Simple Solutions to Complex Problems

Why Susan Mitchell’s Critique of MPS Doesn’t Work

By Robert Lowe

Last summer The New York Times ran a Bloomingdale’s advertisement with the headline “It’s All About Choices, And Individual Freedom.”1 The choices advertised included a turtleneck for $215, spandex pants for $385, and a red skating coat for $1495. Since the words “choice” and “freedom” appeal to deeply-held American values, they make a great advertising gimmick for Bloomingdale’s — and also for voucher supporters who have succeeded in labeling their agenda “choice.”

Consultant Susan Mitchell recently has written a report, “Why MPS Doesn’t Work,” which recommends giving parents the freedom “to choose the schools, public or private, their children attend.”2 “Customer choice in education,”3 she believes, is necessary to create meaningful educational change. The similarity between Mitchell’s language and that of the corporate world is not merely fortuitous.

Mitchell’s report, published by the Bradley Foundation-supported Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, maintains not only that the public school system in Milwaukee is failing, but also that it is incapable of reforming itself because it does not have to compete for students. The report depicts a results-oriented corporate world where accountability to customers is associated with the adoption of agile, more productive, and less bureaucratic organizations. In contrast, it describes the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) as a bloated, bureaucratic monopoly where lack of accountability to customers impedes the organizational change necessary to achieve results. The lesson from this contrast is that the corporate model ought to be emulated. Opening education to the marketplace by giving parents vouchers is the way to achieve this.

Given the uncritical media attention Mitchell’s report has received, the seemingly commonsensical viewpoint she offers, and the exportable nature of her work to further the voucher agenda nationally, a closer look at how Mitchell constructs her argument merits attention. What I shall contend is that her argument rests on a myopic representation of the private sector, a naive view of effective schools, and distorted characterizations of MPS. I shall also suggest that undergirding her argument is a vision of education totally inappropriate to a democratic society.

It’s hard to take Mitchell’s breezy commentary on transformations in the private sector seriously — from her erroneous placement of scientific management expert Frederick Winslow Taylor in the 1800s,4 to her favorable comments on how businesses are now seeking less regulation (as if this is a new departure), to her ingenuous formulation that customer satisfaction is the raison d’etre of business. The issue of customer satisfaction, in particular, merits examination.

In this era of deregulation it is not obvious how customers are served by leveraged buy-outs, mergers, and the savings and loan disaster. (Mitchell, in fact, approvingly offers a quotation supporting the deregulation of banking.) Nor is it clear how the continuing relaxation of regulation will protect customers’ health and well-being. What is evident is that as customers we have little say about corporate practice because it’s their business, not ours. What we are free to do is choose a product or not, and this choice is limited both by monopolistic tendencies of the private sector and by our personal resources. If an affluent consumer is dissatisfied with the quality of the red skating coat at Bloomingdale’s, she or he can choose a similar item at Neiman Marcus; for most of us, however, neither choice is an option. Yet more important than restricted choice in consumer products is the reality that those of us with limited resources almost invariably must choose inadequate health care, poor daycare facilities, substandard housing, and inhumane nursing homes. If the market doesn’t work for the poor in these human services, why should it in education?

Business’s Model

Aside from issues of choice, Mitchell is enthralled with the organizational revolution she sees occurring in the private sector. Well aware of the bureaucratic history of corporate organizations, she claims they are decentralizing, laying off large numbers of middle managers (bureaucrats) in the process. Well, this may be, but the one citation she offers to document this phenomenon provides no evidence of the extent of managerial layoffs and concomitant decentralization. It does offer evidence that major corporations have been eliminating tens of thousands of jobs.5 These firms are not accountable to the public for the profound social consequences such choices have.

Interestingly, the article Mitchell cites is entitled “The Death of Corporate Loyalty.” It maintains that “job cuts at Eastman Kodak, IBM, and Phillips have shattered morale and embittered many of those who remain.”6 So perhaps the restructuring going on in the private sector, where firm and employee are not bound by bonds of loyalty, may actually harm corporate productivity. Mitchell, apparently, is unimpressed with such a perspective. She touts the efficiencies of contracting out and hiring part-time workers (and recommends such policies for MPS) without evident concern for the impact of these practices on organizational ethos. In addition, she fails to comment on the low-wage nature of these replacement jobs, but does claim that “firms offering services on a part-time or contract basis are offering benefits to their workers.”7 Her only evidence for this enlightened practice is that the president of one such firm says she provides health benefits to her employees.8

Mitchell seems enthralled with the “changes [that] mean a more competitive workplace than ever before.”9 Indifferent to the question of who benefits from these changes, she links the corporate world to education by holding that good firms and good schools have similar organizational qualities. To forge this connection, she draws on effective schools research and affirms its principles, stating that “academic achievement is linked to high expectations, parental involvement, high teacher morale, focused use of instruction, strong principal leadership, and positive school climate.”10 These principles are undeniable, but they are such obvious generalities that they provide virtually no insight into what good learning environments might look like.

To be fair, MPS also frequently has invoked these banalities. But one particular advantage for Mitchell in drawing upon the effective schools literature and the practice built upon it is its assumption that money is essentially irrelevant to building truly effective schools. Consequently, this pre-empts MPS from claiming that its problems with educating students are related to resource impoverishment. Mitchell, in fact, cites the 1966 Coleman Report as setting the stage for the development of effective schools research since the report “toppled the common assumption that more resources lead to better student performances.”11 The Coleman Report, authorized by the 1964 Civil Rights Act to survey educational opportunities nationally, has been the subject of endless debate. Laying aside the various critiques of the Coleman Report that demonstrate that it understates resource differences expended on the education of whites and African Americans and ignoring reanalyses of the Coleman data that link increased resources particularly to African American achievement,12 the report still tells us nothing about what the results of a superabundance of resources properly directed might be for those who invariably have the least. This superabundance, after all, is what the wealthy require for their children. If expenditures are irrelevant to educational quality, then the residents of the Nicolet High School District, who spent nearly $6,000 per student more than the Milwaukee Public Schools in 1992-93 are wasting their tax money. 13 Perhaps Mitchell should convince them of their extravagant ways.

Another advantage of drawing on the effective schools model is that, according to Mitchell, such schools “have a clear sense of purpose,”14 just like effective organizations in the private sector. Unfortunately, this sense of purpose often has been directed at raising scores on standardized tests by teaching to the tests. This has created a drill-based, simple-minded pursuit of low-order thinking skills — a parody of serious education that is demeaning to both students and teachers.15 Businesses can and do pursue a single purpose — profits.

Public schools rightfully always have had multiple purposes, from developing cognitive and social skills pertinent to the labor market, to transmitting a canonical version of the culture, to engendering the habits of mind and heart requisite to meaningful participation in democratic public life. To demand of schools that they have a single purpose may make sense from the standpoint of organizational theory, but it makes little sense educationally.

Unconcerned with these matters, Mitchell goes on to claim that school autonomy is the prerequisite to effective schools, apparently clinching her argument that the Milwaukee Public Schools cannot be effective because their bureaucratic nature stifles autonomy. She relies on John Chubb and Terry Moe’s Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools to demonstrate the significant effect of autonomy on academic achievement. Unfortunately, a number of scholars who have analyzed their data find that autonomy alone has a trivial effect on achievement.16 This strikes me as common sense. Autonomy from bureaucracy is only as valuable as the educational ends to which it is directed. Two of Chubb and Moe’s critics, in fact, offer a cautionary conclusion about the organizational ethos a market-driven system of education may create. According to Valerie Lee and Anthony Bryk, “Although the competitive spirit implied in a market system of incentives may field economic development, it seems unlikely to engender the caring human relations and shared social responsibility so essential to institutions of human betterment.”17

While Mitchell has much to say about the bureaucratic behavior of the Milwaukee Public Schools, it is based on sources like the regulations listed in the school board policy manual rather than what is going on inside of schools. The extraordinary number of distinct educational emphases among schools, from language immersion to African American immersion, from the creative arts to two-way bilingual, from Montessori to Waldorf — suggest that the central administration is scarcely imposing a single mold on schools. Further, in my own talks with teachers nearly all believe they have the freedom in the classroom (if not the desirable resources) to teach as they deem best. The few who do not experience this freedom teach in elementary schools where the primary goal is improved scores on standardized tests. Obviously, this is impressionistic evidence, but it comports with the findings of John Goodlad’s A Place Called School which are based on observations in more than 1,000 classrooms in 38 schools across the United States.18


Public schools do face regulation, but some of the forms of regulation are meant to protect those who have faced systemic inequality when local school districts simply have followed majority sentiment. Mitchell, apparently, is indifferent to the distinction. For instance, she places the desegregation plan among those reforms that she believes “have inflicted ongoing damage.”19 She offers no performance-based evidence for this, however, and neither seems aware of the flagrantly unequal conditions that spawned the desegregation effort (as well as long-term resistance by school officials), nor the vision of a society based on tolerance, respect, and understanding between the races that inspired it. At any rate, desegregation in the Milwaukee Public Schools means that principals and teachers — unlike in private institutions — are not free to work in all-white schools. None that I know considers this an unreasonable bureaucratic encumbrance.

This brings me to another general problem with Mitchell’s critique: her avoidance of race and class issues. Middle class and upper class whites generally do well in bureaucratic public schools, including MPS. A major finding of the Coleman Report is that social class is the strongest predictor of educational achievement. One only need to look at school-by-school data for Milwaukee high schools to find confirming evidence. For 1992-1993, the two schools with the lowest percentage of students eligible for free lunches — King and Milwaukee High School of the Arts — had the highest grade point averages and lowest drop-out rates. Conversely, three of the four schools with the highest percent-ages of free-lunch eligible students — North, South, and Custer — fell among the four lowest schools in both categories.20 Looking down the highway from Milwaukee, a new report issued by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and written by Steven Korris reveals that in the highly touted Madison public schools low-income students also do poorly and African Americans do even worse.21

Mitchell marshals neither evidence to demonstrate that bureaucracy is the cause of these inequalities nor that autonomy is the solution. In fact, the only voucher program in the United States can’t help her out here. The students who are enrolled in the autonomous private schools that participate in the Milwaukee Parent Choice Program are all low-income and 96% African American or Latino. Their collective academic performance, according to the studies of John Witte and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, is no better than low-income students who remain in the Milwaukee Public Schools.22

I want to make it clear that I absolutely am not saying that African Americans, other children of color, or poor children in general cannot learn as well as middle-class white students, and I am not exonerating public schools, including MPS, for the miserable work they often are doing with these populations. I am saying that counterposing autonomous (private) schools to (bureaucratic) public schools doesn’t address complex issues of class and racial inequality in school and society that account for discrepancies in academic performance.

Portrait of MPS Educators

Complex analysis, of course, is not the point of Mitchell’s report. If the reader is not convinced to support vouchers by her business boosterism or her invocations of effective schools, her devastating portrait of MPS educators is sure to win converts. Here is a picture of blithering fools who, freed of all accountability to the public, spend more and more money on fewer and fewer students with worse and worse results; who periodically repeat the same goals, but offer no means for attaining them; who create an endless progression of top-down reforms that over time become a jumble of contradictory activities; who care more about positive publicity than positive academic results.

Mitchell exaggerates the inadequacies of MPS educators through reading evidence in ways that produce the effect she desires. For instance, Mitchell’s graph on the report’s first page charts a dramatically declining graduate rate accompanied by significantly increasing expenditures over time. Yet she fails to note the vast demographic changes that have taken place in the system since the early 1970s or to provide evidence that the graduation rate of African Americans who now compose the majority of students has, in fact, declined over time. Furthermore, that part of the graph that charts per-pupil expenditures on the first page of the report looks more damning than the graph charting those expenditures tucked in the back of the report. The former, charted at five year intervals, obscures a peak in 1978 and a valley between 1980 and 1985 that are evident in the second graph, charted at yearly intervals. Although Mitchell is correct that expenditures rose dramatically between 1973 and 1993, her second graph makes it clear that expenditures remained nearly steady for the first half of the 1980s, and, more importantly, the increase from 1978 to 1993 amounted to only $200 or so per pupil.

But this isn’t the end of the matter. Mitchell states that enrollment in MPS fell from 128,734 in 1973 to 94,301 in 1993.

This comes close to the figures in my possession. What she ignores is that enrollment dropped nearly 40,000 from 1973 to 1981, and it subsequently has risen steadily, adding nearly 9,000 students since 1981.23 Rising expenditures since the mid-1980s, therefore, have accompanied rising student enrollment that commenced in the early 1980s rather than the falling enrollment Mitchell’s figures imply. When higher salaries and spiraling health insurance costs are taken into account, MPS hardly has appeared to be an extravagant operation in recent years. The same cannot be said for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, which paid Mitchell $78,000 for her slender report.24

Other problems with the report have to do with the question of public accountability and satisfaction. Mitchell apparently believes that MPS has no incentive to improve because it gets its money despite significant public dissatisfactions with the system. Yet she states that “demonstrating a lack of confidence in MPS, voters defeated a $474 million facilities plan by a three-to-one margin.”25 So the public obviously does have some say in how much money MPS receives. What Mitchell fails to point out is that whites overwhelmingly opposed the referendum while African Americans approved it by a wide margin. Given that whites compose approximately two-thirds of the population of Milwaukee but only 26% of the MPS student population, the vote suggests the unwillingness of many whites to support the schools of other people’s children. Vouchers, of course, would further diminish this obligation by reducing public taxation and treating families like entrepreneurial units whose competition for entry into the best schools invariably would be won by those most able to add their own resources to their vouchers.

Mitchell provides other evidence of public unhappiness with MPS. For instance, she cites a 1990 survey which, according to Mitchell, “showed 45% of city residents surveyed thought MPS schools had ‘gotten worse’ during the past five years. … and 72% said they believed private and parochial schools offered a better education.”26 Yet 78% of those polled were white. For Blacks surveyed, 40% believed they had gotten worse and 40% believed they either improved or stayed the same. For Hispanics, 22% believed they had gotten worse as opposed to 42% who believed they had either improved or stayed the same. In addition, 47% of Black respondents and 52% of Hispanic respondents believed that children get a better education in MPS than they had gotten.27 More importantly, only 16% of those surveyed had children in MPS. Those who did have children in MPS the previous year rated their schools just under a “B” (2.88) while the average grade for the school system, which included respondents without children in MPS, was under a “C” (1.81).28

If the 1990 survey results are actually somewhat favorably disposed to MPS for those with current MPS experience, the results Mitchell reports from a 1992 survey of voters surely seem condemnatory. She reports that this survey “showed 89% of respondents rated MPS unfavorably.

Twenty-nine per cent thought a ‘complete overhaul’ was needed, and an additional 43% favored major change.”29 Although Mitchell’s numbers are accurately drawn from this survey of voters, what she fails to do is point out the 89% unfavorable figure is not complemented by an 11% favorable one, but a 33% favorable one. This is because respondents at this point were asked to offer impressions rather than to rate the system. Obviously, some respondents had both positive and negative impressions.30 Further, although the survey documents “widespread dissatisfaction with the public school system,”31 it offers evidence that respondents located the source of the system’s problems more with the families who attend MPS than with the educators. To the prompt “Please tell me which two groups or people you feel are most to blame for the problems in Milwaukee’s public schools,” 57% chose parents and 31% students, as opposed to 27% who chose the school board, 17% teachers and principals, and 7% Superintendent Howard Fuller.32 Finally, although the survey finds that MPS parents are as critical of the system as non-MPS respondents, it also finds that “seven in ten MPS parent voters believe their children are receiving a good or superior education.”33

The discrepancy between public opinion about MPS and estimations of MPS schools based on direct experience with them should make school officials sensitive to media coverage. Mitchell, however, makes it appear as if this is their overriding concern. “For most of the 1980s,” she states, “the most consistent measurement of administrative reports of accomplishments to the MPS Board was the number of negative and positive inches of press the district received during the prior year.”34 Her evidence for this is drawn from a single report with dozens of pages of goals and achievements listed from the various offices and divisions. The item on inches of print comes from the report of the Office of Public Information/Community Relations.35 It’s not clear what Mitchell expected to find in a department concerned with publicity, but it is clear that she’s quite willing to make idiosyncratic use of sources to make MPS appear ridiculous.

Mitchell also resorts to a sort of double-talk to pursue the same goal. She criticizes MPS for measuring activities instead of results; she criticizes its measuring results as a substitute for doing anything about them; and the various reform efforts meant to do something about them are cursorily dismissed as piecemeal and contradictory.

Ignoring Positive Change

Mitchell’s own approach is piecemeal when she treats initiatives of the system under Superintendent Fuller. Although she mentions most of the following changes here and there in her report, offering a coherent picture of these changes would defy her sense of the unresponsiveness of public school systems. In addition to dismantling the bureaucratic nightmare created by the division of MPS into six administrative units, responding to budgetary crisis by significantly reducing central office positions rather than teaching positions, and reducing gratuitous busing, the Fuller administration has supported a massive bottom-up curriculum reform effort. A serious exchange between teachers, principals, and parents has produced intellectually rigorous and culturally sensitive standards. This focus on academics is already bringing some results, especially in the vast expansion of students taking algebra in ninth grade and the high percentage of graduates enrolling in post-secondary education.36

The curriculum reform effort matters, and so too would the resources to provide for smaller class size, bountiful books and equipment, and significant professional development. But these are not sufficient to dramatically alter the pattern of failure that devastates the futures of so many students in MPS. I too am concerned with the “dance of the lemons” Mitchell refers to — the shuffling rather than firing of incompetent teachers and administrators. I also admit to viewing the existence of an administrators’ union as a bizarre invitation to inertia and the teachers’ union as a necessary protector of teachers’ well-being that unnecessarily has a history of perceiving its interests in ways that are antagonistic to the best interests of students. Yet I think the essence of the problem lies much deeper.

The United States has many thousands of schools — public and private — where students do well by conventional criteria of achievement. But it has very few good schools. For most students, school is training to manage tedium, passivity, and irrelevance.37 One reason why the affluent typically do well in school is that they recognize it as instrumental to future opportunities in the labor market. For the poor, who have little experience that gives credence to such a connection, schools without intrinsic value may not be taken seriously. For the many African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans who typically encounter white teachers in their classrooms, this problem is often compounded by the daily experience of indifference or even contempt. Thirty years ago psychologist Kenneth Clark likened the relationship between African American students and white teachers to a class war that the former were guaranteed to lose.38 In his present-day study of the Madison schools, Steven Korris maintains that “teachers appear to favor White students over African American students,” and he related some of teachers’ attitudes and practices that contribute to low achievement among the latter.39 It would be trivial to document the same in MPS — or affluent Nicolet for that matter.40 If instances of physical harassment and racial name-calling are rare, the tendency to see differences as deficits is common. This translates into a lack of respect for young people’s intellectual capabilities at the classroom level and an easy acceptance of institutional practices like tracking and disciplinary action that disproportionately harm children of color.

Many students fail in school not because they can’t learn or don’t want to learn, but because what they do learn is that school must be resisted in order to preserve their dignity.41 I am neither suggesting that no white teachers can effectively teach children of color, nor that teachers are any more racist than other whites. But urban schools constitute one of the few locations where whites have sustained contact with other races, given that forty years after the Brown decision we inhabit a society profoundly partitioned by suburbanization and a stratified labor market. The encounter between the races in schools tends to ignite the unresolved tensions of a racially stratified society, and since whites as teachers are in positions of authority over students of color, their encounter reinforces the racial hierarchy that the civil rights movement never successfully dismantled.

There is no quick fix to the problem I have described because schools quite successfully reproduce the unequal relations of power and privilege in the broader society. The answer, however, is not vouchers which would further partition society both racially and economically, but truly inclusive public schools where power and resources are desegregated; not competition where those with the most resources automatically win, but community where self-interest is intertwined with the public good; not customers purchasing educational goods in the marketplace, but citizens forging a multi-racial democracy.42 Whether we can enact this vision will require us to draw on our generosity, our respect for others, our sense of fairness, our “best selves,” as scholar Theresa Perry says.43 Perhaps it would be far easier to succumb to the ethos of the marketplace, but the social costs would be beyond repayment.

Robert Lowe is an editor of Rethinking Schools and teaches at National-Louis University.