Last week, the Milwaukee Public Schools unveiled a multifaceted reform plan that, if implemented, would upend two decades of anti-public school sentiment among Wisconsin legislators. It would also put several changes in place that would, from this MPS teacher's point of view, result in significant student growth.
Some of the ideas, from school uniforms to changes for some of the lowest performing schools in the district, can be done by the MPS Board of School Directors and superintendent Dr. Darienne Driver, and may well be in place soon for the next school year.
Others, like an earlier school-year start date and takeover authority over some of the city's other low-performing schools, face likely roadblocks in the state legislature and may never be enacted.
Still, almost without exception, the plans are both ambitious and sound and should be considered seriously.
Changing the start date from Sept. 1 to early August, for instance, is a no-brainer. If you've been reading this space for any amount of time, you have heard me suggest exactly that. Given students in MPS are, on average, well behind their suburban peers in achievement, it makes sense for MPS students to have a bit of a head start.
As an Advanced Placement teacher, I would love to have three extra weeks to prepare my students for the May exam. My students not only lack the advantages kids in many other districts have – parents with disposable income to buy study aids and private tutoring, for example – but they also have to overcome those deficits in a shorter time frame.
The district's International Baccalaureate high schools already follow this schedule, as the state Department of Public Instruction grants a waivers for those schools to start before the state-mandated Sept. 1 date. That means schools like mine, with AP offerings rather than IB, are also at a disadvantage compared to schools in our own district.
And, notably, many of the city's private schools participating the state's taxpayer-funded voucher plan also have August start dates; that's just one of the state rules voucher schools need not play by that may be meaningful to parents who otherwise would send children to MPS.
Driver says as well that the start date change will save money by putting all schools on the same calendar, with both the district's traditional schools and its year-round schools moving to the new unified calendar.
More important, though, is the complementary plan to include what they're calling the "J-term," a session in June for students who need additional learning time. This, more than anything, is the real advantage an early start date actually confers: an opportunity to extend the school year for students who are behind. It's really hard to come back from behind and be successful (the recent World Series win by the Cubs notwithstanding) without taking additional time or investing additional resources.
As I have written here before, I would already gladly trade 10 or 15 minutes a day – two or three minutes per class period – for an extra couple of weeks of instructional days. I can't do much in two minutes a day, but I could do so much in 10 extra days.
The "J-term" solves this problem without changing the 180-day calendar for students who don't need the time to catch up. Even more excitingly, the school year plus the "J-term" plus summer school gets incredibly close to true year-round schooling for our students who need it the most.
And let's be clear: Our students do need it. The data has been unambiguous for a long time that the "summer slide" among non-white and poor students is real and large. Less time away from school for Milwaukee's children could mean big gains in achievement.
There are challenges here. For one, where will the funding come from for this "J-term"? The unified calendar isn't going to save enough money to pay hundreds, maybe thousands, of teachers for an extra four weeks teaching tens of thousands of students in June.
And besides, many MPS teachers, on Facebook and elsewhere, are agitating to spend any savings on "infrastructure investments." By which they mean air conditioning. As a teacher in a 100-year-old building whose classroom stayed above 80 degrees in September this year, I can't say AC a bad idea. But that's the sort of thing MPS, a poor district with declining enrollment and ridiculous state-imposed revenue limits, prioritizes below other things, like books and teacher salaries.
It's a good example of one thing John Oliver talked about on his show "Last Week Tonight" a couple weeks ago: Segregated schools with high non-white enrollment all over the country face significant infrastructure deficits in addition to achievement gaps.
That's part of why I suggested the lawsuit, though; there's still time to make that happen, people! Get on it!
Besides the start date, the proposal getting the most attention is the one that consolidates more Milwaukee schools under the banner of MPS. This starts with giving MPS the sole chartering authority in the city, an authority it currently shares with UWM and the city (and technically MATC, though it has chartered no schools). Driver also proposed unified oversight of all struggling Milwaukee schools, public and private, under a single turnaround authority.
What's good for the goose, MPS is saying here to legislators who routinely try to wrest local control away from the district, is good for the gander. What we are accountable for should also be what they are accountable for.
I like this, particularly the change in chartering authority, because it embraces something else I routinely harp upon: Undermining school systems through competition and reduced enrollment is a terrible way to force districts to change. You can't build a healthy school system on an unhealthy budget and structural disadvantages. Every student taken from MPS makes a serious impact on the remaining students.
Earlier I said I liked Driver's proposals almost without exception, and here is the exception: Driver wants to make changes in how struggling schools are staffed. The devil will be in the details, and what few details we do have don't make me completely pessimistic on this point yet, but I do want to offer a caution.
I support, for example, the idea of giving struggling schools an early hiring window for new staff. MPS already struggles to find good teaching candidates in the post-Act 10 teacher "marketplace." In the same way we can't afford to retrofit our buildings with air conditioning, we can't afford to pay five-digit signing bonuses or fat retention incentives to attract or keep the area's best teachers in the area's neediest classrooms. However, giving those needy schools first crack at new hires and current employees looking to change schools could mean being better able to meet those students' needs.
But I worry about the continued subtext of any platform plank such as this, which is the misperception that MPS students' low achievement, poor attendance, discipline issues and failure rates are solely or largely the fault of their teachers. While the research consensus is that teachers are the biggest in-school factor affecting achievement, teachers account for a fraction of student achievement overall.
Yet almost all "school reform" movements rely, in one way or another, on changing who teaches students in the hopes all struggling students end up with Superman – to borrow from the titular metaphor from a popular pro-school reform documentary – teaching them fractions and geography. The most recent reform plan state legislators attempted to force upon MPS explicitly called, in the language of the law, for every teacher in failing MPS schools to be fired.
The implication of this plan, that Driver and MPS are blaming its teachers for low achievement, is worrisome. I hope that the rest of the details, when they come out, do not end up with the kind of mass staff turnover demanded by reformers and state legislators.
In the end, I really like this plan as a whole, in no small part because its focus is not simply the classroom and its teacher, but the entire community. I didn't even get into, for example, Driver's demand for more investment in quality early-childhood options, nor have I mentioned changes already in place under her leadership including a community schools initiative and giving parents more of what they demand, like language immersion, Montessori and IB.
The plan shows that Driver is not just any old MPS superintendent.
I have written previously that Driver, as the district's biggest cheerleader, has changed the tone and the conversation in and around our schools. Her brand of activism and energy is very different from the superintendents of the recent past.
I attribute a lot of that to Driver's being our first Generation-Y or millennial superintendent. When she was hired, I despaired at being older not only than my principal at the time but also the superintendent. But I think this generational shift at the top of MPS has been a significant driver of change in how MPS leadership thinks about and talks about change.
An obvious example is the "Black Lives Matter" line in the last MPS budget. No, Driver didn't plan to financially support the national movement by that name; the plan was to expand restorative practices and culturally responsive teaching in the district. She has been, however, deeply influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement and, unlike superintendents of previous generations, engages the community and lawmakers with both confidence and humility.
That is, she knows she's right and holds her ground, but she wants you to be a partner in her vision, not an adversary.
I ran this theory by historian – and MPS history teacher – James K. Nelsen, author of the 2015 book "Educating Milwaukee: How One City’s History of Segregation and Struggle Shaped Its Schools." He agreed.
"What I see in Driver," he told me, "is someone who believes more in the 'it takes a whole village to raise a child' strategy. She wants to bring the entire community together and is personable and savvy in ways" her predecessors did not. Though Milwaukee has a history – though not a long or extensive enough one – of African-American superintendents, Driver's Black Lives Matter style is a far cry from, for example, the black nationalism of former Black Panther Howard Fuller.
"Fuller essentially wanted to breakup the system," Nelsen said. "Driver wants to leave it intact but reform it through community involvement and careful policy analysis. She does not just throw money at the problem as Fuller did – she puts carefully systems in place and funds them appropriately. She does a lot of listening. Fuller did a lot of yelling."
Indeed, this week MPS starts listening sessions around the proposals and has an online survey seeking community input. Driver did the same in 2015 with her seven "Big Ideas" around improving MPS overall.
Her relationship with both the board and the teachers union too, as I have noted repeatedly, is cooperative and focused on student achievement rather than turf wars. She doesn't get sole credit for that; the current board and union leadership are also different, and of a different generation, than in years past.
I find it exciting to be in this version of MPS, the version with boldness and confidence and an eye toward a healthy system of schools in Milwaukee for all our children. Sadly, the state legislature is unlikely to agree. But that's a column for another time. For now, I urge everyone to support Driver and this plan however you can.