for or use the buildings, saying she is “not an education operator.” Yes, you read that right—the superintendent of the largest school district in the state is not, apparently, in the business of education!

WILL threatened to sue if the city did not sell to voucher schools, and to sue if it did sell to Driver.

Means, in a plan unveiled at the April MPS board meeting, is seeking to partner with existing MPS schools. He wants to convert existing MPS schools into instrumentality charter schools run by MPS but with his oversight. He wouldn’t take empty buildings and start from scratch. In other words, he wouldn’t exercise the same authority that Driver attempted. Ironically, Means’s refusal to do so could result in WILL suing him, too.

WILL’s vice president wrote on its website in March that “the law does not give (Means) the power or duty to be an ‘ally’ or ‘partner’ to MPS.” Though he didn’t include the words “we have a lawsuit ready to file,” the threat was clear. I applaud Means for his position, but I am sure it will come at the price of a costly legal fight.

That is why WILL is really the biggest current threat to MPS. It will not rest until MPS is dismantled piece by piece and given to unaccountable private entities. And unlike, say, legislators who have to stand for election every once in a while, I fear there is nothing voters and taxpayers like you and I can do to stop them.

Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View High School. Email him at mpshallmonitor@gmail.com.

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