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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Some Education Stuff

by folkbum

This article on declining extra-curricular activity in the Milwaukee Public Schools is excellent. I talked (or, more accurately, emailed and talked) with Sarah Carr a couple of times as she was putting the piece together, and I think what's in there is accurate. This in particular needs more attention:
The gap in test scores and graduation rates between the city and suburban high schools has attracted the most attention from policy-makers and the media in recent years. But others worry that there's another gap that's just as meaningful: the difference in the richness and breadth of the high school experience available to children in cities and suburbs as urban districts slice after-school activities and clubs.
That's the heart of the matter for me. I am who I am today because in high school I was able to find non-academic niches to fill, activities that helped me grow socially and intellectually in a healthy and productive way.

Too many kids in MPS lack those same opportunities. Period. This isn't simply a matter of students choosing not to partake in what's available to them; rather, this is a matter of opportunities being denied. And this is a denial that does not exist in other districts.
In my work for the Bay View Compass, I end up talking a lot to Terry Falk, the newly elected MPS Board member who represents me, Bay View, and a big chunk of the South Side. Every time I do, he reminds me of a few projects he's working on. I haven't taken him up on writing about those projects, but he got two of them in the Journal Sentinel last week:
  1. Falk is proposing that every district-chartered high school have on staff at least one person licensed to teach the core subject areas--math, science, social studies, and English--at the grade level for that school. Here's why:
    The Milwaukee Academy of Chinese Language is poised to open this fall after years of preparation by a devoted staff [. . .]. But one ingredient is missing: A teacher who can speak Chinese. [. . .]

    At the MPS-chartered WORK Institute, which opened this month, two of seven teachers are licensed to teach through the 12th grade; two through the ninth grade; and three do not have high school licenses, though they are licensed for other grades.
    This is possible because of a quirk in the state's licensing laws that creates what's known as a "charter license." Any teacher teaching at a charter school can get one (if the district writes a letter to confirm that the teacher is teaching in a charter school and needs one), and then that teacher can legally teach anything at all. I helped write a charter proposal in 2006, and, among other problems the other teachers and I faced working on that proposal is that we wanted an explicit clause in our charter that would prohibit a teacher in our school from using that charter license to teach outside his or her area of expertise. The district personnel we worked with took that out. For, as they said, flexibility. I say I'd rather have quality than flexibility.

  2. The second thing that Falk is pushing is mandatory ACT testing for all MPS juniors:
    While more than 46,000 of the state's recent graduates took the ACT during high school, only about 2,150 African-American students did. That means about 4.6% of Wisconsin's ACT-takers were African-American, while African-Americans accounted for about 9% of the state's high school students during the 2006-'07 school year, according to state statistics.

    "We allow people in this state to pound their chest while ignoring the fact that Milwaukee has significantly fewer kids taking (the ACT)," said Milwaukee School Board member Terry Falk. This month, he put in a resolution that Milwaukee Public Schools create a plan to ensure that all 11th-graders take the ACT. [. . .]

    Seventy percent of Wisconsin's public and private school 2007 graduates took the ACT during high school, compared with 68% last year. [Note that only about 50% of African American students take the test.--JB]

    The number of minority students taking the ACT in Wisconsin has risen slightly over the last six years. In 2002, for instance, only 1,381 African-American graduates had taken the test.

    This year, the average composite score in the state for white students was 22.7; for Hispanic students, 20; for African-Americans, 17; and for Asians, 20.1.

    Falk said if all MPS 11th-graders took the ACT, it would allow the district to compare its academic performance to a city such as Chicago, where all of the students take the test. Comparing the performance of urban districts has been difficult in the past because states define graduation in different ways and administer different standardized tests.
    More than just making for a meaningful comparison among big-city districts, the ACT will open doors for students (one such student is described in the article). I found my alma mater because they spammed me after seeing my ACT score, for example. Had I not taken it, I wouldn't be here in America's Dairyland at all.

    And, further, a required test--one that tests reading, writing, math, science, and social science--beyond the 10th-grade WKCE would be fantastic. The ACT isn't high-stakes, but it's one that students will take much more seriously than they do the WKCE. It will give students a reason to return for their senior year--either because now colleges want them to attend, or at least the chance to take the ACT again for a better score. And it will give teachers something else to guide curriculum toward what's worthwhile to teach.

    The Saturday Journal Sentinel also ran an editorial favoring the plan, which is expected to pass easily.

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