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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Milwaukee Public Schools: Screaming, and Small Miracles

Last week, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran a series on Milwaukee Public Schools high schools. As a teacher in an MPS high school--indeed, in one of the schools specifically profiled--I do not think that, for the most part, there were great inaccuracies. I do think that this editorial on small schools overlooked the problems of implementation, including those reported by that very paper. Fellow teacher Diane Hardy countered with an op-ed; I did a whole series on the problems last year.

But by far the story that rankled me and other bloggers was ths one from last Monday. First of all, the photo on your right accompanied the story, on the front page, and it was taken in a chemistry class at my high school. The photo--whose caption indicated that students were sleeping--was actually of students who did not want to have their pictures taken and, consequently, hid their faces from the photographer. That was the first problem.

The second problem was Milt Perry:
The class is called Employability Skills. If so, Lord help our future employers.

The teacher, Milton Perry, has been at [this school] for 39 years. What kind of class is this, a reporter asks before entering the classroom. "Wild," Perry answers. He says there are 35 students on the roster. About 20 are present on a typical day. On this day, 16 are in the classroom at 8:50 a.m., 15 minutes after the period began.

At no point in the 90-minute period does Perry do any conventional teaching to the class - a lecture or presentation of any material.

"Lecture to this group?" Perry says. "You'd be up here talking to yourself. You might as well go over there and talk to that closet." He looks toward the students, who are spending most of the time goofing around, and says, "All they want to do is play with the cell phones, eat junk food, listen to CD players."

What are they supposed to be doing? They have a textbook, "Succeeding in the World of Work." Perry gave them work sheets that call for them to turn to specific pages in the text that summarize the main points of each of the 25 chapters in a few words. Then they are to fill in those phrases on the work sheet. This is Thursday; they've been working on this since Monday. And if they don't finish by Friday? Perry says he'll give them some more time. He also says it ought to take two periods to complete.

The other assignment for the class is to learn the two-letter abbreviations for every state and the District of Columbia used by the U.S. Postal Service. On Monday, Perry passed out a sheet with the 51 locations and the two-letter answers and told the kids to copy the abbreviations. On Tuesday and Wednesday, they did the same thing but were supposed to do it without looking at the answers. Now, on Thursday, they're supposed to do it again. On Friday, they will do it once more, this time as a test.

Why learn these abbreviations? "Number one, it's knowledge. You don't turn down knowledge," Perry says. He calls the lesson a "sponge activity," because it needs to be repeated a few times before students soak it up.

Perry says the trend in student ability has been downward for years. What could change that? "Ooh, that's a tough one," he says. "The only thing I can think of is parental involvement." The hands of administrators and teachers are tied, he says. At parent teacher conferences recently, he had four parents show up. He has about 90 students.
You can probably guess why I'm frustrated. I teach these same students--and I'm not speaking metaphorically, here; I literally teach these same students--and I do not just give them a packet on Monday and sit around hoping they finish copying out of the book by Friday. That's crap. And I know what a "sponge activity" really is, and I use them wisely. (A better solution to the problem of students' not knowing postal abbreviations: Take them to the library and teach them where to look them up.)

The students are not "wild" unless you expect and allow them to be. And I don't care what the "trend" in student ability is: You meet them at their level and you help them reach the next. It's not a matter of worksheets and drills; it's a matter of caring a little bit.

But there are two key points that need to be made coming out of this. One plays off of Perry's claim that four out of 90 parents showed at conferences. That, I have no doubt, is absolutely true. I don't get a much better rate myself, even among parents of my college-bound students. This does not mean the failure of students to learn is solely the fault of disengaged parents; that disengagement does, however, reinforce something that I have been saying for almost as long as I've been in this district. The problem of education in Milwaukee is not (just) a schools problem. It is a Milwaukee problem. And to expect schools alone to overcome parental disengagement, recreational violence, endemic poverty, chronic unemployement and its attendant problems (poor health care, bad nutrition, lack of parental oversight and discipline), and fifty years of white flight and resegregation is ridiculous.

Getting parents to turn up at conferences is a start; getting them more involved in how students treat school at home is better. Too many on the right, though, are willing to lay all the blame on the parents. Dad29, for example, or fellow MPS high school teacher The Game. For them--for Dad29, in particular--this seems to fit more of an anti-Milwaukee bias: The people in Milwaukee are to blame entirely, not anything systemic or systematic.

Schools can work miracles--I see small ones every day--but we cannot upend the social order to make everything right again. It's even more frustrating to think that some (Bill Gates and our superintendent, to name two) think that tinkering with high schools alone can save the world. High school is an easy target for education critics, because high school is where long-term problems become manifest: students don't drop out at fourth grade, for example. Years of difficulty and challenges in a student's life compound right up until the point when they get to me, and all of a sudden I'm blamed for the wide-spread failure.

Which brings me to the second point: Milt Perry is not representative of the teachers at my school, or MPS generally. Three classrooms from my school got profiled in that story, two positive. Guess which one the right crowed about? Commenters at Joanne Jacobs's site called for Perry's resignation. As did WISN's Dan Diebert (who did, I admit, mention another teacher--but then claimed she was "creating victims" by trying to convince them that education is the lynchpin of their future). Brian Fraley probably wins the prize:
How in the hell is Milton Perry still employed by MPS? This guy has been there for nearly 40 years and is not educating students. He’s barely babysitting them. [. . .]

He has no business working for the taxpayers in a public school. He isn’t helping these kids. He himself implied this was a typical day in his classroom. If true, then he is an embarrassment to the district, the school, and his peers. He’s especially embarrassing to the quality teachers in MPS, some of whom are also profiled in this series. [. . .] The question is, what will be done with this information?

My gut tells me that nothing. Nothing will be done.

The MPS bureaucracy is too cumbersome, the teachers’ union is too blockheaded to rid their ranks of those not competent or not compassionate enough to be called true educators, and too many people are like Milton Perry.
One of the right's most favorite things to do is to blame the teachers union for protecting bad teachers. You see it all the time; every day, someone somewhere is demanding that a teachers union stop protecting bad teachers. It's a cop-out and the worst kind of lie.

First of all, it is not--it is never--a union's job to root out bad members. That's management's job. Period. The union is there to ensure that the process is fair, not to ensure that it never happens. MPS, for example, has a union-developed program called TEAM, which is very easy for administrators to use. It's designed to get poor teachers the help thehy need, either to get better, or to hit the road. It works--but only if management does its job.

Second of all, I have been Milt Perry's union rep for three years. I have not been protecting the man from anything. Not one principal--out of three I've worked under at my school--has done anything about him.

In fact, in one discussion I had with the current principal after the article ran last week, she actually laid that one on me: "Your union protects him," she said smugly.

"You can get rid of him if you want," I told her.

"Why should that be my job?" she said. I held my tongue; I wanted to scream at her, "Because you're the principal!" but screaming is not my style.

So, in the end, if I don't scream, what is to be done? Well, word will get out eventually that my school is being closed. As part of the superintendent's high-school redesign effort, they're chucking the school and putting a new, different, and (we all hope) better charter school into the building. Charters have slightly more freedom when it comes to teaching and program design, but, as I noted this morning, the raw material coming in will still be the same. We'll still have to meet kids at their level and help them get to the next one.

And what happens when the students don't make it to the next level? Former MPS school board member Bruce Thompson kind of wishes that, like private schools, MPS could expell students for not meeting expectations. Sadly, we can't. We're stuck with what we have.

And small miracles are all you get.

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