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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Please don't. Not any more.

by folkbum

I've been going back and forth on how much or what to say about the proposed mayoral takeover of the Milwaukee Public Schools--I'm agin' it--or even whether to bother, as if my opinion counts for squat anymore.

A lot of what I wanted to say, Jennifer Morales did in her op-ed Sunday; her second half--about all the things that Mayor Tom "Fightin' Tom" Barrett could if he really wanted to help the children of Milwaukee--is almost word-for-word what I would have written if I had gotten around to it. You should really read it all.

There was one point when I'd started drafting and collected a bunch of tabs full of reasons why a mayoral takeover is a bad idea and won't work (historically it doesn't help, at least not without massive sustained increases in per-student spending as in New York, and even mentioning it is driving a wedge between Barrett and the best possible allies he could want, Michael Bonds and the AAEC) and my browser crashed so, hey, decision made.

But then I read this yesterday:
Barrett and Doyle indicated they will push on to make mayoral control happen, despite opposition from local groups and Doyle's decision to not seek re-election.

The two biggest issues at stake, Doyle said, include securing a new superintendent for Milwaukee Public Schools, which should be chosen by the mayor and answer to the mayor to create a "clear line of accountability," and submitting a competitive state application for a piece of the $4.5 billion in Race to the Top federal school stimulus funding before the end of this year.
Got that? This is about chasing money, running down a short-term prize without giving a damn about the long-term consequences of the decision. This is something about which MPS teachers can speak with experience.

This careening about in search of the New Hotness that gets Grant Funding is horrible, horrible policy. Case in point: You know North Division High School? It spent the better part of the last decade as the vanguard in MPS's small high school multiplex redesign program*, primarily because the Gates Foundation and other groups were doling out the fundage for small schools. North was generally awful before the change, and remained generally awful no matter what small program was wedged into the multiplex. It is now in the process of being rebiggified as a single school instead of a multiplex.

Marshall High School, which got the same treatment, saw failed small school after failed small school parade through and is now just going to be turned over to Morse Middle School to house a 6-12 program there. Washington's multiplex has been more stable, but the small schools have never lived up to the success that a Gates grant seemed to promise, scoring below district averages in nearly every measure.**

When the multiplex money dried up, First Things First was the next New Hotness that had Grant Funding, and the first to go in the pursuit of those funds were Bradley Tech and Pulaski. Tech you undoubtedly have an opinion of, but it's also clear that Pulaski's not living up to the promise, either, with no changes in retention rates, suspensions rates, truancy rates, or reading and math scores. My previous school, Milwaukee Madison, was forced to give up its International Baccalaureate program in favor of First Things First, driving away talented students and staff (most of whom, your humble correspondent not included, found their way to Reagan); its metrics are also in the tank.

All of these top-down decisions have crushed staff morale over the past few years, sent many a good teacher to early retirement or the suburbs, and thoroughly upheaved programs that in many cases have not recovered. The modest district-wide gains in test scores at the high school level hold little to no connection to these changes and the schools in question all continue to fail on their No Child Left Behind benchmarks, all while students, staff, and principals fight their way through conflicting visions of reform and enthusiasm-killing, soul-crushing program-churn.

And that's just what the pursuit of the elusive Grant Funding has done to the high schools, the circle in which I operate; the drive to create K-8 charters is choking the traditional middle schools, for example; I'm sure there's more if I had the time to dig just a little bit.

To be clear: I do not want to sound like I blame teachers for the failings of the schools listed above. Every one of these schools has hard-working, dedicated, talented teachers and staff who are doing the best they can under damned difficult circumstances. It's just that the pursuit of reform for the sake of $$$$$$$$$ adds layers of more Sisyphean challenge. It is Bad Policy.

And now comes Arne Duncan***, strutting past shaking his Race to the Top**** funds like a three-dollar whore, and the drool starts puddling around the feet of people who sure ought to be smarter than that. If the recent history of education in Milwaukee has shown anything--from the Bradley Foundation's funding of a middling voucher program that doesn't live up to the hype to the way the current superintendent slavishly trolled for Gates money--it's that chasing down a dollar is horrible pedagogy and worthless to the bottom line--helping kids learn.

Don't you think it's time to give it a rest?

*I did a whole series on small high schools back in 2005; it sounds prescient, now.
**All notes about school performance based on the 2007-2008 report cards. Go here, click on the names of the schools you want to see, and scroll down to access pdfs of the report cards.
***Here's a report (.pdf) suggesting that former Chicago Public Schools CEO Duncan was no miracle worker, and that mayoral control in Chicago has been ineffective.
****See also retired school administrator Mike Schutz on Race to the Top.

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