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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Milwaukee's Graduation Rate is Double that of Detroit

At least, that's the best spin I can come up with from this:
Education Week, a widely read education industry weekly publication, released results Tuesday of an analysis aimed at determining how likely a student entering ninth grade was to graduate with a conventional diploma at the end of the fourth year in high school.

For Wisconsin [.pdf], the figure was 80.6%, the fifth-highest rate in the United States. The national average was 69.6%.

But for Milwaukee, it was 43.1%, the fourth-lowest figure among the 50 largest school districts. Detroit (21.7%), the Baltimore city school district (38.5%) and New York City (38.9%) were the only ones with lower rates.
I didn't write about this yesterday when it first hit the wire, because I wanted to dig a little deeper and that takes time. Some (like fellow MPS teacher The Game) see this as a sign of weakness on my part, an accession that I won't "defend failing socialism." I'm not entirely sure what that means.

But what I am sure of is that the lede--and even a bit of the analysis at the bottom of the article--tell only a part of the story available by doing the digging. For one, I had to find the USA Today story to learn that the study was paid for by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which, of course, has no interest at all in high school graduation rates. And the reading at Education Week itself is quite interesting.

I do need to point out that one critical flaw in the study is that it uses a four-year timeline for judging graduates. While that may work for most schools and students, a considerable number of MPS students are, in fact, on the five-year plan. (My school also graduated four juniors in its ceremony this month--students who would not be counted in the study.) The study also does not count any students who might have gone someplace like MATC for a GED (my school will have a GED program in it next year, in fact). MPS's statistics, which showed a graduation rate closer to 60% for the years covered, take those into consideration, and I think that provides a different picture. Whether you call the graduation rate 40% or 60%, though, it is abysmally low, and there's no way to avoid saying that. (I have never claimed otherwise.)

But the full picture shows how much Milwaukee's problems are indicative not of some unique failures of the city or of MPS, but of urban districts across the country. When you look at the full list of large districts produced by the study, the best-performing districts are not cities at all: Fairfax County, VA, for example, is a wealthy suburban area outside of DC; to put it on a list with Detroit and Milwaukee is misleading.

This graph, however, is not misleading. What it shows, quite clearly, is that once students get out of middle school in high-poverty districts--middle schools that are more likely to employ social promotion than high schools--the problems become manifest. Kids get stuck in ninth grade because they come in with low skills and bad habits and, according to the study, more than a third of dropouts happen in ninth grade. (Nearly two-thirds happen by tenth grade.) I wrote about this yesterday: High school is not necessarily where the worst problems happen, but it is where the effects become clear. That leads many people--including, in today's Journal Sentinel story, deputy state superintendent Tony Evers, not to mention Bill Gates himself--to think that tinkering around with high schools will make a big difference. It won't; it can't--not unless the community sends us something different out of middle school.

But back to my point about this being a national urban problem. This .pdf from the study includes the info that majority-minority and highly-segregated districts (like Milwaukee) fall far below the national average for graduation rates. The same for high-poverty districts. A lot of people on the right like to remind us the poverty is not a barrier to education, but rather that education is the ticket out of poverty. And I agree that we cannot make the post hoc fallacy of automatically thinking that because high-poverty districts have the worst stats that the poverty is the cause. But it is clear that the correlation does exist, and investing more and more in urban schools isn't having the effect desired. Tinkering with the design or make-up of the schools isn't doing it, either. There is something deeper.

Consider these stats from the story:
As in other studies, the Education Week analysis found large gaps in the graduation rates between white students and black or Hispanic students, as well as a substantial gap between girls (72.7% nationally) and boys (65.2%).

The national rates were 76.2% for white students, 55.6% for Hispanic students and 51.6% for African-American students. For Wisconsin, the comparable figures were 85.4% for whites, 49.1% for Hispanics and 44.3% for blacks.

Combining the gender and race gaps showed one important focus of the high school graduation problem: African-American males. The statewide African-American graduation rate was 36.7% for boys, 50.1% for girls, according to the new figures. Nationwide, the comparable figures were 44.3% for boys and 57.8% for girls.
Remember that the vast majority--I think it's something like 90%--of African-American students in Wisconsin are in MPS. On the one hand, it's comforting to know that we're not significantly worse than the national average; on the other, it's disturbing to know that this is the national trend.

My fellow teacher the Game, in the post of his I linked above, lauches this tirade:
Liberals, you care about human rights and the poor??? Why are you doing nothing about this?
Throwing money doesn't work, blaming white people doesn't work...and all this crap that educators come up with doesn't work.

If entire communities refuse to be productive citizens in society and refuse to act in a civilized manner, than does it matter if we make every floor of a high school its own separate "learning community"....NOPE....
Does the latest way to teach reading work when a kid comes to school two days a week? NOPE...
I am sick and tired of EVERYONE ignoring the real problem.
The communities these kids come from are rotten, polluted from the inside out...
Get Cosby in there, get Sharpon [sic] out...get some personal responsibility and pride...get all the PC liberals out of there enabling them to fail with all their social programs and excuses that do NOTHING, and have done NOTHING since they were started...
If all this socialism that liberals love works, where are the results.
This must be where his "failing socialism" accusations come from. I do agree that there must be change in the community, but I don't think it's enough to make these kinds of near-racist rants about Milwaukee. The change has to be a re-commitment to the idea of public education, and not just among those who fund it (which is key), but among those whose children participate in it. That simply can't happen when the problems of Milwaukee exist as they do. And I'm not talking about social welfare or food stamps as being problems; I'm talking about the economic conditions that exist and continue to worsen that make those things necessary.

Milwaukee needs revitalization as a community before its schools can fully turn around, and, I'm sad to say, it seems the rest of the state doesn't much care. The other big story in the paper this morning is a Dickensian tale of how many people see Milwaukee as waning, and, well, good riddance, say the emigrés. But some people make the same point that I do:
"I think you can't let it drip, drip, drip. At some point, you erode your entire economic and social fabric," said Greg Shelko, formerly the assistant director of the Milwaukee Redevelopment Authority. In June 2004, Shelko moved from Milwaukee to Tucson, Ariz., where he is the downtown development director.

To stem Milwaukee's population decline, Shelko said, "you have to continually create reasons for people to embrace the city and want to stay there, if not attract them to move there. Certainly, economic development, an emphasis on growing the employment base is critical. Improving the quality of life is also critical."

Dave Schulz, the former Milwaukee County executive, who now lives in northern Illinois, said population losses in Milwaukee won't be stopped until employment losses are reversed. "In this chicken-and-egg thing, you've got to get jobs first to bring the people back," said Schulz, director of the Infrastructure Technology Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "In order to have a place for jobs, you've got to have the work force, infrastructure.

"To say that Milwaukee schools are troubled is an understatement," he added. "It's not necessarily their fault. They are dealing with dysfunctional families, societal issues. The bottom line is employers have to be confident that they can attract a work force commensurate with their needs. Those needs will be education sensitive."
I don't have a solution. (I'm just a blogger; give me a break.) But there is one out there, and it isn't one that limits itself to rearranging the furniture in schools. That means to start being constructive, we need to stop placing all the blame on the schools, and start looking at what, systemically, we can do to solve Milwaukee's problems.

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