Two years ago, the Greater Milwaukee Committee partnered with some other community leaders and the Milwaukee Public Schools to create a new, long-term strategic plan for the district. Here's some news about it, and here's what I wrote about participating in the process at the time.
The GMC is, among other things, a business association, which makes it in some ways a rival to the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. The MMAC, headed by Tim Sheehy, has been pretty solid in its support for schools in the past--voucher schools, that is. Sheehy and team have long been critics of MPS and supporters of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program that sucks extra tax dollars out of Milwaukeeans' pockets and deposits those dollars, often, into the hands of charlatans or thieves.
That GMC and MPS have formed a partnership seems to have made MMAC feel left out. Today brings news that MMAC has retreated to its own treehouse to talk about schooling in Milwaukee and they've said
A new group calling itself the Milwaukee Quality Education Initiative has joined the accelerating, behind-the-scenes conversations about the future of the city’s schools, and is hosting a retreat this weekend at the Wingspread Conference Center in Racine.The article goes on to include some details about the activities of this sketchy group; the only other named figure is voucher proponent Howard Fuller (surprise!), though I could hazard a guess at some other names of anti-public education activists in this city whose MO fits this profile. The article also dovetails nicely with the editorial board's contention today that "[i]t might even be time to dissolve MPS and start over." Nothing would make the market-idolaters in the MMAC happier than to have their mitts on MPS's budget.
The group’s goal is to brainstorm ways to improve K-12 education in the city, including public, voucher and charter schools, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce President Tim Sheehy said Friday. [. . .] The Wingspread retreat’s 25 participants, whose names weren’t disclosed, included no elected officials or MPS staff, Sheehy said.
Problem is, of course, there is little that MMAC's private-is-best routine can do to change the overall performance of students in Milwaukee, whether they're in MPS or in for-profit diploma factories. This is because, as I have said time and time again, the problem with the Milwaukee Public Schools in not a schools problem, per se, but a Milwaukee problem.
The New York Times Magazine, in a story that ran at just exactly the wrong time for me to blog about it at the end of last month, writes about class-based integration programs as an idea to replace race-based integration programs that the US Supreme Court has recently deemed no longer constitutional. Here's a chunk from the middle of that article:
Test scores may not be the best way to assess the quality of a teacher or a school, but the pressure to improve scores, whatever its shortcomings, is itself on the rise. And if high test scores are the goal, it turns out, class-based integration may be the more effective tool.In other words, until we change Milwaukee--where three quarters of all students receive free or reduced lunch--it will be nigh on impossible to change the schools. Even if we blow up the district and start over from scratch, it will be very difficult to create widespread success in schools with high concentrations of poor students.
Researchers have been demonstrating this result since 1966, when Congress asked James S. Coleman, a Johns Hopkins sociologist, to deliver a report on why the achievement of black students lagged far behind that of white ones. The expected answer was that more than a decade after Brown, black kids were still often going to inferior schools with small budgets. But Coleman found that the varying amount of money spent on schools didn’t account for the achievement gap. Instead, the greater poverty of black families did. When high concentrations of poor kids went to school together, Coleman reported, all the students at the school tended to learn less.
How much less was later quantified. The Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks reanalyzed Coleman’s data in the 1970s and concluded that poor black sixth-graders in majority middle-class schools were 20 months ahead of poor black sixth-graders in majority low-income schools. The statistics for poor white students were similar. In the last 40 years, Coleman’s findings, known informally as the Coleman Report, have been confirmed again and again. Most recently, in a 2006 study, Douglas Harris, an economist at the University of Wisconsin, found that when more than half the students were low-income, only 1.1 percent of schools consistently performed at a “high” level (defined as two years of scores in the top third of the U.S. Department of Education’s national achievement database in two grades and in two subjects: English and math). By contrast, 24.2 percent of schools that are majority middle-class met Harris’s standard.
To be clear: I am not claiming--and the researchers who have produced the data over the last 40 years to show that poverty is a much higher predictor of educational success than just about anything else aren't claiming this either--that poor students cannot learn. If I believed that, I wouldn't be so tired from working as hard as I do during the school year. The NYTM article gets into some of the theories about why low-poverty schools do better, as well as why poor students outperform demographically matched peers when moved into schools with less poverty. There's also some discussion about the few-and-far-between high-poverty schools that do buck the trend. It's obvious that under the right circumstances, poor students can excel--and the easiest way to achieve those circumstances is through class integration.
So, two last points, and then I'll let you all have at me in the comments: One, I argued a long time ago that a radical (and possibly successful) idea for improving Milwaukee students' achievement would be to merge MPS with surrounding suburban districts. I don't have the numbers in front of me to figure out what the proportion of F&RL students would be in a Milwaukee County Public Schools, but it would be lower than 75%--in other words, a Milwaukee County Public Schools would allow more opportunities to provide class-based integration. (Richard Kahlenberg finds examples of programs like this that have created success.)
Two, I don't doubt that MMAC in general is interested in increasing prosperity in Milwaukee. However, they seem (from my perspective here on the futon) much less interested in finding ways to reduce poverty in the city than in finding ways to fatten the wallets of the business class. If they truly wanted to see a difference in Milwaukee students' test scores, they would be more concerned about changes in Milwaukee families' lives.