How MPS Compares with Peers

May 28, 2010

According to a Milwaukee Public Schools summary, the district's students in all grades, collectively, are performing below state standards in reading and math.

In this installment of Project Milwaukee: Barriers to Success in MPS, WUWM’s Marge Pitrof explores where the city stands among its contemporaries.

Sr. Read says MPS, Milwaukee must be persistent in making sure students achieve.

Not only are many Milwaukee Public Schools students falling below state standards for academic performance, but nationally, MPS is rated near the bottom of 18 large, urban districts. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, MPS fourth and eighth grade students overall, test well below average in reading. And African American children here are faring the worst. President Emeritus of Alverno College Sister Joel Read says poverty hurts educational performance.

“Poverty is more than just not having certain things. It can be a way of thinking about things. You don’t have your mind focused on what you can achieve, because you’re trying to survive,” Read says.

Read says poverty often drags with it problems such as mobility – the disruption when students move or are homeless, and parents preoccupied with items other than their children’s schooling.

She examined MPS for the Greater Milwaukee Committee, noting the district’s 68 percent graduation rate and what she calls the “parking lot” of ninth grade, where many students stall because they’re too far behind. Read praises the district for strengthening early childhood programs and starting to collect better data on student performance. But what she finds lacking in Milwaukee as compared with higher-achieving districts, are a sense of urgency to make sure all students attain skills and unity over how to do it.

“I think, in those cities, they have a driver, somebody who feels responsible and who has the skills to negotiate consensus around certain goals. That’s what seems to be missing here,” Read says.

So Read says improvements have been filtering too slowly into the DNA of classrooms.

Diane Ravitch blames a different culprit for Milwaukee’s dismal test scores – school choice. Ravitch is an education historian at New York University. She says, in 1990, reformers bet that the answer for improving student achievement here was the Parental School Choice Program. It continues to pay the tuition of thousands of low-income Milwaukee students who choose to attend private schools, subtracting that money from MPS.

“Milwaukee has been used as a laboratory by a lot of, particularly by conservative foundations, that wanted to show that the government cannot do as good a job as the private sector. But now, after 20 years, there was no improvement in the public schools because of the competition and the competitive institutions aren’t doing any better,” Ravitch says.

There is another option in Milwaukee: charter schools. Those are public schools run by organizations such as UWM. However, a study released in March indicates charter students, also, are not doing better than their MPS counterparts.

Most other urban districts have only a public system and perhaps a smattering of charter schools. That’s the case in Aldine, Texas, in the northern part of Houston. We called the district to ask how it’s been able to win national awards for student achievement, while having characteristics similar to MPS. Eighty-four percent of Aldine’s students qualify for lunch subsidies - an indication of poverty, a good number barely speak English and 97 percent are from minority groups.

Superintendent Wanda Bamberg says test scores were unacceptable, until district leaders imposed an academic structure. They designed one curriculum, dictating everything from the skills students must master before moving on, to the dates teachers must cover certain subjects.

“And I would go into buildings where they would say to me, I don’t like the scope and sequence, I don’t want to do it, you’ve taken away my creativity. And we knew that it was change and we knew we needed to support this change, but we never backed away from it,” Bamberg says.

Bamberg says other districts have begun following the same strategy, observing its success and the elation of the community.

Sister Joel Read says MPS is working on a standard curriculum, especially hoping to keep the 32 percent of students who change schools, on track. But she wishes the collective community attitude here would be more positive.

“This is the time to really rise to the occasion and to get behind that system and to make demands of it. Children don’t have control over what’s happening to them,” Read says.

As for choice and charter schools, Read says the community must also demand they succeed or put them out of business.