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.

Hall Monitor — A good time to make real changes to high schools

February 1, 2016

Jay1headshotI’m an Apple guy. But I am not thrilled to learn that the Milwaukee Public Schools is going after grant money from XQ: The Super School Project, a high school reform-effort largely funded by Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of the late Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs.

For one thing, we’ve done this before. There was a stretch in the 2000s when MPS received Bill Gates’s money through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. When Gates was funding high school multiplexes, we multiplexed. When Gates was funding “small learning communities,” we converted to SLCs. All of those Gates-funded experiments have ended with no clear benefit to the schools and the students who participated.

For another, there’s the public input MPS is seeking. On the district website, they’ve asked seven questions, including ‘What are the major challenges today’s students face?’ and ‘What are some insights you have about how young people learn?’ and ‘What innovative ideas do you have for teaching and learning?’

Come on. If MPS doesn’t know that stuff already, if we don’t know our students’ challenges or the science behind adolescent cognitive development or the research about effective classroom practice, then we’re in bigger trouble than I thought. Jobs’ money won’t fix that.

The XQ website asks different questions: What if teachers were encouraged to explore new content as co-learners, alongside of students? What if learning were a game?

Now, those questions intrigue me, and I will come back to them in a moment.

This is actually a reasonably good time to talk about high school reform, and many are because making college “affordable” is all the rage these days, with proposals from everyone from noted socialist Bernie Sanders to noted misanthropist Scott Walker.

I teach many students who graduate a semester early, having earned enough “credits” to do so legally. They give up a chance to learn for free in high school, and it is almost always so that they are able go to work to save money for college.

My friend Adam Schmidt, who is in Milwaukee as part of 50CAN, the 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now, pointed out to me that college affordability plans don’t ever take into account K-12. If students need a year of remedial classes at their university to get college-ready, then they’re also going to need another year of tuition, housing, books, and loans to cover it all.

Plus there was the uproar unleashed last month when Wisconsin’s ACT test results were released. For years, including this one, all juniors in Milwaukee Public Schools have taken the test, even those who never would or should be college-bound. That left MPS with scores that averaged about 16 out of a possible 36, looking terrible compared to the rest of the state, but where only college-bound kids took the test. (Individual school or district scores are not yet available for the class of 2016, but MPS scores have been stable at around 16.)

MPS still looks bad compared to the state as a whole. Yet a score of 16 compared to a score of 20 represents a gap that is about 30% smaller than a gap of 16 compared to 22.2.

It’s no wonder, some people said, that students need remediation when they get to college—this new state ACT average is a harbinger of doom for us all!

But look at the scores for eighth graders in MPS and around the state. The 2015 test scores have not yet been made pubic for individual schools or districts, but scores for Wisconsin’s eighth graders overall showed that about half of students were proficient or advanced in reading and math. In the previous year’s tests, the numbers for MPS eighth graders were far lower, with just 1 in 6 students scoring proficient or higher.

(I think the minimum scores to be labeled proficient are too high, but I won’t rehash that whole argument today.)

How can high schools adequately prepare students for college, in only four years, when they start ninth grade so far behind? Making learning a game or making teachers co-learners will not, in isolation, accomplish that. But two things will help.

First, kill the four-year cohort. Then kill the credit system.

The four-year cohort is the federal standard mandating that students must graduate four years after they start high school or else schools and districts are punished.

Schools should not be pressured to push out students who aren’t prepared just because they’ve been in high school for four years. If a child begins ninth grade reading at the fifth grade level, we know it will take more than four years for that student to catch up and to be ready for a job or college.

The credit system is a willing accomplice to the cohort. What matters to me as a teacher, and what matters to colleges and employers, is what students know and can do, not whether they have met arbitrary credit requirements. Replace it with a skills-based portfolio. Throw in the ACT, if you want numbers.

Students would be still be permitted to graduate early if they could prove there’s nothing left they need to learn, and students who need a fifth or sixth year of high school should get that time without blowback to them or their school.

There’s no good way for MPS to explore the kind of questions the XQ project wants schools to explore as long as they are bound to the old system. That may be why MPS’s own questions were so pedestrian.

It would be far better for MPS—the whole state, really—to throw its weight behind removing these big, structural obstacles, freeing high schools to pursue meaningful changes to the way we teach and our adolescents learn.

Jay Bullock teaches, unreformed, at Bay View High School and tweets as https://twitter.com/folkbum.

HALL MONITOR — Politics in the classroom

December 31, 2015

By Jay Bullock

Jay1headshot“Please tell me it isn’t true,” read a recent email to me. “I found out you’re actually a teacher. Yikes! Now I know why [Wisconsin Governor Scott] Walker is pushing for expanding vouchers! It’s to keep kids away from partisan hacks like you!”

This was not about anything I wrote here in the Compass or from a parent, but some random person responding to my other, more political writing online.

The funny thing—not ha-ha funny, but ironic funny—is that in school I am anything but a partisan hack. Because I’m ‘internet-famous’, I watch my in-class speech very carefully. The last thing I need is to give some disgruntled politician or internet troll an excuse to go after my livelihood. Although a simple online search would give my students a wide-open window into my politics, I am completely opaque with them on this topic.

In 2012, for example, most of my students were convinced that I had voted for Mitt Romney. Their reasoning? I am white and I refused to say which candidate I had actually voted for. To them, silence suggested embarrassment or fear to admit to something they would find upsetting, i.e., opposition to President Obama.

In 2014, students pressed me again about my vote, but this election was little trickier: they knew teachers generally didn’t care for Walker (the feeling, I know, is mutual) but since I wouldn’t even hint at my actual inclinations, many assumed I voted for Walker anyway.

There is in fact an MPS policy against politicking in class or with school resources—Mayor Tom Barrett’s wife, who formerly taught for MPS, once got into trouble for breaking it. It’s not a completely terrible policy, especially considering the power dynamic between teachers and their students.

Yet it remains true that lots of teachers, liberal and conservative, not just in my school, but all over the city and state and country, are less careful about politics in the classroom. And though recent events like the Wisconsin recall elections might make you think this is a new phenomenon, it isn’t.

I remember when I was in high school, my AP U.S. Government teacher was an unabashed free-market Republican who routinely impressed upon us students the necessity of small governments, low taxes, and lax regulation. Those things, he said, were what made this country great, and God help us if that horrible Bill Clinton should get elected.

What is recent, say the last five years or so, is that more and more of my students are bringing politics to the classroom. Their Facebook newsfeeds and other social media are full of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The political opinions of their favorite actors and singers and athletes are more accessible than ever. Terrorism, climate change, the Black Lives Matter movement, immigration, and scores of other issues are constantly on their smartphones and on their minds. As we careen into 2016, my students are bringing politics to me, not the other way around.

When students want to know where I stand, I typically ask them instead what their opinion is and what facts and evidence they have to support it. Pushback forces them to hone their reasoning skills, even when I might already fully agree with them. Does it frustrate them? Sure, but they come out of it better thinkers.

None of this actually answers the most relevant question, though, which is whether keeping politics out of the classroom, muffling teachers, and tamping down student excitement over political engagement, is a good idea. Some research suggests not.

I’m not saying it’s good practice for teachers to be preachy and partisan. Rather, studies suggest that if schools want to close the achievement gaps, they should be engaging students in curricula that are culturally relevant and centered around social justice—ideas of racial and economic equality, nonviolence, environmentalism, and cultural diversity.

I guess when I put it that way, it does almost make me sound like a raving leftist. But support for such teaching doesn’t just come from radical fringe groups, but staid, mainstream organizations as the U.S. Department of Education, George Lucas’s Edutopia, and the National Education Association.

Even MPS, with its no-politics-in-the-classroom policy, recently updated its high school graduation requirements to include service learning, which asks students to assess the needs of their communities and address them in positive ways. However, the requirement is merely that this happens just once during four years of high school.

At this moment, though, when students are more politically engaged than ever and MPS needs desperately to close its achievement gaps, it may be time to loosen—I wouldn’t say totally end—the prohibitions on politics in the classroom. Encourage schools and teachers to use what students are already interested in to push them beyond their academic and cultural comfort zones. Children will learn more, more willingly, and, if we’re lucky, turn out to be better adults for it.

Jay Bullock is a partisan hack and an English teacher at Bay View High School. Email him at mpshallmonitor@gmail.com.

HALL MONITOR — Pulaski-Carmen partnership—wrong solution, wrong message

November 30, 2015

By Jay Bullock

Jay1headshotWhen I learned this summer that the Milwaukee Public Schools administration considered leasing some of the space in the Pulaski High School building to the Carmen charter school organization, I figured it was a done deal.

MTEA, the Milwaukee teachers union, spearheaded strong opposition that almost put the outcome in doubt, true. But the inevitable did happen when the school board voted in October to approve the arrangement by 5-4, much closer than the 8-1 or 7-2 that I expected.

Several things suggested inevitability to me.

First, the steady squeeze of the state vise with measures seemingly designed to punish MPS that are being hurled toward Milwaukee by a Republican legislature. They’re angry we don’t do everything they want us to, including making the same space-sharing deal with Carmen at Bradley Tech High School a year ago.

That legislation includes an outside takeover entity—the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program. OSPP is run by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and Demond Means, who he just-appointed OSPP commissioner. Both speak like they are MPS allies, but at the least, they pose an existential threat.

Second, the legislature also vested authority in MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver to do essentially the same thing as OSPP if she chooses: vacate any school building and hand it over fully to a charter operator like Carmen.

And third, declining high school enrollment throughout the district and the concomitant budget pressures its creates.

Together these three factors make MPS deals with Carmen inevitable. Solidifying the district’s relationship with Carmen, whose students are technically MPS students even though they are not in a traditional MPS school, was an obvious choice. But that doesn’t mean it’s a choice I agree with. I do not.

Alberta Darling and Dale Kooyenga, authors of the takeover legislation that empowers Abele and Means, are both on record as supporters of the Pulaski-Carmen deal, something that ought to give MPS supporters pause. So should the idea of high school mergers.

The board also voted to move the middle school grades out of the Morse-Marshall building on the city’s northwest side, at the same October board meeting that approved the Pulaski-Carmen partnership.

That partnership between the high-performing Samuel Morse Middle School and the perpetually failing John Marshall High School was a keystone in reforms instituted by former superintendent William Andrekopoulos. His tenure was marked by many such moves, including the similar merger of Bay View’s above-average Fritsche Middle School with below-average Bay View High School, as well as a creating a number of multiplexes—large buildings housing several smaller schools that share space and some resources.

Morse-Marshall was the last of those high school mergers/multiplexes in the district. By my reckoning, all of them basically failed, especially the one at Bay View, which I witnessed. I’m sure the reasons for these failures are as varied and complex as the reasons that district officials felt such moves were necessary in the first place, but by and large, pairing “successful” schools with “failing” ones did not improve the district’s rate of success.

I’m not saying with certainty that this will happen with the Pulaski-Carmen deal, and as a teacher and a human being I certainly am not rooting for failure; I want every child, even those at schools I don’t think should exist, to get the best education possible. But the track record for mergers and multiplexing here in MPS doesn’t leave me feeling optimistic.

I’ve been through several “reform” efforts in MPS, some were executed poorly, but one was done well. That was Believe in Bay View, a process that was well documented in this column and elsewhere in the Compass.

To create a path for change, Believe in Bay View relied not on an administration-imposed reform plan but on a community engagement process that gave voice to stakeholders and critics alike.

That didn’t happen with Pulaski. It might be in part because MPS leaders, who pushed community-led reform, both in the administration and on the school board, have left. It might be in part because the neighborhoods around Pulaski aren’t the hotbed of community activism that Bay View is.

Regardless, there’s still a staff of dedicated, qualified professionals at Pulaski who want their students to succeed. Pulaski’s student body is among the most politically active in the district, with a strong on-campus chapter of Youth Empowered in the Struggle (YES). These students have led a number of protests and actions demanding change in their school and city.

On the night of the board meeting that approved the Pulaski-Carmen merger, MPS Board president Larry Miller rattled off a number of alternate ways to improve Pulaski without Carmen.

A supporter of the plan, an ally in the fight for quality education in Milwaukee and someone I consider a friend, tweeted “Why is it that all of these other ideas have suddenly come out of the woodwork only once #YEScarmenpulaski was proposed?”

The fact is those ideas have been out there. For years students and staff at Pulaski floated them to an unresponsive administration.

It’s too late now.

Bringing in Carmen sends a very clear message to the students and staff and parents at Pulaski: they lack the capacity to improve the school and their input is not necessary.

I know the current political context is unprecedented and the pressure is higher, perhaps higher than it has ever been, for MPS to do something. But I cannot condone something that shuts out those closest to the problem and signals that they, in fact, are the problem.

Pulaski students and staff are not the problem and with the approval of the Carmen plan, they’ll never get to be the solution, either.

Jay Bullock plays a benefit concert for Guitars for Vets on Dec. 6 at 8pm at Anodyne Coffee Roasters in Walker’s Point. Follow him on Twitter @folkbum.

HALL MONITOR — Principal retention also a challenge for MPS

November 2, 2015

By Jay Bullock

Jay1headshotBay View High School had exactly three principals during its first 59 years—between 1914, when the school was first organized in a series of barracks under the oversight of Gustav Fritsche, and 1973, when Arthur Showers retired.

In mid-October this year, BVHS staff, including me, were introduced to Sandra Peterson, the sixth principal the school has had in the last nine years. We actually began the year principal-free, with previous leader Aaron Shapiro having taken a promotion into the vast middle-management wasteland of the district’s central office.

This is not to suggest there was any kind of chaos or leadership vacuum at Bay View; to the contrary, the year began strongly, with all involved working to keep implementing the strategies identified by the “Believe in Bay View” process initiated a few years ago, which provides strong guidance and vision regardless of who (if anyone) occupies the principal’s office.

I don’t blame Shapiro for taking the promotion—it’s clearly in the best interest of his career—but the change in leadership just served to underscore for me and many others in the school and neighborhood that the Milwaukee Public Schools in general has a problem finding and keeping principals in challenging schools.

I went back through school board minutes from the time when Shapiro was appointed to lead Bay View, June 2013, to last month, when Peterson was appointed. This is perhaps an arbitrary time period, but since it was Bay View’s principal turnover that prompted the investigation, it was the one that made the most sense to me.

In that time, just over two years, more than one-third of MPS’s 154 schools saw churn at the top. In many cases, the principalship changed twice, and for a few troubled schools—Bradley Tech and Hopkins-Lloyd among them—there seemed to be three different principals in that time period.

The board minutes don’t specify why the leadership changes were made. I imagine at least some of the changes were for banal reasons such as the previous principal retiring, or, like Shapiro, taking a promotion. But it seems highly unlikely that well over 50 principals in the district hit retirement age or moved up the career ladder all within the space of a couple of years.

There’s something else going on here, and it is likely affecting student achievement in these schools.

The literature on principal effects on academics, particularly as it relates to principal stability, is not as robust the literature on the effects generated by classroom teachers. However, it is generally recognized that after teachers, school leaders are the second-most important in-school factor related to student achievement. What research there is suggests strongly, though, that when principals stick around, schools do better.

A recent study by the School Leaders Network put this into perspective. “As a result of principal churn, students achieve less in both math and reading during the first year after leader turnover,” they write, saying it of ten takes three years under a new principal for scores to return to the level they were at before the change.

But it gets worse, especially for a school like Bay View, where we are in the middle of a reform effort, or for a school like Bradley Tech, which is undertaking some new reform efforts after years of struggle. Even if the leaders are strong, being new to the school takes its toll.

The SLN report says, “While highly effective principals create significant changes each year, it takes an average of five years (their emphasis) to put a mobilizing vision in place, improve the teaching staff, and fully implement policies and practices that positively impact the school’s performance.” I can’t remember the last time a struggling MPS school, especially an MPS high school, had a principal serve five full years.

In the case of Bay View, Peterson’s role is actually Assistant Principal in Charge, a temporary appointment, as the search for a principal is expected to start again in the spring. While Peterson may well be hired for that role, it’s possible that the five-year clock will reset for BVHS again with principal number seven—in 10 years—at the helm for 2016-2017.

A couple of months ago, I wrote here about the challenges MPS has in finding and keeping quality teachers, since this district, like a lot of urban districts with difficult to educate children, sees tremendous turnover in teaching staff. Research on principal stability shows that steady school leadership does not just have positive effects on students, but also on teachers.

A stable leader improves teacher retention rates within schools and general morale and school climate for all staff. This may explain at least some of the test-score improvement, since happy teachers are often better teachers.

When I wrote about teacher retention, I relied in part on a Public Policy Forum report on the K-12 teaching force in the metro Milwaukee region. PPF has promised a second, similar report on school leadership in the area, though it has not been released yet. I am waiting anxiously to see if, as with teachers, Milwaukee is the region’s outlier in finding and keeping quality school leaders in place.

Given our experience, solely in our neighborhood high school, I expect the answer to that is going to be a resounding yes—MPS has a problem with principal recruitment and retention, and it’s hurting our students, our teachers, and our district.

Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View High School, tweets as @folkbum, and does not want to be a principal. 


Hall Monitor — Making Wisconsin education a laughingstock again

September 30, 2015

Jay1headshotIn 2010, to very little fanfare, Wisconsin made a significant leap forward. It adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Instead of paying to develop its own new standards and a new test based on those standards, the Dept. of Public Instruction (DPI) decided it would be cheaper, faster, and wiser to join up with other states that had made the same calculation.

What attention there was on this move was mostly positive. Many critics felt that the old standards and the old exam didn’t really give a sense of how well our kids were doing compared to those elsewhere. Some even said the existing standards were laughably weak.

In Wisconsin, curriculum is still set at the local level, though the federal government does require all Wisconsin students to take the same test. Many districts, including Milwaukee Public Schools, had already begun moving toward the CCSS by that point, recognizing a need for tougher standards. We didn’t really feel like being a national laughingstock.

Opposition at that time, as I’ve written in these pages, came mostly from education advocates who were generally opposed to testing in any form. It wasn’t what test students took that was the problem; it was that they took any test at all.

At the same time, some of the iffiest parts of the K-12 landscape were getting better scrutiny. A new regime of state report cards—one widely praised by other states trying to figure out an accountability system—promised to offer statewide transparency and cross-district comparisons.

Further, students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice (voucher) Program were required to take the same exams as other taxpayer-funded students. And DPI’s power to police abuses in that program had been strengthened, as well. We were all hoping for no more tales of shuttered fly-by-night schools and their proprietors living it up in Florida.

In other words, five years back, things were mostly looking up; our status as a sometime-laughingstock was on its way out.

Since that time, though, almost everything about education in Wisconsin has been upended.

Opposition to Common Core is now widespread and fierce. In its newly partisan form, it is mostly not about testing at all. Republicans are simply opposed to being part of any kind of national curriculum. Indeed, after just one year of the Badger Exam—what Wisconsin called its version of the Smarter Balanced Assessments offered by almost 20 states nationwide—Republicans in the state legislature killed it. They even declared that the results could not be counted for anything.

Accountability for voucher schools has been rolled back. The voucher program has been expanded statewide against vocal opposition from local districts and without any demonstrable need for new or better options in most communities around the state.

Funding has been gutted for both K-12 and higher education. Along with drastic changes to tenure rules at the university level, many high-profile UW professors and researchers are moving to other states.

And K-12 teachers are leaving, too. I wrote last month that there are teacher shortages all over the state. As I write this, four weeks into the new school year, MPS still has 30 openings to fill. This despite having had to eliminate more than 700 teaching positions since those heady days of 2010—a cut much deeper than the district’s modest decrease in enrollment could explain.

But that’s not all. This past month brought two more indignities to education in the state. For one, the state finally picked a new vendor for a state exam. (Chucking the Badger Exam didn’t eliminate the federal requirement that we test all students.) A company belonging to a former state Republican lawmaker and current big-money donor will write the new exam.

The new test will apparently still cover CCSS, but because it exists only in Wisconsin, good comparisons to other states will simply be impossible. That is exactly the problem that a move to CCSS was supposed to fix.

Plus there’s a proposal out now that directly and spitefully targets the one person most responsible for making those positive changes back in 2010, and who has fought tooth and nail against the efforts to roll them back: State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers.

Evers, like every state superintendent in Wisconsin history, was elected by the voters. But now Republican lawmakers want to make the position an appointed one, and part of the governor’s cabinet.

Because Evers has stood in opposition to these recent changes—and others like the controversial Act 10 that destroyed teachers’ collective bargaining rights—lawmakers want to replace him with a political appointee who will go along with their agenda even when it takes the public out of Public Instruction.

It’s hard not to look at all of this and wonder whether some people want us to go back to being a laughingstock.

Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View High School. He likes comedy, but on Twitter, not in education. 

Twitter: @folkbum

Email: mpshallmonitor@gmail.com

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