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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A tale of two maps

by folkbum

This morning's big schools story is about a study done by a Chicago-based non-profit of what Milwaukee zip codes lack enough high-performing schools for the number of students living there. The study--well, at least the newspaper article about the study--does not attempt to explain why certain zip codes are in a pickle when it comes to having enough high-performing schools; it merely says that they are. The story also comes with an interactive map, with red dots indicating failing schools. Let me put that map next to a different one that long-time readers have seen before:

(click for a larger image)

My madd grafix skillz are not quite madd enuff to get the maps aligned quite the way I want them, but you can probably figure out what's going on here. The map on the right is from this pdf report, released last year by UWM's Employment and Training Institute. The red dots on that map indicate schools where 50% or more of the students enrolled qualify for free or reduced lunch (FRL).

I will pause for a moment to let that sink in: The sea of red dots across Milwaukee in the map on the right is schools where half or more of the children are coming from homes in poverty. The MPS average, in fact, is 79%--four out of five of our students' families are poor enough to qualify them for FRL.

If you could lay these maps one on top of the other, you could see the red dots align perfectly. There is a strong correlation, one demonstrated in study after study in urban education showing that schools with high numbers of poor students perform poorly on tests of academic achievement. This is true in Milwaukee; it is true all over the country. (In the recent NAEP results for math and reading scores, the two lowest-performing urban districts were Detroit and Milwaukee, the two most segregated urban areas by race and class in the US. Coincidence?)

Though the article doesn't get specific about elementary or middle schools, it mentions four high schools by name that are either meeting state standard (MPS's King and Reagan, and an MPS charter, Veritas) or close to it (MPS's Milwaukee School of Languages); few private schools offered data to IFF. Each of these schools clock in at well below the MPS average for FRL status, between 51% (King) and 58% (Reagan)*. Not to knock those schools, which do indeed do a great job, but FRL status is not the only demographic difference between them and the rest of MPS. Those schools also enroll significantly more white students (20%-39% vs. 12% for MPS) and significantly fewer ex-ed students (7%-14% vs. 20% for MPS high schools), and both of those stats also correlate to academic achievement in the literature.

The usual This is not tos apply: This is not to excuse poor performance at other schools, this is not to suggest that MPS doesn't have room to improve, and so on. But this is as good a time as any to return to the constant refrain of this blog when writing about the challenges of educating children in Milwaukee: Where the students come from is as or more important than where they go when it comes to school. We must address the issues of endemic poverty in this community if we want to see significant, sustained improvement in our schools. To me, the IFF report strongly reinforces that view.

*All data from the 2008-2009 (most recent) school and district report cards available from the MPS portal.

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