By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published May 11, 2010 at 5:19 AM

Public education is a battleground across America. And in Milwaukee, it is no different.

In recent months, the state has withheld money from MPS, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Gov. Jim Doyle have proposed mayoral control of the district and new legislation gives the Wisconsin State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers more control over failing schools and districts, which many see as code for "Milwaukee Public Schools."

Wisconsin's application for federal Race to the Top funds failed earlier this year, depriving MPS and other state districts much needed resources.

Milwaukee -- who soon welcomes a new superintendent, Gregory Thornton -- gets noticed on the national stage and so you can expect to read about MPS in "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education," the new book by New York-based Diane Ravitch.

Ravitch -- who was assistant secretary of education in the elder Bush's cabinet and was appointed by Bill Clinton to the National Assessment Governing Board -- is a research professor of education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She is also a respected education historian and writer.

In the book, which she wrote after reconsidering some of her long-held beliefs about education, Ravitch looks at some of the recent trends in school reform -- from vouchers, choice and charter schools to a heavier than ever focus on testing and accountability to attempts to force successful business management ideas onto public schools. 

"Untethered to any genuine philosophy of education," she writes in the book, "our current reforms will disappoint us, as others have in the past. We will, in time, see them as distractions, wrong turns and lost opportunities. It is time to reconsider not only the specifics of current reforms, but also our very definition of reform."

We asked Ravitch about how some of the specific discussions in "The Death and Life of the Great American School System" relate to Milwaukee. Milwaukee was a key district in the development of vouchers and choice. How did the city's early adoption affect the landscape?

Diane Ravitch: Milwaukee is indeed the nation's laboratory for assessing the value of school choice. The advocates of school choice predicted that academic performance in choice schools would not only soar, but that the competitive pressure would cause achievement in the regular district schools to improve. None of this has happened. The latest studies show that students in voucher schools and in charter schools do not perform any differently from those in the regular public schools.

OMC: Has our continued embracing of vouchers contributed to the problems we have now in public schooling?

DR: Of course. "Reformers" in Milwaukee have been pursuing strategies that we now know are ineffective. The more time and resources devoted to ineffective strategies, the less attention there is to finding useful improvements. Choice got the support of foundations and business leaders, but it has not worked.

OMC: What is the effect on our public schools of this so-called two-tiered system of choice schools and public schools?

DR: Typically, when large numbers of choice programs are introduced, motivated families leave the public school system. As New Orleans demonstrates, the choice schools tend to get relatively higher-performing students, especially since they retain the ability to remove or "counsel out" students who don't test well or who are disruptive. Over time, the public school system has a disproportionate share of the students who are most challenging to educate. It is surprising that choice schools don't show better results since the playing field is not equal.

OMC: Is it alluring to public schools to consider reorganizing under a charter?

DR: Certainly, especially if they thus become deregulated, can select incoming students and can remove students they don't want.

OMC: Last year, the discussion of mayoral control of MPS was extremely divisive. What have the results of mayoral control been in other cities?

DR: Mayoral control solves no problems. Of the cities that take the national test administered by the federal government, the highest performing do not have mayoral control, while some of the lowest performing -- Cleveland and Chicago -- do have mayoral control. Since New York City adopted mayoral control in 2002, it has seen very meager improvement on its national scores, less than other cities that are tested.

And mayoral control leaves parents feeling angry and disaffected because decisions are made about their children without their participation. Taking the public out of public education is not a school improvement strategy.

OMC: That discussion was replaced with a new bill that would extend the state DPI's ability to step in and take over low performing schools. Although some legislators admitted the bill didn't go far enough there seemed to be the sense that it would be considered successful if it helped land money in the next round of Race to the Top funding.

DR: This is a proposal that will do nothing to improve schools. I do not know of a single instance in which a state has taken control of a school or even a district and made it better. 

OMC: Is this a kind of game that states are forced to play in order to get that money?

DR: Yes, Race to the Top is encouraging state legislators to take punitive steps towards schools and teachers that will lead nowhere.

OMC: What's the administration's theory about how withholding this money from districts in need affects the children in that district?

DR: This is simply a threat. It should never become reality. No child will benefit if the funding to his or her school is withheld. Race to the Top has ignited an outburst of meanness, not a race to help kids and teachers and schools.

OMC: What advice would you give to legislators who are serious about wanting to transform low-performing schools into high-performing ones?

DR: Short-term: Create a team of expert educators who spend at least a week in every low-performing school in the state. Their job would be to document the reasons for the school's low performance. Perhaps there are a large number of non-English-speaking students. Or a large number who are transient or who need access to a health clinic. Or perhaps there is an incompetent principal. Whatever the reasons, they will be different for every school. The team should survey the school, diagnose the issues, make recommendations and develop a strategy to support the school and improve it. The goal should be improvement, not punishment.

Long-term: The legislature should develop a comprehensive plan to require that future teachers have a major or double major in the subject(s) they plan to teach and that they have the pedagogical skills to teach what they know and control their classroom; they should require that principals have at least five years as teachers and excellent ratings as teachers; they should require that superintendents are experienced educators. They should change the assessments away from bubble-guessing to assessments of comprehension, based on knowledge. They should require every school to offer a balanced curriculum that includes the arts, science, history, geography, literature, mathematics, civics and foreign language.

OMC: Why does it seem that teachers have become so easy to scapegoat? Didn't we used to value and respect teachers? Now it seems to be common wisdom that they're overpaid, bulletproof and lax. What happened?

DR: Teachers are being blamed for all the ills of society. They are being blamed for the achievement gap. We can't fire poverty; we can't fire families; we can't fire students; so we fire teachers. This mindset will discourage good people from becoming teachers. It will destroy the teaching profession. Whenever we meet a teacher, we should say two simple words, "Thank you."

OMC: And because almost no one ever seems to talk about parents and rarely about the kids except in platitudes, what advice would you give to parents who want to understand the buzzwords and move beyond them to help their children's schools become more successful?

DR: Take good care of your children. From the time they are babies, watch their health and take them for checkups regularly. Make sure they are getting good nutritious meals. Talk to them. Explain things. Read the signs on the street out loud. Give every object a name.

When they are not old enough, read picture books to them. Show them that reading matters and model it. Take them to the library and the museum and the zoo. Limit television and video games and computer time. Review their homework with them. Join the PTA. Meet with their teachers. Ask what you can do to help the teacher. What you do and what you value will influence what your child does and values

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.