A Year in Review: Good Beginnings Need Grassroots Support and Direction

When Dr. Robert Peterkin arrived in Milwaukee last August to take charge of the public schools he was greeted with nearly unanimous hope and high expectations. It looked like the serious problems within the Milwaukee Public Schools were finally going to be attacked with en­ergetic innovation. Not surprisingly, as Dr. Peterkin began to translate his ptans into specific action, near unanimity gave way to more mixed  reviews. Some re­sponded with continued optimism while others articulated uncertainty and appre­hension. Our own view is that, on bal­ance, Dr. Peterkin’s vision, proposals, and first actions are moving the school system in a positive direction, but he will need grassroots support and constructive criti­cism to deepen the reforms he has initi­ated. 

Structural Change

Saying that the public expected change, Dr. Peterkin moved rapidly. He put forth a five-year plan and a reorganization plan. The creation of the six regions (mini-dis­tricts) with community advisory boards and their own superintendents received widespread support from a broad spectrum of the community, including critics who had proposed a separate school district in the black community a year earlier. The school board quickly approved the proposals, and the administration began working on the details. Dr. Peterkin also went to the state capital and got legislation changed so that he would have more power in hiring and firing top administrative assistants. 

Curriculum Reform

In addition to structural reorganization, Dr. Peterkin and his Deputy Superinten­dent, Dr. Deborah McGriff, have placed significant emphasis on curricular reform. Before the current school year had even started, they supported the postponement of the basal adoption, endorsed the estab-­ lishment of 10 whole language pilot pro­jects, and mandated that Central Office personnel work on the Martin Luther King Writing Project, something which had not occurred during the previous six  years. Peterkin showed his commitment to grassroots initiative by praising efforts of the parents and teachers of the innovative Fratney School, calling it a “model” and a “prototype” for his reorganization plan. This stood in sharp contrast to the previ­ous six months of mistreatment that the Fratney project had received from Central Office

Laudably, in November at the Milwau­kee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA) convention, Dr. Peterkin said that “Outcome Based Education (OBE) is dead.” The outcomes based curricular ini­tiative had come under severe criticism from teachers and board members alike for its rigidity and narrowness. As an alternative, Peterkin set up a K-12 Curriculum Committee. Their recommendations will speak to the need for significant change in the way MPS approaches curriculum and staff development and include proposals designed to help teachers more-effectively collaborate and reflect on their teaching. 

In a related development, Peterkin and McGriff have also supported an alternative assessment task force which the School Board established in response to the desire of many teachers for a critical look at how assessment is handled systemwide. Peterkin’s and McGriff’s ability to integrate the recommendations of these two committees into the reform process will be a good indication of how effectively they will be able to bring substantive change to Milwaukee’s schools.

Problems with the Process of Reform

Certain shortcomings appeared early on in the reorganization process. Teachers were largely excluded from the initial transition teams that were set up by the administration, and notices of public hearings for the community were often distributed to the students to take home so close to the hearing date that many people found it difficult to attend.

However, the biggest problem in the process emerged with the creation and functioning of the Community Advisory Councils. The Sherman, Park Community Association, the MTEA, and many other parents and teachers have expressed dismay over the Council election process, which was supervised by the newly appointed director of publicity, David Begel. Each school was asked to nominate two teachers and two parents and community representatives to run for the advisory board. Those nominated merely wrote a paragraph about why they wanted to be on the board and sent it to Central Office, which in tum mailed copies of all the nominees’ paragraphs back to them with a ballot to vote by mail. The process did not include any face to face meetings of the nominees at which they could meet one another and discuss issues. Moreover, the timeline for creating these councils was so tight and the instructions so unclear that there were many mix ups – including the accidental exclusion from the initial process of certain nominees and schools. The process itself was delayed three weeks because of these foul ups, although the election was not redone.

Unfortunately the problems with the councils did not end after the elections. Their first major task, the selection of the community superintendents, was hampered by poor organization and planning on the part of Central Office personnel, including the distribution of resumes of an additional 1 eight candidates after the deadline for individual council members to select the candidates they wished to interview.

This experience demonstrated that good ‘l intentions on ‘the part of the Superintendent and his Deputy are not enough. If parents, teachers, and community groups · are going to be genuinely involved in the running of our schools, whether it be at the school level through site-based management or at the regional or district level through councils and task forces, rhetoric must be transformed into competent planning executed in a methodical, democratic manner. Apparently, years of conditioning in hierarchical styles of leadership have rendered some Central Office administrators incapable of adoption such a work style. 

Difficulty in moving beyond a rhetorical commitment to teacher and community involvement was also evident in a potentially dangerous pattern of relying too heavily on the business sector for advice and counsel. In at least two issues – budget supervision and the reconstruction program – participation of business people has been so high that representation of teachers and community members seems to have been shortchanged.

Finally, current plans to have “parent information officers” in each district per­ petuates.the notion that the role of parent­ funded projects in our school system is merely one of dispersing information to parents and answering their questions. It is unfortunate that the monies spent on such offices could not instead be put into a fund from which individual schools with inno­vative parent involvement projects could request grants. Through such a mechanism, innovation and grassroots parent involvement would be encouraged.

Larger Questions Remain Unanswered

As the new administration grapples with the issue of parent, teacher, and community involvement, it will also have to resolve a host of other unanswered questions concerning the evolution of MPS:

Accountability: How the new community superintendents and Site Based Councils will be held accountable is an important question. The Five Year plan developed by Peterkin and approved by the Board places heavy emphasis on standardized test scores. While the School Board’s decision to reduce the number of children taking the Metropolitan Readiness Test was a good step, it leaves untouched the hundreds of thousands of tests still being administered to our students. The dominant test-centered educational ideology acts as a straitjacket on those who would like to experiment with alternative forms of assessment. It is our hope that in the coming months the Assessment Task Force and the Whole Language Council will be able to offer alternatives to this continued and inappropriate obsession with standardized tests. We also hope that a soon-to-be introduced bill in the state legislature banning K-2 group.standardized testing in Wisconsin will spark debate and reform in MPS.

Leadership: The events of this year have clearly shown that two new people on the top, no matter how competent and energetic, cannot change a 9,000 person institution without other equality competent people working at all levels. Unfortunately, some Central Office administrators and generalists who have been obstacles to positive change in MPS are still in important positions of power. If this does not change,there is little hope of genuine reform talking hold.

Reading and Whote Language: One innovative development in MPS this past year was the· creation of whole language pilot projects in eleven elementary schools. The pilot program, and the council of teachers that helps direct it, is making it possible for entire teaching staffs at the participating schools to develop new approaches together and.to experiment with new teaching methods and materials. If such initiatives are to become widespread, there must be effective revitalization of MPS”s staff development department.

System Wide Reading Reform: The School Board’s decision to approve a multi-method, multi-text adoption for the reading program which includes some whole language options is another sign that the school leadership is willing to allow teachers to use approaches based on recent research on the teaching of reading and writing. Two years ago such a multi­ method adoption wou1d have been unheard of, and even though this proposal does not include an adequate staff development component, it is a start in the right direc­tion.

Professionalism: The one year contract settlement between the MTEA and the School Board stipulated that both parties bargain around thirteen different issues of teacher professionalism,including such reforms as career ladders, professional development, site-based management, and peer evaluation. It is good that teachers and administrators are moving beyond bread and butter issues, but in order for such talks to be successful they must be broadened to include many parents and teachers. Neither rhetoric of involvement nor a few public hearings is enough. The track record of both groups involved indicates they will have to learn new ways of proceeding if such widespread dialogue is to be made possible.

Orre issue that will undoubtedly surface during such deliberations is the matter of professional leave. It is unfortunate that the attitude of those who presently process and decide on leave requests is one of sus­ picion – as if. those teachers who ask permission to attend activities that will make them better teachers are merely trying to get a day off. As one teacher whose request was turned down put it, “If I just wanted to skip out, why would I put in for a leave and pay money to attend a conference? I haven’t taken a sick day all year.”

School Construction: In the fall, a consultant group issued a report on the building needs of MPS stating· that nearly $500 million would need to be expended to meet the building requirements of a modem school system. Worried about the response of taxpayers, the mayor and the superintendent saw fit to ask the state for permission to raise only about $27 million in property taxes – far less than what many people think ‘is needed. The building program directly affects the likelihood of reducing class size and making other instructional improvements. Milwaukee needs a comprehensive 20 year reconstruction plan and aggressive-political leadership to see that funds come from state and federal monies.

Union Elections: Perhaps one of the most remarkable developments this year was the election for the.MTEA Executive Board. Of the seven contested seats, four went to teachers who had been part of a reform slate. A substantial proportion of the membership clearly desires a new style of leadership. The incumbent president, whose stance explicitly rejects intervention in the social problems that affect education, was nearly defeated by reform candidate Mike Langyel, a Washington H.S. teacher, who garnered 49.2% of the vote. And the solid victory of Vice-Presi­dential candidate Ri Tenorio, a kindergarten teacher from Fratney School who is an outspoken advocate of school reform, was a powerful signal that teacher unions in Milwaukee may be entering a new era. We expect to see continued discussion on the need to unite teachers behind a new style of leadership in which teachers work more actively toward reforms that will improve working conditions and student achievement in our schools.


At times like this cynics dig out the old proverb “the more things change, the more things stay the same.” Unfortunately some signs seem to affirm the accuracy of that saying – the way the community advisory board process was handled, the lack of change in leadership in some key departments in Central Office, the continuing reality of overcrowded classes, insufficient time for preparation and professional development, and the absence of specialists at the elementary level.

Despite these serious problems, Pe­ erkin and McGriff have initiated promising structural and curricular projects. reform, and accomplished specific changes ,which bode well for good education – the establishment of the K-12 curriculum and the assessment task forces, the decision to stop the MRT testing in kindergarten, and the whole language pilot program.

It is our hope that a year from now we can report not only about these plans and initial steps toward change, but how addi­tional significant changes have been im­plemented.