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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Let's talk MPS

The Milwaukee Public Schools are in the news and on the blogs a bit the last few days and, bitter as I may be at the world and the district right now, I still feel the need to jump in on a couple of things.

First, the right Cheddarsphere is all atwitter over this story:
Looking to give poorer students the technological muscle to scale the "digital divide," the Milwaukee Public Schools district is turning to the promise of an emerging wireless service described as "Wi-Fi on steroids."

Using WiMax, MPS would provide free broadband Internet service to the homes of all MPS students and staff.

The district would be one of the first public entities in the country to launch a WiMax system, using television channels that the Federal Communications Commission allocated for educational purposes. A pilot system covering roughly 5 square miles is scheduled to be operating by August 2007.
The right's reaction (from Phelony Jones, Clint, Dad29, Peter DiGaudio, and Brian Fraley, among probably others, those are just the ones I've seen) seems mostly directied two ways. One, of course, is the cost; the article cites a figure of $500,000 for the cost of that pilot system. The bloggers, though, forget to note that MPS's share of that half mil is only $220,000. Yes, that sounds like a lot--and it would buy three teachers--but ity is a drop in the bucket of MPS's billion-dollar budget, and three teachers might be a fair trade (in a district with more than 200 schools and 6000 teachers) for wireless access for our students. Besides, this money is almost certainly coming from the Department of Technology's budget--in lieu of some other spending--and will be supported by the district's leasing out the unused spectrum. In fact, if MPS didn't use this spectrum, they would lose it, according to the FCC. Wouldn't that be the bigger waste?

The second thing the bloggers are upset about is that the wireless access would not just be for MPS students and families, but for staff, too. Fraley says that "This is also a bypass of the QEO/salary controls public teachers fall under according to Wisconsin law." DiGaudio writes, "Let them pay for their own Internet service, like I do." For those not familiar with the QEO (Qualified Economic Offer) that Fraley employs in his argument here, it is the state law that allows school districts, like MPS, to impose without bargaining a combimed salary and benefits package increase of 3.8%. Problem is, the district gives net access to teachers now (through dial-up) becuase the district expects us to work from home. Those of us who pay for broadband are asked to use a VPN to get through to the district's network to do grades, check attendance, or find parent contact info. And it isn't that staff don't want to pay for net access, either--it's that students and staff are on the same network, meaning there is little if any additional cost to have them online, and no good way to charge them.

This morning's front page brings us a second story worth considering, one that says MPS has one of the worst graduation rates:
Ninety-four of the 100 largest school districts in the country have higher graduation rates than Milwaukee, where the graduation rate is 45%, according to a study by the Manhattan Institute, a think tank in New York. [. . .] The Manhattan Institute studies have repeatedly found that while Wisconsin has one of the highest graduation rates overall, it also has one of the worst graduation rates for African-American students. This year, Wisconsin came in third, with an overall graduation rate of 85%. For African-Americans, the statewide graduation rate was 55%--the second-lowest in the country. MPS was about 60% black in 2003, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.

Critics have long said that the Manhattan Institute's methodology underestimates the graduation rate nationally, particularly in urban areas and among minority students. State and district estimates put the 2003 graduation rate in Milwaukee at 61% and 67%, respectively. In the past, the institute has consistently published studies with findings that support school vouchers.
My initial thought was, "tell me something I don't know." I know we can do better; after all, I do this for a living. But 45% is absurd. Then I remembered, Jay Greene works for the Manhattan Institute. That would explain that. Of course, you could (should, probably) call that an ad hominem attack. Regardless, Greene has an agenda, and that agenda is to manipulate data to make public schools look as bad as possible. Put this study on the pile, and let's get back to the real work of making education in Milwaukee possible.

To that end, Eugene Kane raises an interesting point:
This is an intriguing story that might come to Milwaukee some day. The city of Omaha, Nebraska has agreed to create three separate school districts segregated by race.

According to this story, the reason is that many ethnic groups--particularly African-Americans--want to control their own districts in order to ensure all students receive the best education.
Kane may not spend a lot of time in Milwaukee's schools, but there's really not much that would have to change for this to happen here. I think it's a bad idea, and I don't think there's data to support such a change.

I'm not saying WiFi will fix the graduation rate either, nor will any one of a hundred other initiatives that nibble around the edges of the way Milwaukee schools its children. So let's defuse the teapot tempests for a while, 'kay?

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