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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Fix Milwaukee First

by folkbum

The Milwaukee Public Schools face two intractable crises, concurrently. There is the crisis of finances, and the crisis of achievement. One fact is clear: We cannot solve both.

It gets worse when you consider that events are conspiring to bring both crises to a head at roughly the same time: The pressures of the No Child Left Behind law and its all-stick, no-carrot approach to education reform has led the state to declare, for three years running, that MPS is a District Identified for Improvement. Much more of that, and the federal law demands state action to alter the district in radical ways. And the current financial crisis leaves MPS struggling to pay its bills without bankrupting our cash-strapped state government and our city's taxpayers.

There is no good way out of this. To improve achievement enough to get the state off our backs, MPS would need a massive infusion of funds to almost literally tutor tens of thousands of students one-on-one, eight hours a day. To solve our financial woes, we would need to lay off staff, shutter buildings, kill programs, and strip administrative offices to bare bones. The two solutions are mutually exclusive and by themselves almost unpalatable.

I have said it before (most recently in January's Compass) and I will say it again: The problems of the Milwaukee Public Schools are largely not school problems, but Milwaukee problems. The schools, and the rigorous testing regime required of the schools, are the places where the ills of the community become manifest. The statistics about childhood poverty are staggering (80% of MPS's students qualify for free or reduced lunch), but not nearly so offensive to our sensibilities as the stunning fact that 60% or more of our high-schoolers cannot read at grade level. The fact that in any given year 3,000 Milwaukee children will be homeless for at least part of the time is awful, but not nearly so upsetting as the fact that barely half of our black male students graduate on time if at all.

My theory about why this disparity exists is pretty simple: There is no one easily to blame for the former statistics in each sentence above. For the latter numbers, though, there is someone to blame, and that's the schools.

Now, I am not saying, nor have I ever said, that there is nothing MPS could be doing better. I think there are things we could do differently. However, the evidence is clear from three decades of urban education reform (including nearly 20 years of throwing everything you can think of at the problems of MPS) that the gains to be made are marginal at best.

I have written before about the research that shows how in a school with half or more of the students in poverty there is only about a 1% chance that the school will be high-achieving. I recently learned of a new study that measured the physiological differences in the brains of children living in poverty (my emphasis):
In a study recently accepted for publication by the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, scientists at UC Berkeley's Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and the School of Public Health report that normal 9- and 10-year-olds differing only in socioeconomic status have detectable differences in the response of their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is critical for problem solving and creativity. [. . .]

"Kids from lower socioeconomic levels show brain physiology patterns similar to someone who actually had damage in the frontal lobe as an adult," said Robert Knight, director of the institute and a UC Berkeley professor of psychology. "We found that kids are more likely to have a low response if they have low socioeconomic status, though not everyone who is poor has low frontal lobe response." [. . .] "These kids have no neural damage, no prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol, no neurological damage," Kishiyama said. "Yet, the prefrontal cortex is not functioning as efficiently as it should be. This difference may manifest itself in problem solving and school performance."
It's no wonder 20% of MPS students have been identified as special needs. It's no wonder that in some high schools, close to a third of the students are eligible for special education. And it's no wonder the cost of teaching poorer and poorer students keeps getting higher.

In the past few months we have seen an increase in the calls for something to be done by--or, more often, to--MPS, precisely because of the two crises I opened with. Yet, the single best way to improve both the financial status of the district and the achievement level of its students is to do something to--or, rather, for--the city of Milwaukee. If the status and lives of our children were different (the poverty, the unemployment, the poor health care, the unstable families, the moving all the time, and all of that), the results would be different, and far cheaper to achieve.

The problem, of course, is that, again, there is no one to blame for the problems of urban Milwaukee. There's no one agency or organization or prime mover to identify and change. God speed to David Riemer and his new group trying to something about it, though.

Instead, we're left with a bunch of people pointing at MPS and offering "solutions" that will ultimately solve nothing.

We have State Senator Ted Kanavas (who refused to talk to me in advance of that January Compass column), who wants to split MPS into eight smaller districts. In the end, we'll go from having the one worst district in the state to having the six worst and two more in the bottom 20. (Kanavas's op-ed deserves a longer, fuller fisking, but I just never had the time to do it when it was released. His proposal will die a quiet death in committee.)

We have Milwaukee Alderman Bob Donovan, who, depending on what day it is, wants to grant power over all schools in the city, public and private, to an education czar; or split off the schools in his aldermanic district into their own little entity; or have the city take control and divide the district.

We have the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which has advocated both for city control (see the loyal opposition here and here) and possibly scrapping the district entirely.

We have Milwaukee Alderman Willie Hines, who thinks more values education will do the trick. And MJS wingnut Patrick McIlheran who wants to put Jebus back in the schools.

And now the State Superintendent candidates are on the move, with "virtual schools advocate" Rose Fernandez calling for a blue-ribbon commission to study the problems of MPS and propose a solution. Apparently, Fernandez missed MPS's "Working Together, Achieving More" project, bankrolled by the Greater Milwaukee Committee, which did pretty much what she is calling for: WTAM gathered business, civic, labor, school, religious, and community members together with anyone else who had something positive to offer to create a long-term strategic plan for the district that would be binding and full of accountability. It got a lot of press and is available online (38-page .pdf), but apparently the news never made it up to Fernandez that we just finished a project like she demands. (The big MPS news of the day, in fact, is that we have achieved one of the main goals of that strategic plan--a significant reduction in days lost to suspension.)

I don't blame people for wanting to "fix" the schools. Well, I do, actually; let me rephrase and say that I understand where the impulse comes from. Rose Fernandez isn't going to win the hearts and minds of voters by saying there is little to be done in, with, by, or to MPS to change the test results or balance the books. None of the other candidates will say that, nor will any of the candidates for MPS school board this spring. The mayor won't say it, the superintendent won't say it, and you sure won't hear school principals telling parents that.

But I will say it. I have said it. And as long as I have this little slice of bloggy goodness at my disposal, I will keep saying it. If you want to fix MPS--financially or academically--fix Milwaukee first.

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