Roadblocks to Reform: The Year In Review

Disappointment. Frustration. Some glimmers of hope. Another school year has passed and despite sincere efforts by many people little visible evidence exists that much substantive school reform is actually taking place in Milwaukee. While Superintendent Robert Peterkin has done a good job of articulating an inspiring vision of how schools in Milwaukee should change, this vision is being implemented at a disturbingly slow pace.

For almost two years new leadership has been in place in the Milwaukee Public Schools, and it is time to make a hard assessment of how things are working. We are cognizant that changing a system with 10,000 employees, 96,000 children, and over 150 sites is no easy task, given any period of time.

Some argue that the slow pace of progress in reforming the Milwaukee Public Schools is due to the Milwaukee community’s resistance to change. Yet we know that there are thousands of parents and teachers in Milwaukee who would welcome substantive change in our schools if they can be appropriately involved in the process.

Others argue that current social conditions in our society prevent school improvement. This argument can be a thinly disguised racist assertion that blames the victims and permits complacency with the status quo. Of course, school life and school reform are directly connected to broader social issues, especially racism and poverty. Certainly there needs to be massive social reform in the areas of jobs, housing, and health care to improve the lives and education of our nation’s children. Nonetheless, given the limits of schooling in a complex society, schools should still be doing a better job than they are now.

Why then are Milwaukee schools still unable to move significantly closer to reform? We believe that an examination of the various educational issues that have confronted the Milwaukee community this last year reveals a recurring factor – an unsettling one that revolves around questions of leadership inside and outside of the school system.

Let’s take a closer look at some issues.

The Six Service Delivery Areas

Perhaps the most significant structural change that took place this past year was the creation of the six Service Delivery Areas (SDAs), the hiring of community superintendents and their staffs, and the establishment of Community Advisory Councils and Instructional Support Teams (ISTs). One year is a short time to perfect any new structure, yet the significant problems that have emerged require public discussion.

One reason for the creation of the six SDAs was to reduce the many layers of bureaucracy in MPS. Unfortunately, there is growing evidence that this has not happened, and in some cases a new layer has been added. In the past many issues and concerns were run directly through Central Office Administrator Bob Long, but now most things have to be run both through the SDA office and someone at Central Office. In one case this led to a popular inner city school not being eligible for a grant from the Kohl foundation because their community superintendent failed to forward the request in a timely fashion. (Almost everything needs the signature of the community superintendents before it goes to Central Office.) In some cases paper work has been doubled with both the SDAs and Central Office requiring copies of needed reports.

An additional problem with this extra layer of bureaucracy is an often murky delineation of authority. In the areas of student assignments, teacher needs, and other important matters, teachers and building principals are not clearly told who is in charge.

Perhaps most disturbing, however, is the failure of the new structure to put administrative personnel in a position where they can really provide concrete assistance and leadership to schools. While it may be true that the SDA team members are spending more time in schools than the Central Office supervisors and generalists they replaced, most schools have not seen them. Even in “targeted” schools the help has been negligible. SDA members spent considerable time doing extensive surveys of targeted schools, the positive results of which have yet to be seen. New teachers at targeted schools are no better off under this system than the old, as assistance and support for them has been inconsistent at best and non-existent at worst. More experienced teachers report that often the recommendations that SDA members make are ten steps behind what the staff at the school is already trying.

Finally, reports out of the Community Advisory Councils are disturbing. Ostensibly established to provide for more parental, community, and teacher input, their meetings have too often involved nearly endless discussion of trivia and procedural matters. Several members reported to Rethinking Schools that their most significant activity of the year was the hosting of the open houses for the new SDA offices. The administration and school board clarified that the councils are only advisory. Some members have begun to question whether participation on the councils is worth the effort.

Last year we reported on how poor communication and lack of coordination had botched the initial elections to the councils. Unfortunately, despite a year’s lead time, the Central Office personnel in charge did it again. They told principals on May 2, 1990, that nominations for teacher and parent members to the councils had to be in by May 11th. Giving principals so little time to generate nominations discourages genuine involvement by parents, unless by chance a parent meeting had already been scheduled.

To summarize, the new SDAs — whether we speak of the community superintendents, the IST members or the Community Advisory Committees — have yet to demonstrate quality leadership on local school issues.

K-12 Curriculum Reform

Another major reform effort which was to take hold this year was the K-12 curriculum initiative. Last summer a group of teachers, administrators, and community people worked hard to come up with a process by which teachers and parents could be involved in setting goals and guidelines for a new curriculum. In a recent Milwaukee Journal article [4/1/90] which assessed Peterkin’s performance, this effort was described as an “on-going program of sweeping curriculum reform,” and listed as one of the “tangible [and] …significant accomplishments” his tenure has brought.

In fact, though, little was done to advance the reform effort over the school year. When Central Office personnel finally began organizing a spring “kick-off conference” — entirely without the input of teachers and parents — their plan called for a panel of eight people to address assembled teachers. The planned panel included only one teacher, and it was to begin with a university person telling teachers “what is curriculum.” This violated the most fundamental spirit of the curriculum effort the K-12 curriculum committee had designed, which called for involving teachers, parents, and others in dialogue about change and offering them support for creative initiatives.

We are pleased to note that after the intervention of classroom teachers and community people, this conference was successfully redesigned. What resulted on May 14 was a careful dialogue in which over 200 teachers, other staff, and community members analyzed what curriculum changes are needed and how to move the process forward. What remains to be seen is whether plans to further involve parents in a similar conference and to decree the involvement of all staff will really come to pass.

A More Basic Point: The Bureaucracy

While the K-12 Curriculum proposals themselves provide a solid basis upon which to build curriculum reform in MPS, the profound disconnection between this vision and the approach of some Central Office personnel toward implementation raises an even more basic, albeit delicate, point. Bureaucratic mentalities, misplaced priorities, and hierarchical styles of work still dominate too much of Central Office (and some SDA offices). This mentality fails to mobilize and involve the greatest resources MPS has: the staff, parents, and students.

It is time for Superintendent Peterkin to dismiss certain people at Central Office who regularly demonstrate a rigid bureaucratic style of work that stymies reform or prevents the efficient running of the system. Their actions run counter to the Superintendent’s stated goal of involving parents, community members, and teachers in decisions that affect them. Only after they are relieved of their current duties will significant reform efforts have a chance to move forward in a rational way.

Besides problems with curriculum development, other long standing problems exist with the staff development and personnel departments. Principals and teachers report they have been subjected to inconsiderate treatment. Prospective employees have reportedly been alienated and current ones insulted. MPS’s failure to successfully recruit more teachers of color or to have a workable program to encourage para-professionals to seek their teaching licenses is intolerable in a city with a 70% minority student population and a teacher force that is 20% minority.

Individual School Leadership

Of course, mismanagement and incompetence take place at the school level as well. Poor administrators and poor teachers are allowed to continue in their jobs for years, with no effective intervention. Major reforms are needed in the ways in which principals and teachers are given guidance and held accountable. While the bulk of the school system’s energy should be directed at helping school level employees overcome weaknesses and learn to perform more effectively, we also need effective mechanisms to fire principals and teachers whose continued presence is hurting children. The need to protect the legitimate “due process” rights of administrators and teachers must not supersede the right of children to obtain a high quality education.

Since the quality of the principal has such a profound effect on an entire school, it is imperative that MPS find effective means to insure good school leadership. Currently there is no way for teachers or parents to participate in evaluating principals or Central Office personnel, and no indication that the principals’ immediate supervisors, the Community Superintendents, are in a position to know what life is like in any particular school. The need for more effective monitoring of principals is accompanied by the need to take effective action, when necessary. The fact that teachers at four different schools this year had to file Section “K” grievances — school wide grievances in which nearly the entire staff initiates a process to review the deteriorating conditions of the school — points to the necessity of MPS developing ways to fire incompetent principals, not just move them from one building to another or to a more “innocuous position” at Central Office.

Other reforms are needed to help principals provide good leadership. Principals and other administrators should be required to periodically engage in classroom teaching. Many management people have lost track of the reality of teaching after years, if not decades, of being out of the classroom. Another good change would be to help principals spend more time in the school building. Current reform efforts and SDA structure require principals to be out of the building at meetings during the day even more frequently than in the past. Teachers and other staff people must hold their meetings after the student day. We find it rather curious that administrators who are paid on the average $10,000 more than teachers are not expected to do the same.

We do not underestimate the tenacity of an entrenched bureaucracy to outlive the possibly short term tenure of a reform minded superintendent. A single reformer cannot do it by himself or herself. It is for this reason that the only hope for the Milwaukee Public Schools, and we do believe there is still considerable cause for hope, is for teachers, principals, parents, and community activists to become more outspoken in demanding that decisions be made democratically and that they are in the best interests of all of our children.

The LEEP Plan

Perhaps the largest new reform initiative this year was the effort to redesign the student assignment plan. The release of the Long Range Educational Equity Plan (known popularly as the Willie Plan) in early February stirred considerable debate within the community. As we reported in our last issue the plan recognized that desegregation in Milwaukee was inequitable. Unfortunately, the plan is unlikely to solve the problem of inequity and is likely to cause additional problems. Put briefly, it will perpetuate one-way busing in Milwaukee because it doesn’t deal with the lack of schools in the inner city, penalize integrated neighborhoods that want to build integrated neighborhood schools, divide populations of specialty schools that are currently working, and base school success on the narrow criteria of test scores and student recruitment. Moreover, little effort was made to involve parents, community and staff people in the development of the plan. While such input is now being solicited, it comes only after mounting pressure from various sectors of our community.

Teacher Professionalism

Again, we started the school year optimistic because the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA) and MPS concluded an agreement of under standing around 13 different issues of professionalism including peer coaching and collaboration, professional development and mentoring, class size, recruitment of minority teachers, and school based management. Unfortunately this cooperation ended when the School Board decided not to place any professional issues of substance on the bargaining table.

Standardized Testing and Assessment

In June of 1989 the School Board accepted the report of the Assessment Task Force. The task force called, among other things, for “a five year plan by April 1990 for the development of authentic assessments to replace the norm-referenced tests.” This unfortunately was not done, and the assessment committee met only once prior to April 1990.

The school board did agree, however, to eliminate the Metropolitan Readiness Test in kindergarten. Moreover, MPS went on record as being in support of Assembly Bill 542 which called for the banning of standardized tests in kindergarten through second grade. Unfortunately, because the legislators on the assembly committee are not well informed on this issue, and because of the Wisconsin Education Association’s opposition to the proposal, the bill died in the committee.

One positive development affects the P-5 schools. Under the leadership of Representative Barb Notestein, the massive array of tests required by the P-5 legislation has now become optional. What MPS will do with its new found choice at these schools is unclear.

The one thing that is clear is that if we truly intend to “develop authentic assessments to replace the norm-referenced tests,” more leadership needs to be exerted to pull together the various strands of activities related to assessment that are going on in MPS. This includes the work of the Assessment Task Force, the City-Wide Testing Advisory Council, the Whole Language Council, early childhood educators, and teachers and principals at individual schools.

Whole Language Council

A bright spot this school year was the Whole Language Council, a group of teachers that represent the 11 schools that have whole language pilots. This council has organized quality inservices, put together an alternative assessment plan, and provided support for classroom teachers and schools that are involved in innovative change. Perhaps that most positive thing about the council is the fact that it exists and could be used as a model for empowering teachers from other schools involved in other curricular reform efforts. The council has a budget that it controls. Substitutes are provided to release teachers from their classes for the council’s main meetings (while its work committees meet after school). The chair of the council is a teacher elected by the other teachers on the council.

The administration would do well to encourage this type of organization and support curricular reform efforts around other issues and subject areas. This experience would be particularly worth duplicating in the area of social studies, as the textbook adoption committee has recommended that teachers be allowed to opt out of the recommended basal text and use equivalent monies for an “inter-disciplinary project” approach.

Commitment to Multicultural Education

Asa Hilliard, a professor at Georgia State and nationally known leader in the field of African-American curriculum, met twice with MPS staff people this school year about MPS might structure an ambitious effort to infuse multicultural education into the curriculum. The public commitment that the administration has given to pursuing this effort is laudable. We hope that they provide quality leadership which encourages grassroots involvement.

The Issue of Political Leadership in Milwaukee

This year also saw an increase in the involvement by people outside of MPS in offering what they see as solutions to the system’s problems. The state legislature, the governor, the mayor and his aides, and business leaders all seem to think they know what’s best for Milwaukee’s school children. Unfortunately, many of these people don’t have a sense of the realities of daily life in the classrooms and schools, nor do they understand the full range of problems that schools in the 1990s face. Such leaders seem to glow in the limelight of publicity offering generous (if often ill-conceived) advice, but little money to the public schools.

The state legislature continued the controversial Learnfare program which has been criticized as unjust and ineffective from many quarters. Studies have shown that it has failed in its attempt to keep children in school, while putting undue stress on families. A recent attempt to allocate $500,000 to set up alternative education programs for some of those “learnfare adolescents” was vetoed by Governor Thompson as was a provision to provide child care for teenage mothers if they come back to school.

The legislature under the leadership of Polly Williams and with the support of the Governor, passed a “choice” plan for 1% of the MPS student population. While it is too early to tell what kind of impact such a program will have on the students and MPS, one negative thing that it did do was open the door for people to begin talking about vouchers in general and the dismantling of public education in Milwaukee. The Mayor’s quick support of the proposal by David Reimer, Director of the Milwaukee Department of Administration, for a system of “performance vouchers” suggests the Mayor is either considerably more ignorant or considerably less progressive on educational matters than we had been led to believe.

Instead of allocating necessary resources to rebuild our overcrowded schools, or supporting efforts to address the needs of large numbers of students who are least well served by the schools, these officials are harkening back to the theories of laissez faire capitalism. Despite the rhetoric that accompanies such “choice” and voucher plans, they tend to finesse issues of quality and actually promote inequality.

The GMC and its Educational Trust have continued to play a significant role in school politics. The Teacher Awards Program and the One on One tutoring initiative are both positive programs, but these expenditures and political efforts pale in comparison to what is needed.

It is unfortunate that an effort similar to that which has been mounted to refurbish the downtown and lakefront areas does not also occur in our neighborhoods. There is a desperate need for new schools, community/ youth centers and jobs in many parts of our city. In fact a 1988 study group which included many governmental and business officials stated that 500 million dollars worth of construction was needed in Milwaukee alone if we were to meet the educational needs of our community’s children. (See Rethinking Schools, Vol. 2, No. 3.) We are still waiting for our community’s political and corporate officials to either dispute that report or provide leadership whereby we can come up with the money for such a significant undertaking.

Efforts of professional teacher organizations would be better spent building coalitions around the issues of constructing new schools, reducing class size, and increasing recruitment of minority teachers, rather than the issue of residency, the one issue which seems to draw the most focus in the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association.

It is clear that on most fronts education is embattled. Teachers, students, administrators proceed through their daily tasks skeptical that much can change. And given the current political climate and problems with public leadership on all levels that is not an unreasonable position. But at the risk of being the eternal optimists we must say that there is a cause for hope.

The numerous errors and problems mentioned above must be kept in perspective. The leadership given by the previous superintendents was worse, and in fact some of the problems Peterkin faces, particularly around questions of student assignment, were inherited from his predecessors.

Window of Opportunity

Moreover, Peterkin has set the stage for meaningful reform. Despite their problems, the curriculum and assessment committees have important potential. The ongoing commitment to site-based management shows a healthy respect for school based initiative. At the school level various innovative practices are being attempted with relative degrees of success and with support from the administration. Such efforts include the new teacher accessible computer system at South Division, peer mediation programs at several schools, the African American Male Task Force, the pro-integration community efforts at Hi-Mount, the Whole Language Council, the collaborative leadership of Garfield School by teachers when their principal left, and special projects that take place daily in dozen of classrooms and schools throughout the system. Many teachers and parents are experimenting in innovative ways.

Nationally and locally there is still much attention focused on educational reform. As our society continues to suffer the devastation caused by inequality, unemployment and poverty, we believe it is possible that more and more people will see the central role taking care of our children and youth must play in building a just society.

We need people to translate these concerns into public policies that will truly move education forward into the 21st century, not just create an illusion that education is improving.