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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Friday, March 27, 2009

Voucher schools need a "turnaround team," too, I guess

by folkbum

Cory Liebmann is my hero:
Recently an analysis verified what many well informed people already knew, that Milwaukee voucher schools performed at just about the same level as Milwaukee Public Schools. People like DPI candidate Rose Fernandez and others on the extreme would have us "voucherize" the entire state claiming that these schools are somehow superior to public. This new study provides a much needed dose of reality for anyone that really cares about education in this state. One of the main [tenets] of the Fernandez campaign is to create what she calls a "Turnaround Team" for Milwaukee Public Schools. Since the voucher program is working as good (or as bad) as MPS, why hasn't Rose Fernandez proposed a "Turnaround Team" for the voucher program? And while I'm asking questions, is she proposing that we spend half as much on MPS or twice as much on the voucher program or both?
Go back to the original press release touting a turnaround team for MPS. It lists ten things that a turnaround team would be empowered to do (nine of the ten can already be done by the present, elected board). Let's see how many of these "powers" are currently held by the schools in the voucher program:
  1. Hire and fire the School Superintendent: There is no superintendent of the voucher program. So, no.
  2. Reform the curriculum to ensure a rigorous focus on the basics, beginning in Kindergarten: Check! Voucher schools have incredibly wide latitude to design their own curricula. They must meet very basic standards, such as minimum hours of instruction, and they must have some (potentially arbitrary) goals set for promoting and graduating students. But the details are all up to the schools.
  3. Reduce administrative overhead: Check! The fact that voucher schools do not generally have to follow many state and federal laws puts them way ahead in this category.
  4. Negotiate work rules, pay and benefits with the Milwaukee Teachers Associaton teachers: Check! (No unions here!) Every employee is on his or her own, paid and retained at the whim of the schools.
  5. Review and potentially structure a new pension agreement for new employees: Check! Well, it would be a check, if voucher schools offered much by way of retirement bennies.
  6. Issue RFPs for certain services: Check! I assume the voucher schools have, you know, services.
  7. Cancel existing vendor contracts: Check! With whatever legal ramifications that might come with that, I suppose.
  8. Assess and secure school safety at all MPS buildings: Check!
  9. Prepare quarterly ‘Turnaround Progress Reports’ for families, teachers and principals to review: NO! In fact, one of the biggest flaws, in my mind, is that voucher schools are allowed to keep virtually everything they do secret. They must make enrollment and demographic data available, but test scores, attendance rates, meetings of their governing bodies--those can be secret!
  10. Determine whether to break MPS into smaller districts []: Check! The voucher program currently is, essentially, small districts now. You have the Catholic schools, the Lutheran schools, and a few other loose coalitions, but right now, there's no large governing structure.
So, wow. The voucher program already has nearly everything a turnaround team would bring to MPS. And, yet, MPS performs as well or better with demographically comparable students. Time to make that second turnaround team a key part of the platform!


Look, okay, being serious for a second: I think the thing that the study released this week most clearly shows is that the kind of schooling, public or private, that a child in or near poverty receives is generally not going to have an effect on the achievement level of that child. Even considering that the parents of voucher students are almost certainly more dedicated and willing to push their children--something this study could not and did not control for--has no great effect.

Which, standard disclaimer here, is not to say that there are not exceptions. Clearly, some schools with voucher students do well with those students. (I suspect, though because school-level data are not allowed to be released to the public, that those are schools which provide better socioeconomic integration, which is proven to correlate to poor students' success.) The same is true within MPS. And many poor students overcome barriers and challenges just fine to go on to do great things. I am speaking here of Milwaukee's children in aggregate. Individuals always show great variation.

What I have been saying all along remains just as true now, and is even solidly reinforced by the results out this week. Change the dismal facts of the city, change the achievement level in school. Fix Milwaukee first.

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