Setting Standards, Achieving Excellence

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Dec 16, 2009 No Comments ›› admin

December 14, 2009

Last week the Governor brought together concerned Legislators to discuss the struggling Milwaukee Public Schools. Invited to the meeting were officials with experience turning around failing school districts in Boston and Chicago. The discussion centered on proposals to significantly overhaul the Milwaukee Public Schools system.

Many of our schools are struggling to provide a quality education, but the problems Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) face make our troubles pale in comparison. Milwaukee’s public schools have failed. According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, in the last three years, MPS students have not met Adequate Yearly Progress in math and reading.  And a review of statistics for the last five years clearly demonstrates this is not an uncommon result.

Just last week, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that more than 6 out of 10 MSP eighth graders scored at or below the most basic level of math proficiency in a national study comparing achievement levels of public school students in the nation’s largest cities.  Only students in Detroit scored worse than Milwaukee students. 

My Milwaukee colleagues tell me when new test scores come out MPS will hit a new low record of failure. And its not just test scores, but on every outcome measure you can imagine.  For example, out of the 8,000 students who start kindergarten, only 1500 graduate from high school.

All over the state, school districts are doing more with less.  Our school boards working closely with school superintendents are providing a quality education to our students in the face of serious financial problems.  Test scores show that eighth graders in the 31st Senate District are proficient not only in mathematics but also reading and science.  Graduation rates for most of our school districts are over 90%.   

So why should we care about the failure of Milwaukee’s Public Schools?  As taxpayers, we invest a significant amount in MPS – nearly $600 million in the last state budget.  

But what are we getting for our dollars?  Eight graders who cannot do basic math and high school drop-outs?

We know an educated workforce is a top priority for economic growth.  Wisconsin’s overall economic success depends heavily on the educational achievement of every school district.

And when kids miss out on a good education, we all pay for failure.  We pay the costs associated with poverty and crime. 

So what is the answer for Milwaukee?  The proposal currently discussed would put control of MPS in the hands of the Mayor.  Twelve large U.S. cities have implemented some variation of mayoral control. 

And in those cities the change in governance – control given to the mayor – has resulted in a positive change in student achievement.

In Chicago and Boston, resources at the command of the Mayor were used for the benefit of the school district. The troubled inner city schools reflected the troubled crime ridden neighborhoods from which the students came. Changing the schools meant working to solve larger problems of crime, housing and unemployment. The resources at the command of a Mayor are much greater than those available to a school board.

Part of the answer is bringing more resources into the school. But there also must be clear expectations, clear accountability and a clear line of authority.

The Mayor is responsible for the superintendent, the superintendent is responsible for the principals and the principals are responsible for what happens in each school.

According to Tom Payzant, Superintendent for Boston, the average superintendent in an urban school lasts three years and in Milwaukee the turnover rate is even higher.

A high turnover rate of urban school superintendents makes it difficult to fully implement plans to increase student achievement.  Teachers and students alike need time to adjust to new standards and curricular changes and consistent leadership helps everyone make a successful transition. 

Mayoral control by itself will not solve problems.  But a temporary transfer of authority to the Mayor’s office may bring about the political will to command community and parental involvement, a coordination of resources and a change to a culture of achievement.


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