HALL MONITOR — MPS State Report Card Slightly Improved

December 30, 2017

By Jay Bullock

MPS State Report Card Slightly Improved
But a deeper look highlights Milwaukee’s woes

It’s never a good sign when you or your place of employment is in the New York Times as the bad example, a cautionary tale.

Yet there we were in December, Milwaukee Public Schools, as part of a story on the newspaper’s blog, The Upshot. After looking at data prepared by the Stanford Education Data Archive, writers Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy heaped praise upon the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) for helping struggling students make up lost ground. According to the story, Chicago students make six years’ worth of gains in the five years between third and eighth grade.

“By comparison,” Badger and Quealy wrote, “children in the Milwaukee Public Schools test at similarly low rates in the third grade but advance more slowly, leaving them even further behind by the eighth grade.”

I can’t argue. As an MPS high school teacher, I see the effects of this slow rate of growth every day. The Times story shows that MPS eighth graders are, on average, over two grade levels behind, which squares pretty well with what I see in my classrooms.

It also squares with state data for MPS. Overall, we improved on the state report cards for 2017. But we were not so hot in middle school.

For example, 2017’s eighth graders were less likely to score proficient or advanced than 2016’s seventh graders, who were, theoretically, the exact same students. Somehow, in just one year those students’ rate of proficiency fell by three percentage points in reading and two percentage points in math.

It’s worth pointing out a couple of things to consider if you want to make the comparison between MPS and CPS. Notably, MPS has a much higher percentage of students with disabilities — 20.1 percent to Chicago’s 13.7 percent. MPS students are also more likely to be economically disadvantaged.

The Times story presents third- and eighth-grade test scores graphed against community wealth for 2000 districts. The graph follows a clear and familiar pattern; there are above grade-level scores in places with above-average income and low scores in poor districts.

That’s not the point of the Times story, of course, which is about growth rates. The growth-rate graph still shows a strong relationship between money and achievement, with students in richer districts improving more over five years. But there are many more outliers, including CPS, which is way out there, almost by itself. It clearly has above-average growth for a city as poor as it is.

For this Milwaukeean, it’s been hard to understand why Chicago is making so many gains over the last five years, and this story is not the first to suggest that our neighbor to the south has answers to questions that stymie us.

Plumbing the depths of my social networks didn’t offer any clarity, and the Times story isn’t able to point to an answer, either. It cites only one Chicago school that is trying a bunch of different things.

The best the authors can do is make generic statements like, “Across the district, data about attendance and grades is being used to identify the students likely to need extra attention,” as if the same thing isn’t already happening all over the country, including in MPS.

Even the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research, whose job it is to work with Chicago Public Schools to improve education, can’t “untangle what’s been effective,” according to the Times. The consortium’s website offers a number of optimistic reports, but most are about programs that are less than five years old, so they are not solely responsible for long-term growth.

What the Times story offers, ultimately, is an affirmation of why I go to work every day. There is hope we can make a difference even in the face of tough odds. We have to try.

The Times story is clear about why the odds are tough. No matter how much ground a student can make up in an urban district like Milwaukee or Chicago, it is no match for the advantage conferred by wealth.

Badger and Quealy observed, “The most effective school systems alone can’t overcome all the disadvantages of poverty that accumulate before children even reach third grade and that shape the country’s racial achievement gaps.”

There will be no real revolution in education reform if there is no improvement of income inequality.

Let’s see if we can do something about that in this new year.

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

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One Comment on "HALL MONITOR — MPS State Report Card Slightly Improved"

  1. David (Pat) Wright on Mon, 1st Jan 2018 11:44 am 

    Jay states the problem extraordinarily well. Students of poverty enter our school systems, all of our school systems, with significant challenges. Those challenges are best known by teachers like Jay who are close to them on a daily basis.

    As a former high school English teacher and principal, I have spent my entire career seeking a solution that could empower those closest to the student, the classroom teacher.

    I have worked with teachers across the country to gain insight and have determined that with better tools teachers stand a better chance of helping the most challenged students make great progress.

    Personalized/adaptive instruction holds great promise in this regard. We need systems that can help teachers personalize instruction while maintaining control over how students can best be helped.

    For instance,airline pilots receive real-time data regarding the status of the aircraft they are flying, which informs them on the overall status of many interrelated systems, engine temperature, lift/drag, hydraulics, etc. However, the pilot is always in control and ultimately decides the actions that must be taken, based on accurate data.

    The tools exist today to support teachers in a similar manner. Personalized/adaptive instruction with the teacher’s role as a facilitator, collaborator, planner, and researcher.

    To be sure, such a solution requires all stakeholders to be engaged and committed to a thoughtful strategy to equip and support teachers.

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