HALL MONITOR — Hills To Die On

February 2, 2018

By Jay Bullock

Last month, I noted Chicago Public  Schools does a significantly better job of educating students in the middle-school grades than Milwaukee Public Schools. And I noted no one seems entirely sure why, or what kinds of things MPS could do to turn itself around.

In one of those cosmic coincidences, a couple of days after I submitted the column I learned of Karin Chenoweth’s new book, Schools that Succeed.

Chenoweth penned an op-ed for the Washington Post headlined, “Yes, there are high-poverty public schools that operate at a high level. Here’s how they succeed.” Not wanting to give away all of the secrets of her book, Chenoweth didn’t give step-by-step instructions for fixing everything.

But she did say these successful schools “focus on improving the knowledge and skill of the adults in schools and give them the time and space to collaborate about what kids need to learn and how to teach it.”

Yes! I almost shouted aloud before considering what everyone else in the coffee shop would say. This!

This — the sense that groups of professionals do what they do better, when their leaders trust them to work together on a problem. This is one thing missing from many MPS schools.

I have covered this before in this space, but it is worth noting again: teachers’ time is monopolized and micromanaged to an almost unbearable degree. At a school board meeting in 2017, teachers unrolled a yards-long handwritten list of all the things that administration expects us to do during our ever-shrinking professional preparation time. Paperwork and other non-student centered tasks have increased dramatically since 2011, the year our ability to bargain collectively about working conditions ended.

The board listened and reduced that micromanaged time a smidge. But I still spend 35 minutes every single day in a before-school meeting. I also spend hours more each week in structured “collaborative planning” time that lacks the authentic collaborative atmosphere described by Chenoweth.

We need that atmosphere in Milwaukee. This is not negotiable. It is a hill I would die on.

Okay, the war metaphor may be overkill, and cliché, but I have been thinking about it a lot lately and about the choices some people are making about their own hills.

For example, an MPS school board committee meeting held January 9th was packed to capacity with an audience that was very angry about raises given some central-office administrators. Those raises had been budgeted last spring and the budget that was finalized in November included those raises.

But because one or more of the raises may have been granted without sufficient school board review — one raise was halved after disclosure of this fact — it drew the attention of teachers and parents. They showed up at the meeting angry. One of the teachers was escorted out of the auditorium by security staff.

The raises, atop the fact that the central office added five administrative positions, when more than 150 classroom positions were eliminated, looked really bad for the administration. Terrible optics, as they say.

But the cost of the raises, $100,000 a year, is one-tenth of one percent of the district’s spending, and it is not even enough to pay for a whole teacher position. It is hardly a hill to die on.

On the other hand, a board hearing two weeks later about what the 2018-2019 budget might look like drew fewer than half the audience of the board meeting covering those raises. There were about a dozen who spoke, advocating for better pay and benefits, especially for substitutes and paraprofessionals, but there was none of the fire of the previous meeting.

When given an opportunity to influence budget decisions in advance, the energy and effort just wasn’t as strong as people’s outrage after the fact.

That didn’t mean the board members didn’t have a hill in the fight. At that budget hearing, the board members fought contentiously among themselves about how to avoid a projected $38.7 million budget shortfall next school year.

Some, including Bay View resident and at-large school board member Terry Falk, wanted to add the sentence, “Consider cuts to central office staff,” to the text of the district’s “budget parameters,” which guide the writing/content of the full budget. A heated argument followed about the value of the district’s administrative offices and officers, with Falk’s motion ultimately failing in a 6-2 vote, a telling indication of what hill the board seems willing to die on.

Falk, it should be noted, was the first to sound the alarm on those administrative raises.

In other cases, people are picking a good hill to die on, just on the wrong side.

For 2017-2018, MPS moved from four district calendars to two. They consolidated year-round schools, IB high schools, and other schools with grades 9-12 onto a single calendar with students starting August 14. Other schools kept a post-September 1 start date.

The plan was to move all schools, beginning in 2018-2019, to a unified calendar with a mid-August start date. This makes sense. Early start is great for high schools, and moving to a single unified calendar saves MPS money and helps families with children in multiple schools and grades.

But district elementary teachers and parents chose the September-start-date hill to die on, and the calendar next year will be exactly as it is this year. With a looming deficit, now seems like the worst time to perpetuate a financially inefficient system. How many teachers will be laid off because of the calendar they themselves advocated?

The next few months will be tough, as the MPS budget process gets underway for real. I encourage everyone involved — board members, teachers, parents, students, and taxpayers — to think carefully about what hills they’re willing to die on.

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

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One Comment on "HALL MONITOR — Hills To Die On"

  1. Karin Chenoweth on Fri, 2nd Feb 2018 2:05 pm 

    Thanks for the nice mention — just so you know, I got interested in the improvement that Chicago has made some time ago, and featured it in a new Ed Trust podcast, Extraordinary Districts. You can find it at iTunes or anywhere you get podcasts — or at http://www.edtrust.org/extraordinarydistricts.

    Good luck — on thought I had reading your column is that it sounds as if there is time set aside to do real collaboration — it might be up to the teachers to ensure that it is time well used instead of misused.


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