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.

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