By Jay Bullock Special to Published Jan 13, 2015 at 3:00 PM Photography: Bobby Tanzilo

Since I submitted my column last week, suggesting that the idea of a "recovery district" that would take over some number of "failing" Milwaukee Public Schools would be unlikely to produce any different results, many things have happened. Wisconsin Republicans have unveiled their version of a "school accountability" bill; Democrats released their own bill designed to increase accountability at private schools that receive tax-funded vouchers, my students lost two pre-exam days to weather, the Packers won a playoff game, and a fellow OnMilwaukee columnist responded to what I wrote. Not necessarily in that order.

I want to take time this week to elaborate on a few things I didn't have space to last week, as well as react to some of those new developments.

Bad Timing

This year, all students in Wisconsin's public schools are being assessed differently than they were last year. And I don't just mean a new test, though the test is new – Smarter Balanced assessments replace the old Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exams for grades 3-8, and high school students are now taking a fleet of ACT-branded tests, including the ACT-Aspire (grades 9 and 10) and the ACT and ACT-WorkKeys (grade 11).

The tests are being administered differently, too; rather than paper-and-pencil tests, the Smarter Balanced and ACT-Aspire tests are computer-based, including the requirement that students type, rather than hand-write, answers to questions, under strict time limits.

I'm glad it's not going to be my job to compare this year's data to previous years' results, but I worry whether this year's data will be even be useable. In the first round of ACT-Aspire testing at my school and around the district last fall, the network and computer equipment used was markedly unreliable, with kids getting booted off the test repeatedly, losing time and patience with the process.

Beyond that, this year's tests will be the first designed to cover the Common Core State Standards, standards that everyone agrees are significantly more stringent than the old Wisconsin Model Academic Standards that the WKCE covered.

New tests, new delivery methods, new standards tested – this year's results will be a mess.

And it's at exactly this time of massive transition that Wisconsin's Republicans want to add new layers of bureaucracy and "accountability" that hinge almost entirely on the results of those tests, which just seems like a bad idea to me.

Student Mobility

Something I barely hinted at last week, but that is a crucial factor in whatever happens next in Milwaukee schools, is student mobility.

One real worry about any kind of change in how school happens in Milwaukee is which students go where. Right now, as I noted last week, there are five major "sectors" of schools students can go to, and within each there are many different kinds of schools and programs. That doesn't even count the options outside Milwaukee that students can access via open enrollment or the Chapter 220 desegregation program. Milwaukee is, and has been for two decades, the most wide-open education market in the country.

Thousands of students move freely within and between those options.

A few years ago I ran the numbers on how that affects the Milwaukee Public Schools, because you can compare the scores of what they call FAY students, those who stay at a school for a full academic year before the test, and non-FAY students, those who switch schools at least once in the year before the test.

I found that non-FAY students, who made up about a quarter of the district's students in the year I looked at, are way behind their FAY counterparts in math and reading levels, with as much as a 24 percentage-point difference in proficiency levels between students who stick around and those who move around. National studies concur that students do worse the more often they change schools.

Minimal protections are in place to keep students from transferring around within MPS, and none are in place to keep students from moving around between sectors – for example, between MPS and voucher schools.

Any school moved to a "recovery district" or closed and re-opened as a charter, as the "accountability" bill requires, will not necessarily enroll the same students as the school did when it was a "failing" MPS school. Dishonest operators will game the system, finding ways to attract and keep the best students and ways to discourage challenging students from enrolling in the first place.

This is one major problem when we talk about failing schools instead of students and student achievement. A school is just a building, and who is in it can change – and in Milwaukee, change often.

The Begel Objections

I've never met Dave Begel, but he seems like a nice guy, and his argument in favor of the Milwaukee Streetcar project last week is one of the best I've seen anywhere by anybody. But I think he misses the mark when, in his column over the weekend, he accuses me of having "the old 'blame the students philosophy that has been spouted for so long by educators, led by their union representatives.'"

He says this because I wrote that educating poor minority students is hard. I did not, as a commenter on my column last week suggested, say "these students aren't teachable" or that it was impossible for students who populate "failing" schools in Milwaukee to learn, just that getting these students to the same place as their suburban counterparts in the same amount of time is really, really tough to do.

I say this not just because I do and I work very hard at it; I say this because the United States has generated decades of evidence on this point. Pick an urban center, any one – from Los Angeles east to Boston, Minneapolis south to Dallas, and you see the same thing you see here in Milwaukee in the public schools, independent charter schools and voucher schools: bad scores.

And I certainly don't say that because I blame the students for their lack of success. I don't think anything I've written here or anywhere, ever, can be read to suggest that I do. Knowing my union leaders and representatives, I can assure Begel that none of them blames children either.

Stating a fact – poor, minority children's academic achievement significantly lags their wealthier, whiter peers – is not the same as endorsing the fact or even accepting that said fact must remain true for all time.

Try Something Else

If I don't like a "recovery district" or the idea of handing public schools over to private charter operators once they are deemed "failing," what should we do?

Begel, in his response to me, suggests the Efficacy Institute's programming. That may be because Begel doesn't know that the Milwaukee Public Schools has worked with the Efficacy folks off and on for the last 15 or 20 years. A few years ago, every student in the school where I teach got the Efficacy curriculum and all of us teachers were trained. (I still have a "Failure and Difficulty are Feedback" poster in my classroom.) Efficacy alone is clearly not the answer.

It's also probably too much to ask the legislature to work on the out-of-school factors that make school difficult for my students, like helping Milwaukee's dismal unemployment situation and boosting the minimum wage, for example. Some food security, so that my students don't spend the day grazing on "flaming hots" would be great, as would some significant criminal justice reform that might make it easier for fathers to stay with their families.

But there are things that could be done in and for schools. Among them, allowing schools to use something other than a four-year graduation rate in calculating ratings on the state report card. We know that many of Milwaukee's children leave eighth grade way behind, yet we expect Milwaukee's high schools to get them up to proficient and get them graduated in the same amount of time as a student who starts out proficient – and when we can't, we're dinged for it.

Or offering extra state funding for real extended-year programs to give students and teachers more time to catch up, and funding for boarding schools for students who would benefit most from being away from their home environments. Making sure class sizes and availability of things like art and music are the same between successful schools around the state and "failing" schools in Milwaukee. More help paying for and dealing with MPS' exploding special education population, even.

The Whole State

I talk a lot about Milwaukee here, because of where I live and, well, look up at the masthead for a second. But clearly this school accountability bill will affect the state well beyond this city if the Assembly version of the bill passes.

It comes down harder and faster on public schools than any of the private voucher schools in Milwaukee, Racine or around the state. Voucher schools can pick their own test to use if they don't like Smarter Balanced or the ACT. The voucher schools also have an extra year before reporting and sanction provisions kick in, and rather than force closure and takeover of those schools, the voucher schools would be able to stay open and keep taking taxpayer dollars even if deemed "failing."

Further, as "failing" public schools are converted to independent charters, the cost, if the charters are implemented the way current law requires, will be borne not by the district those schools are from, but by every district in the state. 

The Wisconsin Association of School Boards pointed this out in a recent legislative update, noting, "For every additional 1,000 pupils enrolling in independent charter schools, $8.075 million will be taken annually from general equalization school aids sent to school districts. Under revenue limits, the effect of removing this money from general equalization aid is a potential $8.075 million increase in property taxes statewide."

There's probably a legislative fix for that, which would soften the blow somewhat. (WASB opposes the bill for more reasons that just that.) But the state will feel the effects in other ways.

At the very least, a lot of parents around the state will discover that their children attend average schools. That is, they'll get a grade of C on the state report card, instead of what they used to get, "Meets Expectations." It's one thing to rest assured that your children attend schools that get the job done pretty well – they're meeting expectations! – and another thing entirely to be told your child's school is not only not an A school, it doesn't even merit a gentleman's B.

This follows, I guess, the state's re-figuring of the way it awards "proficient" and "advanced" ratings to students on the state tests. State data suggest right now that only 37 percent of Wisconsin children read at a proficient or advanced level. That's ridiculous. But the state uses "cut scores" on the tests that raise the bar significantly for what it takes to be proficient, turning whole swaths of children who read just fine at grade level into "basic" students.

Changing the way school report cards label schools that do well doesn't help anybody and will instead serve only to make parents upset at the local public school, undermining confidence in the public school system and ready to seek alternatives.

And there it is! Maybe that's what Republicans are after after all, not simply making education better in the state but making education in the state private. That has to be stopped.

Jay Bullock Special to
Jay Bullock is a high school English teacher in Milwaukee, columnist for the Bay View Compass, singer-songwriter and occasional improv comedian.