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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Once again, the teachers have to MOP up

by folkbum

It never fails: Time after time, I write here about what could be better about schooling in general and the Milwaukee Public Schools in particular. Comments are, well, few and far between. And, time after time (at least lately), I detail why a coup, a forced takeover of the Milwaukee Public Schools by the mayor is both unnecessary and a bad idea. Comments are, well, along the lines of "Well what's your plan, idiot?"

You can see why I get frustrated about this.

Now, though, there's a solid, complete competing plan, written by teachers for the district and the classrooms that they know better than anyone else. It's being called the Milwaukee Opportunity Plan, and it's being presented by the local and state teachers unions.

To be clear: I had nothing to do with the development of this plan; I didn't even know it was coming until I saw the news yesterday afternoon. But I have read through it, and, let me tell you that it is head and shoulders above anything the mayor, the governor, or the daily paper--all the big takeover proponents--have put forward. (The paper's answer to "where's the plan" was, in fact--and I'm not making up this quote--"In our book, getting a traditionally ineffectual board out of the way is a plan." Please!)

And also to be clear: I do not believe that this plan is going to make all the bad go away and turn MPS into a rainbow factory full of ponies and kittens. The MOP proposals here are research-based, seem sensible, and no doubt will have an effect. But all of these things, like most other reforms proposed or implemented in the last two decades, will create at best small gains at the margins. I will argue now as I have consistently since I started writing on the matter that the problems of the Milwaukee Public Schools are generally Milwaukee problems, and not schools problems. As long as our students struggle with poverty, crime, unstable families, homelessness and transience, and poor health, our job is going to be incredibly difficult. It's not that I don't like this plan--I do, much better than the no-plan of mayoral control--but I don't have faith that this alone is going to significantly close the achievement gap or get MPS off the District Identified for Improvement list.

The MOP is comprehensive but straightforward, and covers all of MPS's problem areas. This includes separating leadership of the district into a CEO and a CAO (A for academic). The board is already leaning that way, through the creation of an Office of Accountability that put some of the financial operation more directly under board control. Which is not to say that MPS doesn't handle its financial operations well--it wins awards, after all--but overseeing a billion-dollar budget and the education of 83,000 students is tough. I mean, I wouldn't want to have to do it. Having someone whose only job is to keep an eye on the day-to-day operations means more efficient budgets, and that should ameliorate one of the biggest knocks against MPS.

The MOP also includes a governance change at the board level--though one again already proposed by the board--of redistricting the board to eliminate the city-wide seat and giving the near south side its own representative. There are plenty of more proposed changes to the bureaucracy, too, including some to bring the district in line with national norms, something we don't always follow and that got us dinged in the McKinsey audit last spring.

There is, as can be expected from a plan proposed by teachers, a lot to do with the classroom, too, including many of the things I talk about regularly here as well as some of the things being proposed by the current district leadership. This includes everything from re-establishment of alternative programs for chronically disruptive students to standardizing curricula across schools to combat the effects of high student mobility. (I generally don't like the latter idea; it is an admission of defeat regarding one of the city's biggest problems and it will gut the variety and diversity of our schools.) The plan includes better professional development and more mentoring of new teachers. The MOP also asks for an expansion of the union's TEAM program, which has proven effective at improving teacher quality (and helping many bad teachers find the door); eliminating the residency requirement; and changing the teacher pay system.

In addition, the plan offers a number of ideas that I have floated here in the past: incentives to MPS students to become MPS teachers; smaller class sizes at key grades, like grade 9; better principal training and leadership; and bringing back arts education for all young students--the data are clear that arts education early makes later education in other subjects easier.

There is also a set of reforms to the school day and the school year. Earlier this year, the administration proposed using one-time stimulus money to extend the school day long-term; the union pointed out that that was a bad idea. But here they are at the table with a long-term, sustainable, thoughtful plan for more time in school daily and extended school year opportunities for our lowest-performing students.

The MOP proposal begins with what is perhaps most important--parental involvement. I noted at the top of this post that I don't believe that this plan alone, or any plan that focuses on the schools rather than the wider community as the locus of reform, won't produce significantly different results. I really do believe that. However, I know that we won't get any results if we don't have the parents and the community on board with the changes we do make within the schools. And that's the key difference between something like the teachers' plan here and the takeover plan that might be imposed from above: Teachers know that reaching out to the community, rather than tearing the community apart, creates a better learning environment. Will this plan have any better luck than efforts currently underway to expand parental involvement? I don't know; this is a hard thing and has been for some time. But this at least starts with the simple proposition that the parents and the community have value and hold many of the keys to success--and they need to be our partners, not our enemies.

As I said, at the very least, this offers a starting point for the "Well, what's your plan?" crowd. The documents about the MOP are here; read and ask why this isn't worth pursuing at least as vigorously (although ...) as the mayoral takeover idea.

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