Wisconsin falling behind

October 1, 2010

“With the exception of Milwaukee Public Schools, the public school system in Wisconsin is the envy of the nation,” wrote Craig Rosand, Douglas County Republican chairman, in the Sept. 3 Superior Telegram.

Just a few years ago, Wisconsin had the highest ACT test scores in the nation. “We’re number one,” Wisconsin leaders shouted. Now we are tied for third, so on Aug. 18 the Journal Sentinel ran a story with the headline, “MPS’ mandatory ACT testing cited as decline catalyst.” This ignores the fact that Wisconsin’s ACT ranking has been dropping for several years, before MPS decided to test all its graduating students.

Let us be clear, Milwaukee’s low educational achievement is unacceptable, but we can’t keep hiding behind Milwaukee to mask Wisconsin’s educational shortfalls.

The 2000 U.S. Census data show that Wisconsin is indeed above average in high school graduates, 89 percent for Wisconsin versus 84.5 percent for the nation. But our state falls behind the national average for college graduates, 25.9 percent for Wisconsin versus 27.5 percent for the nation. For states with advanced college degrees, Wisconsin does even worse.

For 2007, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress for eighth graders, 18 states have higher reading scores than Wisconsin. Nine states do better than us in math. The same data set shows that Wisconsin ranks 18th on school spending, 19th on teacher salaries.

Teachers in Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota all make more money than Wisconsin teachers. Iowa teachers make less. More recent data show Wisconsin’s salaries are now below the national average.

The real problem is not that Wisconsin has been falling educationally, but rather that we have remained stagnant while other states have dramatically improved. Wisconsin would look better educationally without Milwaukee; but Illinois would look better without Chicago, Michigan without Detroit.

Wisconsin’s affluent suburbs and medium-size cites are doing well educationally, but our working-class suburbs, small towns, and rural areas are struggling, along with Milwaukee, to meet higher educational standards. We must recognize our shortfalls.

Wisconsin now ranks below the national average in income. Without world-class education, we will not have world-class jobs.

Terry Falk is the Milwaukee Public Schools director for the Eighth District, which includes Bay View. He can be reached at (414) 510-9173 or falktf@milwaukee.k12.wi.us.



That newfangled technology

August 1, 2010

One final act of Superintendent Andrekopoulos was to recommend lifting the school cell phone ban. The school board quietly approved the recommendation.

From the beginning, I would have supported the ban if the administration seriously attempted to enforce it. But almost immediately the administration stated that students might be allowed to bring cell phones to school if they kept the phones in their lockers. I knew those phones would never be left there.

Some schools tried to enforce the ban, but most operated with the policy that if we don’t see or hear the phone, we’re not going to look for it.

Many parents didn’t support the ban. If little William was being attacked coming home, he could call for help. Cell phones gave parents a level of comfort.

The ban was put in place because some students would call in “support” if a fight broke out. But only the good students stopped carrying phones. The ban failed.

Cell phones can be a positive educational tool. Recently, I attended the National School Board Association convention. Students were brought in from a local Chicago school to show how their iPhones are used on a daily basis to retrieve information and send text messages to their teachers. Some schools now require teachers to give out their cell numbers so that parents and students can contact them virtually any time of day. Teachers are also more likely to call a parent’s cell than send a note.

Of course, cell phones can be abused. Some students can send text messages to their friends in class without ever taking the phones out of their pockets. They can feel the right keys without looking at them. Students have been passing notes in class for generations. That didn’t mean we banned pencils and paper.

In the end, the administration abandoned the cell phone ban because it was not enforceable and didn’t get to the root of the real problem. The technology was not the problem; it was the behavior. Call me old-fashioned, but schools should never put in place rules they are not going to seriously enforce.

Terry Falk is the Milwaukee Public Schools director for the Eighth District, which includes Bay View. He can be reached at (414) 510-9173 or falktf@milwaukee.k12.wi.us.



Ending the power struggle

July 1, 2010

By Terry Falk, 8th District School Board Director

On July 1, Dr. Gregory Thornton becomes Milwaukee’s school superintendent. His selection took place after months of deliberation by the school board. Thornton’s early selection gave him the time to learn the school system and get his administration team in place before taking charge of MPS. That rarely takes place in most school systems. Often boards just fire their superintendent then scrabble for a replacement.

The Milwaukee Teachers Education Association hasn’t been as lucky. After the sudden death of its executive director, Tom Morgan, the MTEA had to follow a much more abbreviated process. Soon we will know who that executive director will be.

The relationship between the MPS superintendent and the MTEA executive director is critical. The board of each organization sets policy, but the superintendent and the executive director make the day-to-day decisions. Will these two leaders wrestle for control or seek common ground?

Power can be viewed simply as finite. The only way one party can get power is to take it away from another. We see these epic battles in Congress, between neighboring countries, in management-labor negotiations.  More often than not, no one comes out ahead; everyone loses.

But there is another way to look at power. Power is not finite; it can be created. Envision a school board trying to roll a rock up a mountain. That rock is this school system. The summit is educational excellence. And the climb is steep. The board must call upon the superintendent, the teachers’ union, parents, students, church leaders, business CEOs, the mayor, all to help in rolling that rock up the mountain.

We don’t want the parties to be endlessly squabbling over who is in charge or what is the best method to move the rock forward. But that squabbling pretty much sums up Milwaukee’s educational efforts so far.

Instead we want each entity to be as powerful as possible so long as they all push in the same direction.

We need cooperation between MPS and the MTEA. We need all organizations to be generators of productive power.


Political tug of war at state level harms local urban education

June 2, 2010

By Terry Falk, 8th District School Board Director

Over 20 years ago, a Republican legislature and governor decided that Milwaukee Public Schools needed reform. How could the school system have gotten so bad? What was wrong with the school board and teachers?

The school system was too centralized. Institute some free-market competition through school choice and a “System of Schools;” free schools of burdensome rules. Good schools would flourish; poor schools would close.

In fact, MPS had already decided it was too centralized and began instituting “School Based Management,” but this was too little, too late for state officials. The Legislature created the voucher system and open enrollment. Business leaders poured money into school board races to elect like-minded school board directors.

But the reforms didn’t produce better outcomes; they may have made things worse.

This past year, a Democratic legislature and governor decided that Milwaukee Public Schools needed reform. How could the school system have gotten so bad? What was wrong with the school board and teachers?

The school system was too fragmented and decentralized. Too many reading programs existed. A single curriculum was needed across the district.

In fact MPS had already decided it was too decentralized. The public had thrown out the so-called school reformers, and the new school board was reversing the mistakes of the past, but this was too little, too late for state officials. First the governor tried to give the school system to the Milwaukee mayor. But when that failed, the state Legislature decided to give more power to the state superintendent.

We don’t know if this latest reform will produce improved achievement outcomes, but we do know that the Republican legislators didn’t approve of the measure.

Come November, Wisconsin may again turn the state Legislature and the governorship over to the Republicans. They want to go the other way with even more school choice and further decentralization, perhaps breaking up the school district into eight smaller districts.

This tug of war is conducted by statewide officials with little urban experience who think they know more than the citizens of Milwaukee. This paternalism has to stop. It isn’t improving education in Milwaukee.

Terry Falk is the Milwaukee Public Schools director for the Eighth District, which includes Bay View. He can be reached at (414) 510-9173 or falktf@milwaukee.k12.wi.us.


DPI pressures could cause MPS schools to go “art-less”

May 1, 2010

By Terry Falk, 8th District School Board Director

Over 30 years ago Milwaukee Public Schools created several art-orientated specialty schools. These are wonderful schools instilling the best in public education.

But quickly MPS began dismantling many art programs at other schools throughout the system. Do you want art for your child? Go sign up for one of the art specialty schools. As a teacher at Juneau High School, I saw my school, with a marching band, orchestra, and several choirs, winding up with virtually no music in just a few years.

Every child deserves to have art and music. As a school board director, I’ve supported extending art and music to every school in this system. Unfortunately, we may again see cuts in art and music programs.

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction is placing additional pressures on MPS to provide 90-minute blocks each day in our elementary schools for both reading and math. After three hours of instruction in these areas, schools are scrambling to find time for other academic areas. The arts may get squeezed out in the process.

MPS made a mistake by having too many reading and math programs, especially given the mobility of students moving from one school to another. Focusing on one or two proven programs in each area is a step in the right direction. We need students to read, write, and compute better, but dedicated blocks for these subject areas are not necessarily the best answer.

Instead we should infuse all subject areas with these basic skills. Numerous studies have shown a high correlation between arts programs and reading, writing, and math skills. But DPI is pushing for the simple answer.

In addition, the state is giving less money to school systems, and school boards are limited by state law to the amount they can raise taxes. Thus principals must look at their proposed school budgets for next year, trying to figure out where to make cuts. On the chopping block at many schools are art teachers.

Hopefully we can weather this storm. We can improve the basic skills and preserve a rich, creative curriculum for all our children.

Terry Falk is the Milwaukee Public Schools director for the Eighth District, which includes Bay View. He can be reached at (414) 510-9173 or falktf@milwaukee.k12.wi.us.


No school is an island

April 1, 2010

By Terry Falk, 8th District School Board Director

In March, the public made a passionate appeal for preserving art, music, and lower class sizes before the Milwaukee School Board’s Committee on Strategic Planning and Budget. The public is right. Art and music are central to teaching basic skills. Without smaller classes, students will not get the attention they deserve. Board members understood that parents want the best for their children, and we must do everything we can given the school financing crisis facing our district, state, and nation.

But some speakers recommended closing failing schools and giving the money to their successful schools. Those speakers did not tell us where to put those children from low performing schools.

That bothered former School Board Director Jennifer Morales: “If we engage in cannibalism, there wouldn’t be anyone left to stand up for the kids. Let’s be cautious about pitting high performing schools versus struggling schools, low-income families versus middle-income families. We’re in this together.”

Superintendent Andrekopoulos was bothered as well. He pointed out that the majority who spoke came from the specialty and middle-income schools. “We have a moral obligation to hear the voices who weren’t here tonight. When we look at the kids that live in poverty, we have the requirement to spend that money [on those students].” Most federal funds must be given to schools with the highest poverty rates.

We cannot have winners and losers for students in our schools. School Board President Michael Bonds deplored a “survival of the fittest” school mentality. If we are to close schools, it must be because we found a better place for these students, not because someone else wants the money.

I believe that most citizens would prefer we look to other cuts and sources of funding to shore up education for every child, that the speakers who spoke about taking money away from one child and giving it to another were a small percentage of this community.

All these children are our children-every one of them. When people stop and think about it, I’m optimistic that this community will work together for all children through these troubled times.

Terry Falk is the Milwaukee Public Schools director for the Eighth District, which includes Bay View. He can be reached at (414) 510-9173 or falktf@milwaukee.k12.wi.us.


A disastrous school budget

February 28, 2010

By Terry Falk, 8th District School Board Director

Milwaukee school board members were just as shocked as the public about the extent of suggested school budget cuts. The superintendent has yet to submit an overall budget to the board. While the board is likely to find ways to place more resources into the schools, some school budget cuts will take place.

School districts across the state are experiencing similar budget problems. So are all MPS schools, and the superintendent promises that central administration will also have cuts. The recession means the state is collecting fewer tax dollars, so the governor and state Legislature cut school funding.

The state cut SAGE, a program to lower class sizes for students living in poverty, by $200 per child. The MPS superintendent says the district can’t make up the difference, so he cut 11 schools from SAGE. Other cuts impact teachers, educational assistants, and other support staff.

Dramatic increases are taking place in health insurance. For every dollar going toward wages next year, MPS will pay out $.77 in benefits.

Neither suburbs using open enrollment nor private schools in the choice system are taking the most expensive special education students from Milwaukee. Thus MPS must educate our most needy children. The Legislature only partly fixed the voucher funding flaw, so Milwaukee taxpayers still pay more.

Solutions to our budget problems are not simple. The state is unlikely to give more money to school districts this year. The MPS superintendent does not want to use one-time federal stimulus money to maintain teaching positions. The school board may think differently.

Milwaukee’s health insurance system is broken, and MPS and its unions must fix it. But lower wages and poorer working conditions mean MPS has trouble attracting and retaining teachers.

We can close more schools, but each closed elementary school saves only enough to cover about four teachers. We still have schools in rented facilities while we have empty school buildings. That has to stop.

Busing accounts for only 5 percent of the total MPS budget, and half of that is for required special education students.

No one solution will solve our budget crisis.

Terry Falk is the Milwaukee Public Schools director for the Eighth District, which includes Bay View. He can be reached at (414) 510-9173 or falktf@milwaukee.k12.wi.us.


New school superintendent, new beginning

February 1, 2010

By Terry Falk, 8th District School Board Director

The last two Milwaukee superintendents were plucked from the principal ranks without much experience in the central administration. Such selections made sense in a decentralized system. We wanted a principal’s perspective at the top.

But halfway through his tenure as superintendent, William Andrekopoulos concluded that decentralization wasn’t working all that well. While he tried to make some adjustments, he wasn’t trained to operate in a centralized manner. Never having worked outside of Milwaukee, he knew only one school system.

So it should not come as a surprise that the school board has looked outside the system for a superintendent specifically trained to run a big operation.

Milwaukee’s new superintendent, Gregory Thornton, has a reputation for turning around troubled school districts. He was offered Philadelphia’s superintendent position but turned it down because its board would offer him only a one-year contract. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell quickly appointed Thornton to head the troubled Chester Upland District, which had been placed under state control.

Here are my priorities for Superintendent Thornton:

Decide what functions should be centralized and what functions should be left to individual schools. The organizational structure in central administration needs an overhaul. Everything can’t come to the superintendent for approval. We need a deputy superintendent who can break barriers between departments.

Everything costs money. We must do more with less. Show courage but also listen with a heart.

Our human resources department is a mess. We must integrate hiring, firing, mentoring, and training into one department.

Transparency is a must; no decisions made in backrooms. Right now even the elected school board members sometimes can’t find out what is going on.

All schools must be great, not just a few. We can’t have some schools with experienced teachers and handpicked students while other schools limp along with inexperienced teachers and classrooms packed with the most difficult students. Can we bring up the bottom schools without pulling down top-performing schools?

My list might be a little different from yours. I get to see some things other people don’t. Yet I need to know what you think the priorities should be. With a new superintendent, we have a chance at a new beginning.

Terry Falk is the Milwaukee Public Schools Director for the Eighth District, which includes Bay View. He can be reached at (414) 510-9173 or falktf@milwaukee.k12.wi.us.


Special needs equity

January 3, 2010

By Terry Falk, 8th District School Board Director

If you are looking for the classrooms for handicapped students in many schools, start in the basement and look for the worst classrooms in the building. This is where these students are often housed.

It used to be worse. Fifty years ago, children with severe disabilities were expected to stay home and be taken care of by their parents. Students with behavioral problems didn’t have special needs; they were just bad students.

While we now have these students in many of our schools, the distribution of special needs students among our schools has not been equal. Over a third of the students in some central city schools are students with special needs. Meanwhile, some schools with entrance requirements have the smallest percentage of students with special needs, often less that 10 percent of their student population.  »Read more


Bonus pay unmerited

November 24, 2009

By Terry Falk, 8th District School Board Director

Wall Street executives raked in millions in bonus pay while their companies went under. Coming up with objective standards for bonuses is extremely difficult in business. It is nearly impossible in education. That is why you should fear “merit pay” for teachers.

Education Week magazine recently did an analysis of the criteria being used by the federal government for states to receive the Race to the Top dollars and concluded that merit pay simply has no credible research to support it.

Denver is the latest school district to try a merit pay system. Perhaps they will succeed where others have failed, but I am skeptical.  »Read more


Education begins at birth

October 30, 2009

By Terry Falk, 8th District School Board Director

Child care in this community is a mess. Some daycare providers have been falsifying records. Child welfare agencies aren’t protecting children. We all can say that parents should do a better job. Some won’t; others can’t.

Many of those children will make their way into Milwaukee Public Schools emotionally damaged and years behind developmentally.

Critics might complain that MPS already has too much to do and why should we pay for childcare anyway. Frankly, we don’t have much choice. We either pay now or pay later.

Ann Terrell directs early childhood programs for MPS and sees what challenges these children face upon entering school. Some children don’t know their full names. They can’t get along with other children, sit still, or wait their turn. The first time a child has ever had a book read to them was when they entered school. Television was their only source of information. Some children will never catch up; they will fall only farther behind.  »Read more


Another education takeover

October 1, 2009

By Terry Falk, 8th District School Board Director

In 1995, Governor Tommy Thompson decided to take over Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI). Since the state school superintendent is constitutionally mandated, Thompson simply de-funded DPI and set up his own education office. The elected Superintendent John Benson could sit in his empty offices while Tommy ran Wisconsin’s educational system.

The reasons given for the state takeover weren’t much different than the reasons for the takeover of Milwaukee Public Schools. Thompson stated that very few people voted in the superintendent’s race, special interests ran the department, DPI opposed innovations like school vouchers, and it was time to shake up the system. He, Tommy Thompson, was elected by all the people, and he was going to use his mandate.  »Read more


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