Peterkin’s Proposals; A Good First Step on a Long March

Change does not come easily. The kind of dramatic, thoroughgoing change Superintendent Peterkin and the Milwaukee School Board have recently discussed promises to be an enormously difficult task.

Both the School Board and the Superintendent view their initial organizational restructuring of MPS as only one part of a larger plan – in the words of Dr. Peterkin – “to make Milwaukee into the first truly effective and successful urban school system in this country.”

This is certainly a laudable and desperately important goal – one that the editorial committee of Rethinking Schools shares. Yet many school superintendents across the nation have made similar statements and their systems remain dismal.

Why should we hold out hope that Milwaukee will be any different?

We can think of two reasons.

First, we have a new superintendent and his assistant, Dr. Deborah McGriff, who have demonstrated quality leadership, not only through the sincerity of their commitment to such a goal, but more importantly by their competence, thoroughness, and willingness to move swiftly. 

Second, there is a growing popular commitment to reform. Milwaukee voters recently elected as mayor and county executive two men who made it clear they hoped to bring about decisive changes. We face fresh, aggressive leadership across the board in the city. In addition, business and university people are becoming increasingly interested and active in MPS. Most importantly, people at the grassroots are beginning to formulate both a critique and an alternative vision for the Milwaukee Public Schools, particularly regarding the educatioµ of poor and minority children. Parents, teachers, and community leaders are becoming ever more insistent, organized and effective in demanding educational reform and working to make it happen. Black community activism to re­form North Division, Latino community efforts at South Division, the proposal for a separate school district, and the creation of a two-way bilingual school at Fratney are just some products of this growing commitment.

However, none of this ensures that we will actually succeed in transforming our schools. Much depends on who is given the day to day job of implementing the reforms. Not only must we choose and train administrators with vision, but teachers, parents, and students must become part of the process, helping to determine and ultimately embracing the specific goals for the reconstruction of the Milwaukee School System. Much depends also on our willingness to ask hard questions, entertain sharp critique, and pursue answers that are both creative and clear­ headed, answers that truly strike at the roots of the problems we face today.

Without such involvement and vigorous thought, the reforms will remain “top­ down” in character and hollow in content.

Not a Single Teacher

This lack of participation unfortunately has been the rule rather than the exception in Milwaukee’s recent history. For example, the Governor’s Commission on Quality Education included no practicing classroom teacher from MPS. The School Board-established ninety-one member “broad-based” committee on site based management included no practicing classroom teacher. And Mayor Norquist’s Committee of 51 included no teacher or principal. Yet none of these groups hesitated from making recommendations about the conditions of teaching and learning in our schools. So we find it a little disappointing that of the 60 people on the Superintendent’s Transition Advisory Committee and of the 31 people on the Transition Community Advisory Committee not one classroom teacher was included. Why shouldn’t the wisdom and experience of the people in the trenches be part of the formal advisory committees?

What precisely are the reforms that Peterkin and the School Board are considering? Will they give teachers the opportunity to change themselves by transforming the current structures and by providing sufficient time for planning, reflection and collaboration? Will they provide adequate resources for genuine and ongoing parental involvement?

Just how will they affect our children?

It is in this light that we believe people should examine the Superintendent’s Transition Report to the Board of School Directors and A Five-Year Plan for Improvement of the Milwaukee Public Schools.

Restructuring Central Office: The Transition Report

Peterkin’s Transition Report, which the School Board adopted in November, calls for a massive restructuring of the Instruction Support Services half of Central Office. The restructuring has two central objectives: to make the services that are offered by the school administration more relevant and useful to local schools and teachers, and to make the administration and policy makers more accessible to the public. By dividing the system into six districts and establishing community superintendents for each district directly answerable to the Superintendent, Peterkin hopes to strip down the six layers of bureaucracy that a parent or teacher has to climb over to reach people who have power. This is a long overdue, welcome reform.

Peterkin plans to trim the central office bureaucracy substantially, putting many of the Central Office personnel into the community districts and directing them to spend at least 40% of their time in the schools. Classroom teachers know all too well that the itinerant basis upon which curriculum generalists and specialists currently “service” the schools has at best meant sporadic assistance and at worst no service at all. Peterkin’s plan is to set up “Instructional Improvement Support Teams [composed] of five curriculum and instruction generalists plus other resource personnel.” Instead of being spread over the whole system; each team will operate exclusively in one of the community districts. The team will work intensively in one or two schools for a period of time (as long as it takes “to see results in the fonn of improved instruction”) and then shift their focus to another school in the region.

In addition, the reorganization plan eliminates several departments at Central Office while recrafting others. All curriculum and instruction-related services not allocated to the regions will be consolidated under a new Division of Educational Programs headed by a Deputy Superintendent. (Peterkin recently recom­mended that Deborah McGriff be assigned this post.)

We strongly support these moves. The elimination of the Department of Administrative Services can only help to increase morale and efficiency in the system, and the Division of Educational Programs will increase the coordination among different instructional departments while reducing redundancy and waste.

The creation of a Bilingual Education Department which will combine English as Second Language and bilingual services is a recognition of the importance of providing adequate services to the growing number of language minority students in our system. The plan also places Staff Development under the Division of Educational Programs, a logical and refreshing move which suggests this administration sees professional growth and training as an important part of educational change.

The Wolf in Lamb’s Clothing?

The restructuring plan is bold and visionary; it testifies to Peterkin’s mettle, his ability to design policies simultaneously imaginative and practical, and his serious concern to make the school administration more responsive.

But as Howard Fuller commented at a recent conference, “We can develop a new structure, but in the end it is the individu­als who are there that will make it work.” Will we see the same actors in new costumes? The idea of community superintendents is promising only as long as the men and women chosen for those spots are as capable as Peterkin himself; otherwise this position might become one more (major) obstacle to reform and one more barrier a person must cross to be heard at the top.

Similarly, some teachers have expressed doubt about the value of bringing Central Office personnel into schools to “improve instruction” when they have not been in a classroom on a full time basis for years or decades. Peterlcin foresaw this problem and plans to launch “intensive retraining staff development programs during the summer of 1989 for instructional team members and central office personnel in instructional support positions. The re­ training aims to “build the capacities of support staff to work as teams in class­rooms with teachers to help the classroom teachers assess their instructional skills, explore alternative methods, and build their skills in using assessment information to guide their instructional decisions.”

The inclusion of such a statement in the board adopted plan is an admission of how far removed from classroom life many of the people who have been responsible for curriculum have become. Certainly there are some at Central Office who already offer valuable information and support to teachers and administrators. But one wonders if an “intensive retraining” can really change others long-removed from the realities of the classroom. We propose that educational support personnel be required to spend some time teaching (several months in an elementary school or several semester-long classes in a high school) and be allowed to retain their posts conditional on positive evaluation of their classroom performance. The time Central Office personnel spent in the classroom could free teachers for periods of profes­sional development

Nuts and Bolts: The Five Year Plan

After the initial trimming and reshuffling of the bureaucracy occurs, what changes will take place at the school and classroom level? ·

We get a better sense of specific programmatic proposals by examining the Five-Year Plan for Improvement of the Milwaukee Public Schools which was required by the legal settlement between MPS and the Suburban School districts.

As in the adoption of the transition plan, there was only one month given to community discussion and debate on the five year plan. Unfortunately such a hurried time line prevented most community and educational groups which meet on a monthly basis from developing a critique of the plan. At the same time the very existence of the plan can serve as a point of departure for future dialogue.

The amount of time the Superintendent had to complete the Five Year Plan was limited by the court order and other pressing tasks that confronted him. This might account for why the document reads like a generic governmental funding proposal, offering largely familiar recipes for famil­iar problems.

The report’s approach to increasing parent involvement reflects this apparently rushed shallowness. This section consists mainly of proposed media projects which will teach parents how to be good parents and inform them about the school. If we want ongoing and significant parent involvement, more than improved communications or even parent education is necessary. What are needed are paid parent organizers to creatively bridge the gap between home and school. The Pajaro Valley literacy program (see Rethinking Schools Vol.2, #4) where parent education was a process of empowerment is one such model. If we want more parental involvement from parents who, due to socio-economic factors, are just struggling to stay afloat, we are going to have to allocate resources to enable those parents to become active and effective. Peterkin oversaw a program like this in Cambridge; pilot projects with paid parent organizers need to begin in Milwaukee immediately.

Had the superintendent been permitted more time to talk to those in the class­room and in the community and build upon their experiences (and more time, we suspect, to translate his own personal vision into programmatic concepts) the plan would have gone further toward offering concrete, imaginative approaches to educa­ tional change. Hopefully, as the report is redrafted it will reflect both greater dialogue and more careful consideration. Certainly, too, many specifics will be worked out in practice.

However, one aspect of the plan is a stunning disappointment. Appropriately the plan identifies increasing student achievement and learning opportunities as a number one goal; yet the accomplishment of that goal is to be measured strictly by percentage increases in attendance rates and scores on standardized tests! Objective number #1 is to have at least 50% of MPS students attain the national average score in non-referenced tests of reading and mathematics. Objective #2 states that inequality in student achievement can be considered “significantly reduced” if the gap in math and test scores between black and white students is reduced by 10%. The final objective calls for raising average attendance rates.

In interviews and school board meetings as well as in the actions he has taken, Peterkin has seemed far more enlightened than this document would suggest. He has repeatedly voiced concern that test scores not be seen as the sole measure of student achievement. He has shown a commitment to helping Milwaukee children acquire sophisticated skills: he has insisted he wants to see ineffective, repetitive re­mediation replaced with challenging and engaging enrichment curricula, and he has lent significant support to whole language programs. While testing has clearly not been his number one concern, both his statements and actions suggest he believes an excessive emphasis on test scores is likely to lead to a narrow curriculum which constrains rather than inspires good teaching and higher order learning. (At a recent school board meeting it was Pe­ terkin who suggested that a recommended task force to explore alternative forms of assessment be linked to the curriculum development efforts so that these means of assessment would arise from curricular changes rather than leading them.) This makes it puzzling that his office would produce a document defining student achievement in such dangerously limited terms.

Our fears about equating test scores with achievement deepen as we read through the rest of the plan. The very first task listed under the first objective is to “Develop a K-12 student motivation program that will (1) remove the fear of testing by helping pupils at all grade levels to understand the test-taking techniques necessary for the comprehension of standardized tests….” This might be a way to increase student test scores but it is doubtful that it will have any impact whatsoever on student achievement and learning opportunities. Moreover there is growing consensus among educators that there is little validity or reliability in giving standardized tests to young children. Why then should we teach them at such an early age “test-taking techniques?”

All this sounds more like business as usual than anything else. What makes it different is that the Transition Plan explicitly states that “the evaluation of the instruction support staff [and community superintendents) will be based on the demonstrated improvement of student performance in those schools where they have been working.” While it is good to hold non-classroom personnel accountable, we are fearful that given the tendency to define “student achievement” as higher test scores we will see an increased pressure to raise scores for the sake of raising scores. Such an emphasis has already rendered many school effectiveness plans impotent, de­ formed the curriculum of schools, wasted money and time on “test-wise” materials and most importantly misled the public into thinking that a percentage increase in test scores translates into better schools and higher student achievement.

A parallel problem exists in the report’s treatment of teachers. While it is positive that the School Administration and the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association leadership are embarking on discussion of school reform issues, the role of the rank and file teacher is left up in the air. We are not only talking about inclusion of classroom teachers on different commissions or task forces. What we are talking about is a different conception of teaching. Structures need to be created and leadership provided that will transform teaching from an isolated act of transmitting bits of prepackaged knowledge, into a reflective, collaborative activity which is simultaneously very demanding and re­warding.

Good teaching is in fact extremely demanding. At the high school level, for example, if we imagine that a teacher spends no more than two minutes a night per student reading, evaluating and recording the homework and/or classwork from 150 students, she will have already spent five hours before she begins to plan her lessons for the following day.

Planning creative, provocative lessons can easily require several hours for each hour of class time, and high school teachers often teach two to three different courses or preparations. Under such circumstances, it becomes humanly impossible for a conscientious teacher to consistently meet her own standards of excellence. Teachers need fewer classes at high schools and middle schools, smaller classes and more preparation time at the elementary level. 

A spirit of professionalism needs to be cultivated in our schools. Teachers need to talk about teaching, reflect on it and collaborate on ways to improve.  From the administration, this might  mean something as small as treating teachers who seek professional development  affirmatively  instead of suspiciously, or some­thing as large as restructuring the teaching day to build in and promote professional growth.

The two documents considered here, the Superintendent’s Transition Report  to the Board of School Directors and A Five-Year Plan for Improvement of the Milwaukee Public Schools are despite certain weaknesses – a reflection of forward movement in the Milwaukee Public Schools that should be supported. Dr. Pe­terkin and Dr. McGriff, in a very short period of time, has not only begun to chart a new course for MPS, but have given teachers, parents and community leaders alike new hope and optimism about the future of our schools.

We know the road ahead will not be easy or without disagreement. We do believe, however, the children of Milwaukee will benefit most if the fundamental  questions of teaching and learning are continu­ally placed on the top of the agenda.