The Long Road to Reform
It took Boston at least a decade to improve its public schools. Is there a lesson for Milwaukee?
Successful schools, classrooms and strategies are more common in all types of Milwaukee schools than many people believe, but overall educational results in Milwaukee Public Schools and non-MPS schools alike point to a city that has failed to provide a quality education for all. As the entity responsible for educating about 80,000 of Milwaukee’s 120,000 school age kids, however, we must all be particularly concerned with the vital community institution that is MPS.
Milwaukee has a penchant for looking outside itself for successful models to replicate. In some areas, like public transit and walkability, “model cities” like Portland or Minneapolis point the way for Milwaukee. But do any model cities exist in education?
The best approaches might be those recognized by the Broad Prize, an annual $1 million prize for urban school districts that show consistent improvement from year to year, and some success in closing the gaps in achievement between low-income and middle class students. The Broad Prize is extremely competitive; every year about 100 districts nationwide are made eligible; of these 5 are made finalists, with one winner selected each year.
The prestige of the prize has drawn the attention of mayors and education leaders around the country, and has highlighted practices that lead to change on a systemic level for urban school districts. MPS has been eligible every year the prize has existed, since 2002, but has not made the list of finalists.
The Broad Prize winners since 2002 tend to be large districts with economically and ethnically diverse populations, covering urban and suburban communities alike, but several Broad Prize winners over the past decade have had demographics that look somewhat similar to Milwaukee’s: notably, Boston and New York. While these two East Coast metropolises would appear at first glance to have little in common with Milwaukee, their school districts serve populations with almost three-fourths of students living in poverty, and have historically struggled with low academic achievement.
Boston Public Schools won the Broad Prize in 2006, the last year of an 11-year long tenure of a transformational superintendent, and after a sea change in state education policy. The improvements made in Boston have indeed been pronounced: the district continually tops the list of urban school districts nationwide that take the National Assessment of Educational Progress, otherwise known as the “nation’s report card,” and has outperformed all other Massachusetts districts that serve primarily low income students.
Boston’s school board is appointed by its mayor, and the city is home to a varied and long list of independent charter schools. Many cities have mayoral control of schools, and charter schools are increasingly common nationwide, but few cities have had the success of Boston. The district’s success comes down to setting a high bar for student achievement, clear planning to help classrooms and students achieve, and smartly aligning resources toward goals, all under steady, focused leadership and a governing board held to account for results – in other words, the same practices that lead to successful individual schools.
Boston’s improvements happened under Massachusetts’ state standards, the highest and most rigorous academic standards in the US. Massachusetts evaluates its schools using a balanced “report card” that goes far beyond standardized test scores alone. Leaders in Boston ensured that the material taught in classrooms was aligned to the high state standards, and ensured teachers are well prepared and supported to help every student learn. Most importantly, these improvements took time and patience. Boston developed a clear plan for delivering quality education and remained focused on that plan. The work was long and complex, and took place without much fanfare.
While Boston, and other districts like it, have worked hard to boost achievement for all students, it must be noted that even these standout districts continue to face wide gaps in academic outcomes between income and ethnic groups. This education opportunity gap, between low-income and middle class students, and between African American and Hispanic students and white students, is a persistent national problem that, thus far, no district has erased completely. This gap is more pronounced here in Milwaukee than nearly any other US city.
MPS faces an uncertain financial future, operates in perhaps the most competitive educational landscape in the country, and serves a city with the fourth-highest concentration of poverty in the US. Milwaukee lacks the higher-education infrastructure of Boston and other cities. But the good news for MPS, and Milwaukee in general, is that much of what Boston has done Milwaukee is now doing. Wisconsin is a recent adopter of the so-called Common Core standards, a new and more rigorous set of academic standards on par with the Massachusetts standards. The State is now rolling out a vastly improved school accountability system that assesses schools far beyond one-off standardized test scores. And under Superintendent Gregory Thornton, MPS has undergone significant changes in recent years, instituting a new literacy curriculum throughout the district and a program to reduce suspensions and expulsions by working to identify potential behavioral problems before they become disruptive.
Perhaps the single most important lesson we can take from Boston and the other Broad Prize winners is that change does not come from a silver bullet. It comes from a focus on results, clear organization and follow-through. The majority of the work occurs well below the public’s radar screen, and far from the headlines. But it’s through this focus on results, and hard work, classroom by classroom and school by school, that an entire district, and city, can begin to steer its ship in a positive direction. Milwaukee’s success may ultimately depend on whether we, as a community, are truly committed and willing to do what it takes to succeed. The question then becomes: does Milwaukee really want it?