Controversy and contention characterized Milwaukee’s 1987-88 school year. Everybody from the mayors-to-be to up-state legislators entered the fray. Unfortunately, the increased local and state attention and continued national education debate did little to improve conditions under which students learn and teachers work. The debates and struggles, however, did shed more light on how to overcome the problems facing our urban school system.
We at Rethinking Schools have tried to challenge the perspective that holds that the solution to our urban educational problems lies in increased testing, more teacher proofed curricula, less rights for students, and the separation of the student from their alleged background “deficiencies.” We have pushed solutions that involve the community, build on students’ strengths, and allow and expect teachers to act as professional educators.
Much has happened this past year and we want to take a moment to reflect on the major developments.
Outcome Based Education
Last year at this time the Central Administration was moving swiftly to im plement their “Outcome Based Education” (OBE) program which was to establish specific objectives for every subject in every grade level. By November they had already spent nearly $1 million dollars on the project and yet had failed to involve teachers or the community in any substantive way. Critics pointed out the irony of having the Central Administration talk on one hand about “school-based management” but simultaneously dictate every learning objective down to the smallest detail. Critics also pointed to the danger of OBE being used as a stepping stone for a large-scale increase in the already massive city-wide testing program. Thanks to rank and file mobilization by teachers, the. involvement of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA) and some courageous questions by School Board members this “reform” was temporarily halted. Even though officially put “on hold” some Central Office administrators have proceeded as if OBE is official policy (using it for textbook adoption guidelines, etc.) Thus we can expect the OBE controversy to return next year.
Reading Program Controversy
After seven years of using the Scott, Foresman basal reader as the mainstay of its reading program, Milwaukee is on the verge of making a million dollar decision and hitching its star to another basal program. The adoption decision takes place as basal readers are under increasing criticism both locally and nationally (eg. see our March/April ’88 issue) and in the midst of a growing movement of educators to integrate reading and language arts into what is sometimes called a whole language approach.
The formation of a Teachers Applying Whole Language (TAWL) chapter in Milwaukee is a welcome development as have been their numerous quality workshops. Equally positive was the formation of the ‘Ad Hoc Committee for Whole Language Approaches which lobbied the school board for use of emergent reading instructional methods in kindergarten classes. The willingness of the School Board to set up a city wide specialty school (Fratney) that is based on whole language was also a positive development.
Nonetheless, the basal approach to r;ead ing is what the vast majority of Milwaukee school children and teachers will be subjected to for the next seven years unless the School Board amends the recommendations of the Reading Textbook Evaluation Committee which called for a new city wide basal reader series with only kindergarten teachers having the option to use whole language. A minority report from the textbook committee has called for a “whole language option” for elementary teachers. The proposal, explained elsewhere in this issue, is a limited approach to systematically experiment with a method that has proven successful in many parts of the world.
The success of the Fratney School effort (highlighted in our March/April ’88 issue) was exceptional on a couple of levels. Given a choice between a Madeline Hunter type teacher training center and a community initiated two-way bilingual whole language program, the school board adopted the latter. The board established what will hopefully be a precedent – giving students from the already integrated neighborhood priority for enrollment. Moreover, both the School Board and the MTEA have contractually agreed to use Fratney School as an initial model for school based management.
Independent School District
In August of last year a group of black educators and community members came together and proposed an independent North Division School District. Not since the desegregation settlement twelve years earlier had the city seen such discussion and motion concerning the under-education of children in the black community. This bold proposal called for massive involvement of parents and the community in both the development and implementation of the district, challenging the “add-on-more-programs” approach that Central Office has taken to these segregated schools. To the surprise of many this proposal came close to winning support in the State Legislature. The unprecedented and costly anti North District mobilization of staff and parents paid for by the city taxpayers – something Superintendent Faison described in a letter to all staff as “grassroots” support – continued even after the newspapers and legislative leaders said the issue was dead. It is a shame that this muscle flexing by the system could not have been used more constructively to actually improve learning and teaching conditions in the schools in question. While quality education was the propelling concern of the proponents of the separate district, they were the only ones in the community since the Committee of 100 recommendations of 12 years ago to offer a plan to integrate the nearly all black schools. Now that the Superintendent, School Board and PTA’s have won the legislative battle, in large part through evoking the specter of ”unconstitutional segregation” and “taking us back in history,” it will be interesting if they remain silent – as they have for 12 years – as to how they are going to desegregate Milwaukee’s remaining segregated schools.
The Hispanic community was also embroiled in controversy as the Committee for Education of Latin Americans made public criticisms of South Division and the quality of education for Hispanic youth. We believe a key index of success of any reform efforts at South will be the degree to which students, teachers and parents are genuinely involved in the planning and implementing of innovations. Staff and students at South, the most ethnically diverse high school in Milwaukee, confront some of the thorniest problems of contemporary urban education, and constructive efforts to address these issues are already ongoing. If school, community and university (both UWM and Alvemo are currently involved at South) can work together, they may be able to generate model responses to pressing national problems.
Wisconsin Indian Cultural Center
Outside of MPS, the Milwaukee Indian Community School’s organizing for trus status and a Wisconsin Indian Cultural Center is a welcome development on the educational and cultural scene in this city 1’his innovative proposal (which is described elsewhere in this issue) speaks to educational, cultural and political needs of a community oppressed in this nation and state for centuries.
The Teachers’ union
Within the past year the MTA has shown an increasing willingness to address broader pedagogical and political issues This year the MTEA offered quality workshops on teaching, and took up issµes such as Outcome Based Education, the basal reader, and school-based management
In the past year we have grown. We have expanded our distribution to 16,000 and broadened our readership to extend outside of Milwaukee. We know that policy makers, teachers, parents and some students are reading our paper. We’ve addressed many controversial issues, and although readers don’t always agree with each article, we believe we have gained recognition as one of the few Wisconsin papers in which educational issues – both theoretical and practical ones – can be debated in a thoroughgoing way.
Next year will bring additional issues to the fore. The new superintendent will deal with proposals to restructure the entire system and implement some version of “outcome based education.” School based management will be put to some real tests at Fratney and other schools.
Whether or not the restructuring and school based management will amount to anything more than rearranging the seats on the.Titanic will depend a great deal on whether or not teachers, parents and students are genuinely involved in the planning, implementation and evaluation of any reform.
The community will judge the new superintendent not only by what he or she says about such involvement, but by what he or she does. Will innovative programs from the ground up be encouraged or allowed to be bureaucratically stifled?
In light of this year’s past organizing by the black, Hispanic and American Indian communities “parental and community involvement” can be understood on a deeper level. The question is not just one of getting people to attend PTA meetings or take free bus rides up to Madison to cheer at rallies. The underlying question is one of political power or “self determination” for minority communities in this city. Should “ethnic” minority communities, subjected to years of institutional racism and economic powerlessness, have the right to determine for themselves certain questions of culture and education? We believe so. If the history of American education teaches us anything it is that the children of minority communities have been inadequately served by traditional school systems.
Next year as discussions of “system restructuring,” “school-based management,” “parental involvement” and “teacher empowerment” continue, we expect this issue of political power to come more sharply into focus in the public debate.
Much has been said about how Milwaukee is entering a new era under the leadership of a new mayor, county executive and school superintendent. We hope so. The children of Milwaukee need a “new era.” But to make such an era a reality in the schools, the new leadership will have to cut through decades of institutional inertia and bureaucratic thinking. Minds will have to be changed, jobs and responsibilities shifted. We will need new perspectives and policies that actually empower students, teachers and parents in the quest for quality humane and equal education.