Data Wonk

Can MPS Learn From the Data?

Its rejection of the Opportunity Schools Partnership is merely one sign the answer is no.

By - Jul 13th, 2016 01:49 pm

When Demond Means resigned as commissioner of the Opportunity Schools Partnership Program (OSPP), groups like the Working Families Party and the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association celebrated. Is it really cause for celebration?

Milwaukee Public Schools surely needs help. Compared to the average urban school districts, MPS performance has been disappointing, particularly for low income students (generally defined as those who qualify for free lunch) and African Americans and Hispanics. And it has been slow in improving. This first graph compares the performance of 4th grade students who qualify for free lunch on the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) reading test in Milwaukee, Boston, Chicago, and Atlanta. Milwaukee starts lower and has not seen major improvement.

4th Grade Reading--Free Lunch Students

4th Grade Reading–Free Lunch Students

Here are the NAEP 8th grade mathematics scores for African American students from the same four districts.  A similar pattern appears on all the NAEP tests. Generally MPS is near the bottom with a handful of other districts, such as Detroit and Fresno. Earlier this year, NAEP released its scores for 2015, but Milwaukee was not among them.

8th Grade Math Scores-Black Students

8th Grade Math Scores-Black Students

The 2015 test results, the most recent, are not included in these charts because then-Superintendent Gregory Thornton pulled MPS out of NAEP. So far as I can tell, Thornton didn’t share this decision with the school board, the press, or the public. The first Journal Sentinel article mentioning this decision appeared this spring when reporting the 2015 NAEP test scores. The MPS spokesman attributed this decision to Thornton’s belief that the shift to “state tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards would provide better and more timely measures.”

Since then, under new leadership, MPS has applied and been accepted for the next cycle of NAEP testing, scheduled for 2017. This is good news for those who believe that the first step in improving is good measurement. The NAEP test is considered the gold standard of tests. It allows the comparison of a school district with similar districts and the tracking of results over time. Since it is based on a sample of students and results for individual schools are not released, there is little incentive for schools to cheat.

Despite Thornton’s faith in the state tests, the combined efforts of the governor, legislature, and Department of Public Instruction have succeeded in making a thorough botch of the Wisconsin testing program. For the 2014-15 school year, the existing test was replaced with a new “Badger Exam,” supposedly aligned with the Common Core and able to be taken online. As the result of technical glitches and ideological opposition to the Common Core, the legislature proceeded to kill the Badger Exam, replacing it with a third exam this year.

The result is that Wisconsin will have three different exams in three years, making it hard to gauge progress and impossible to calculate growth scores. DPI expanded this information desert by embargoing the public release of the Badger exam results, even while providing them to schools and districts. The legislature decided to skip school and district report cards for the 2014-15 school year. Thus there is little current information on such measures as proficiency rates, attendance, truancy, and dropout rates. Since the 2014-15 report cards were meant to be the first to include private schools, there is still no reliable way to compare the performance of public and private schools.

As if this isn’t messy enough, the legislature opened the door to each district choosing its own assessments. This will make it difficult if not impossible to compare schools and districts.

The single theme underlying Data Wonk articles is that good measurement should underlie decision making. To improve schools we need to understand which schools are serving students well and which are falling short. At best, research in education is inherently difficult. A school’s success may come down to difficult-to-quantify factors such as the commitment of the people involved or the skills of school leaders.

In addition, many people enter the fray with their own agenda, such as a commitment to a particular curriculum or the desire to avoid making uncomfortable adjustments. There is also the persistent belief that there is one model that will serve the needs of all students. Educational decisions, particularly in Milwaukee, are often dominated by people who regard data as their enemy.

Clearly measurement alone doesn’t lead to improvement. Yet if schools are identified as falling short, what can be done to help them improve? One effort to answer this question was President Barack Obama’s School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. A second is the Opportunity Schools Partnership Program, which County Executive Chris Abele agreed to administer.

Under Obama’s program, schools identified as in need of improvement could receive up to $2 million annually for three years if they adopted one of four strategies: replace the principal and at least 50 percent of the staff (called the “Turnaround Model”), transform the school through new instructional strategies and other techniques (“Transformation Model”), close the school and enroll students in another, better-performing school (“Closure Model”), or close the school and reopen it as a charter school (“Restart Model”).

The Council of the Great City Schools, whose members include large urban school districts including MPS, studied the outcomes of SIG schools. Its report found that both the transformation and the turnaround models led to improvement and that there were no statistically significant differences in the rates of improvement between these two models.

The authors also report that “we were not able to say anything about the relative effects of the restart or closure models because they were used so infrequently.” This is not surprising. Closing a school invariably generates intense opposition, no matter how bad the school is. This opposition is intensified when a charter school is proposed as its replacement.

The law establishing the OSPP closely follows the Obama administration’s Restart Model. The major difference is that the transition would be made by a commissioner appointed by the County Executive rather than the school district.

From public reports of discussions about the OSPP it appears that Abele and Means were trying to make the program more palatable to MPS by proposing something more along the lines of a Turnaround or Transformation Model. If so, it didn’t work.

In MPS, upwards of 50 schools are classified as “failed to meet expectations.” These are the schools eligible for the Opportunity Schools program. However, as already noted, the data this determination is based on is already two years out of date.

In the plot below, the vertical scale shows the 2013-14 DPI performance scores for Milwaukee schools (including charter schools but not choice schools). The horizontal scale shows the school’s poverty level (as measured by the percentage of students qualifying for free lunch). There is a clear relationship between the two. Schools with more middle class students are far more likely to be rated “meets expectations” or better.

Score vs % Poverty

Score vs % Poverty

However, this relationship is not completely rigid. Notice, in particular, that schools deemed as “meeting expectations” (those in green) serve a wide range of economic populations. Which raises the question: what are these schools doing that the others are not doing and what can be learned from them?

The message of this chart is two-fold: one is that poverty adds greatly to educational challenge. But the second is that this challenge is being overcome, today in Milwaukee, at many schools. Unfortunately In Milwaukee, there is a strong resistance to learn from these schools and use that knowledge to improve student outcomes.

Now that Means has resigned, what happens next? One scenario is that both Abele and the state legislators decide to drop the OSPP concept. In that case present trends will likely to continue. Enrollment in traditional MPS schools will continue to represent a declining portion of Milwaukee enrollment, as students switch to charter schools, private schools under the choice program, and suburban schools under open enrollment. As a result, membership in the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association will continue to decline. For example, a recent Public Policy Forum report on Milwaukee choice schools found their enrollment has grown from 15,435 in 2005-06 to 26,639 in 2014-15.

Another scenario is that the legislator transfers the OSPP’s powers to a new or existing charter school authorizer, whom they deem as more willing than Abele to proceed in the face of MPS opposition.

In any case, failure of the OSPP is likely to reinforce the opinion in the legislature that Milwaukee is incompetent to manage its own affairs. This perception has arguably been damaging in areas beyond education, as the legislature killed the city employee residency requirement, killed the Milwaukee inspection program for rental properties, threatened to gut Milwaukee’s historical protection powers, and repeatedly attempted to sabotage the Milwaukee streetcar. An inability to make hard choices at MPS may not only hurt Milwaukee educationally, but can lead to other negative results that hurt the city’s prosperity.

13 thoughts on “Data Wonk: Can MPS Learn From the Data?”

  1. M says:

    Diane Ravitch, foremost historian of American education and former assistant secretary of education, lays out issues relating to both testing and “takeover” schools in a review of two books on “failing schools” (The Prize & Mission High).

    While data can be useful, she says over-reliance on “teaching to the test” (even at very early levels) is causing its own sets of problems. Good teachers are forced to take cookie-cutter approaches, resulting in even worse long-term outcomes.

    Education must be improved in Milwaukee but is there any model of a takeover district anywhere that has actually succeeded? (Are New Orleans numbers skewed by the fact that the entire population shifted after Katrina?)

    Alan Borsuk has reported in the JS that there may not even be potential charter/voucher operators available to take over MPS schools. Why is no credence given to the prospect of “community schools,” a model showing good outcomes?

    Why are legislators so enamored of the takeover model, which has little to recommend it? Newark squandered $200 million in donations in its latest takeover attempt (the first was when the state took over Newark schools–in 1995). Wel-meaning philanthropists Mark Zuckerburg and his wife Priscilla Chen ultimately realized they should have involved parents and teachers instead of a purely top-down approach.

    Perhaps Milwaukee and Wisconsin legislators can learn from their expensive mistakes. Instead, GOP legislators have threatened to “punish” MPS by further cutting its budget. That will be another chapter in Wisconsin’s current Race to the Bottom. It will be neither innovative and productive.

  2. Vincent Hanna says:

    Since Milwaukee has so many underperforming schools, is there an obligation to quickly accept whatever turnaround plan is presented to them? Overhauling a large urban school system is a difficult and time-consuming endeavor. The whole OSPP effort sure seemed rushed to me. Was enough time and effort spent securing community support and buy-in? How much time was spent communicating with parents of MPS children? What kind of communication was there? Also, I know that Darling and Kooyenga have serious problems with MPS and its leaders, but what is their philosophy on effective urban education? What cities or schools and leaders do they site as models worth following? Was that communicated to OSPP stakeholders? Did Abele and Means make any effort to have a frank discussion with Darling and Kooyenga about the magnitude of this plan and maybe ask for more time? I don’t feel like any of these questions have been sufficiently answered, and while it’s easy to blame MPS for saying no, I don’t think that’s entirely fair.

  3. Rich says:

    Perhaps Milwaukee and Wisconsin legislators can learn from their expensive mistakes.

    That’s just as unlikely as the electorate learning from their expensive mistakes.

  4. happyjack27 says:

    Seems to me they stop focusing on facile “feel-good” approaches such as takeovers, and they should focus on finding strategies that are empirically demonstrated to improve meaningful learning.

    For instance, i know there’s been some studies that show that taking practice tests (such s at the end of a chapter) is more effective at improving learning than e.g. just reading.

    Also that “deep learning” – getting students to think about and analyze the material pays off quite handsomely in retention and ability to apply.

  5. happyjack27 says:

    oh, and highlighting and note-taking were horribly ineffective.

    wish i could remember the article / study…

  6. Jay Bullock says:

    I have been consistently impressed with Boston’s results. But they spend over $20,000 per student, significantly more than MPS does. Among the biggest problems with the OSPP law was not only that it would have taken an unproven model and forced it upon an unwilling district, but it would have done so by cutting per-pupil funding and offering no start-up or capital funding.

    That’s the point I tried to make in response to Alberta Darling, Dale Kooyenga, Van Wanggaard, et al, who consistently complain that MPS has a “billion-dollar budget” as if that means anything other than a dog-whistle to their hyper-conservative base. Real change requires real investment, as Boston–or even New Orleans–shows.

  7. M says:

    Excellent questions, Vincent.

    “Perhaps Milwaukee and Wisconsin legislators can learn from their expensive mistakes.” Just realized it’s not clear I was referring to Newark’s expensive mistakes.

    Our state Legislature created a “takeover district” with absolutely no funding . The takeover team was supposed to also play fundraisers. That made Abele’s and Means’ roles with OSPP their second or third demanding job. Absurd!

    I had been hopeful about Newark’s prospects to benefit from Zuckerburg’s largesse (not knowing of the details). Even a Rhodes scholar like Cory Booker was blinded by his own ambitions and simplistic fantasies that getting rid of unionized teachers would be a panacea.

    Why is Dr. Darienne Driver, who has excellent credentials as a teacher and innovative administrator in urban schools, treated so dismissively after less then two years on the job? There are good early indicators about new community schools she instituted.

  8. M says:

    Six MPS community schools will be fully implemented and scientifically evaluated in comparison to peer schools.

  9. happyjack27 says:

    I just read that article briefly, M. So they’re only looking at poorly performing public schools where most people live in poverty. I’d say they should do a factor analysis to subtract any socioeconomic effects, but you can’t estimate a factor if you don’t have any variation along that axis, so… i’m wondering who set this up. Doesn’t look like they thought it through. The results are going to be pretty worthless.

  10. happyjack27 says:

    read that again – i had misread the first time. thought they were comparing against private schools.

    so i take back what i said. (still, though, if they’re collecting data, would be nice to see more variety)

    so more $ means better test scores, as opposed to less $ meaning better test scores.

    mind = blown.

    Still, the math score improvement leaves much to be desired. abstract reasoning is a very important skill.

  11. Thomas Spellman says:

    Sorry it is long but then again …….

    A Millstone Around Our Necks

    By: Thomas Spellman May 31, 2014 – May 11 2015

    I will use RIGHT as a broad description of those forces who have orchestrated the placement of the millstone.

    The NEA and the AFT and most, if not all, of the state education associations have a millstone around their necks, and they have not be able to figure out what that millstone is nor how to get rid of it. They know it is there because of the incessant Legislative Action taken against public education and Teacher Unions in particular. There is a history about the placement of the millstone, but because it has been a slow and systematic process, it is hard to pinpoint when it started.*

    The current phase of the effort to place the millstone started by their own admission in 1989 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with just a few hundred children who were poor and black (other minority children were included but few participated). It was represented to the public that these poor black children did not have the same “advantage” as the white children in Milwaukee, and so the Parental Choice School program* was created by the Wisconsin State Legislature to allow poor minority (black) children to attend a school of their parent’s choice which in essence meant attending a Religious school if it was going to be a better school.

    As with all “big” City school systems, in 1989, the poor black children who attended Milwaukee’s Public Schools (MPS) did not do as well as their white counterparts. In fact, a disproportionate number of the black children, primarily young black male children, were not learning, were not graduating from high school, and so this became the MORAL basis for the Parental Choice School program. The Parental Choice School program would provide poor black children a chance to attend better if not good schools. It is important to understand that the black children NOT LEARNING, NOT GRADUATING was the MORAL basis, the foundation, of the Parental Choice School program. It is CRITICAL to understand that black children NOT LEARNING, NOT GRADUATING, TODAY, STILL IS the MORAL basis for, not only Wisconsin’s Voucher, Charter and Parental Choice School programs, but, the whole National Charter School movement as well.

    The RIGHT (accidentally or by design) has successfully tied the millstone not only around the necks of the teacher’s Unions but also around the neck of Public Education itself! Yes the millstone can be seen as the failure of Public Education to graduate tens of thousands of young black males who as we know do not have good outcomes in their lives if they do not graduate.*

    Dr. Howard Fuller and others claimed that it was the FAULT of Milwaukee’s Public Schools (MPS) that those poor black children were not learning, and it was also the FAULT of the Milwaukee Teacher Education Association (MTEA) that kept “bad” teachers teaching, so both Public Education and teachers and the Teacher’s Union were BAD, and the millstone was attached to all!

    And so here we are today trying to figure out WHAT TO DO. Mind you that we have been trying to figure out WHAT TO DO for the past thirty plus years.

    This begs the question of WHO should have figured out what was happening and WHO should have directly addressed the MORAL issue of black children (young black male children) not learning. Not only were they not learning but were being ignored as well!! To be fair there surely have been efforts made to address young black males not learning, not graduating and yet as we all know much of that effort have been for naught.* I will leave for others to figure out the exact history of who did or did not make the critical observations that you will see are in the final analysis, simple and very basic.

    Now that we know what the millstone is – the MORAL concern that black children not learning, not graduating, is the BASIS for “change.”

    Before we examine the ways to remove the millstone let us first understand WHY the millstone has been attached to the necks of the Teacher Unions and Public Education itself.

    Now the RIGHT does long range planning and the millstone around the neck of the Teacher Unions and Public Education is the perfect example of their planning. It either starts with Howard Fuller efforts of creating Voucher Schools for Milwaukee’s black children or sometime before but as Fuller admitted in 2013:

    “When I (Howard Fuller) got into this battle in 1989, standardized test scores showed Milwaukee was failing to educate poor black children. That’s when state Rep. Annette Polly Williams courageously stepped forth to make sure that poor families were afforded some opportunity to choose schools in the private sector for their children. She shepherded the pioneering voucher program through the Legislature.”
    “Since then, I, along with many others, have fought tirelessly for parental choice for low-income families throughout the nation. The governor’s plan (Governor Scot Walker) would turn Milwaukee’s program into something it was never designed to be.”
    Please note that Dr. Fuller says he started working with Rep. Polly Williams in 1989 but he does not become the Superintendent of MPS, the largest Public Schools system in Wisconsin, until 1991 and holds that job for 5 years while cutting all of the manual arts classes out of the High Schools.

    So in the name of black children who were not learning, (the MORAL failure of society) Dr. Howard Fuller began the systematic attack on the Teachers Unions and on Public Education itself. The RIGHT supported Dr. Fuller, and Representative Annette Polly Williams and they became the mechanism to attack the MTEA and MPS. That was the first step in the plan to privatize Public Education*.

    It needs to be noted that research addressing why young black children and young black males in particular were not learning would have been the MORAL action to take but the RIGHT made sure that institutions (Public Education and Teacher Unions) that are the people’s voice would be systematically attacked and destroyed.

    It has been pointed out, by others, that while privatizing prison is a major source of cash for corporations, Public Education is the real CASH COW.* Not only is the RIGHT looking at the primary and secondary schools but at the Public Universities as well. If WE and that includes those closest to the battle, the Teacher Unions and Faculty at Public Universities, do not wake up we will see an education system as it was in the 1800’s. Oxford, Harvard and the like for the rich and not much else for the rest of us. While in the 1800’s servants were needed to support the life style of the rich, now they will have robots who do not need sick leave and are always clean, so who will need the workers. That is the direction we are headed and that is how the cards are currently stacked. The corporations of the world are salivating and just waiting for the right time to take over the Public Education system of United States.

    Thirty years ago when Dr. Howard Fuller spoke and when Annette Polly Williams spoke everyone understood that the basis for the attack of the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) was the FAILURE of MPS to

    educate young black males.

    Yes, and what has been the response of those being attacked by the RIGHT? The teachers themselves and the Teacher Unions have rightly claimed that they are not the cause of the failure of young Black males not learning not graduating and by any applied logic* they are NOT. Recently as an effort to support Public Education the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) ran a campaign calling for “Great Schools” for all children in Wisconsin. They DID NOT address the MORAL issue of black children not learning, not graduating and hence the campaign fell on deaf ears because everyone knew that the black children DID NOT HAVE and WOULD NOT HAVE “great schools” and NO ONE was addressing the fact that a significant percentage of black children were not learning were not graduating.

    While the Teacher Unions have Presidents and public relations staff to express the views of their members, WHO SPEAKS FOR PUBLIC EDUCATION? Yes as Dr. Seuss asks, WHO speaks for the trees? The concept of “Public Education”, has been commandeered by the RIGHT, to mean Central City Black Education. The simple proof of that is that there are thousands of high performing schools in the U.S. that are PUBLIC SCHOOLS. PUBLIC SCHOOLS WORK and yet the RIGHT has convinced many Americans that PUBLIC SCHOOLS and therefore PUBLIC EDUCATION is broken, and therefore needs to be FIXED and SAVED, by associating public education with central city education which is equated to the education of black children.

    Most unfortunately, for the children, there has been lots of hand wringing but NO RESULTS. While the numbers of black children who fail may be lower today than 30 years ago, the effects of today’s failures still haunts not only the immediate community but the cities themselves. The violence, the senseless deaths, in our large cities is horrifying and YET there is NO VISION of how to address the MORAL FAILING that young Black males are not learning, not graduating! The one seems to be unconnected form the other when in fact they are JOINED at the HIP!

    How do we proceed? We know that the millstone is a MORAL concern, the failure to educate black children primarily young black male children. Yes that is the millstone but what causes black children and in particular young black males to fail? That is the question that Dr. Howard Fuller and our Universities Public and Private should have addressed 30 years ago and it’s still the question that needs to be address today.

    As an observer of education, primarily Milwaukee and Wisconsin, for the past 40 years I have pieced together a few observations that others have not. What I know for sure is that by not addressing the moral issue, we have now failed two generations of black children.

    Observation one

    All learning is individual. While we teach children in groups, each child’s learning is dependent not only upon their cognitive abilities but also on their behavioral abilities. We know that we have various test to determine a child’s cognitive abilities. We will know a child’s behavioral abilities, disposition, by observation. If the child’s behavior is cooperative and inquisitive we know that there is a very good chance that that child will reach their cognitive potential. If on the other hand the child’s behavior is angry or belligerent we know that, that child will probably not reach their potential. Behavior is a/the key to learning. As we know cooperative behavior is assumed of all children attending public schools. Unfortunately many children are not cooperative and the Schools are not prepared to deal with children who are not cooperative and in fact who are angry or belligerent. (As we will see it is this failure that is the basis of the MORAL concern.)

    It should be noted that successful schools are dependent upon each child’s success! Schools fail because STUEDNT FAIL, Schools succeed ONLY when STUDENTS SUCCEED!

    Observation Two

    Because it is often easier to see the differences when using two extremes let us examine and then compare two high schools, one that “works”, and by that I mean graduates almost all of its students 4 year later and many of those graduating students go on to college, and one that does NOT “work”, one that has a high dropout rate and few students go on to college. What do we see? Are there any clues or maybe even answers as to why some schools and again it is the children who determine if a schools is “successful” and why some schools and again it is the children who determine if the school is NOT “successful”?

    You can mentally run through all the differences between the two schools.* I ask you to focus on the behavioral differences between the two schools. Yes the “attitude” of the hallways and the number of suspensions/expulsions and that should begin to tell the tale.

    The reading ability of the children between those two schools will also be different but that is an indicating that the problem starts at an earlier age and not in the high school. Yes it starts in first grade and yes it starts in the home before that and gradually builds as the behavioral issues are first squashed and then with age become unmanageable. But what is it about the behavior that can be addressed?

    I suggest that there is a direct correlation between schools with high suspension/expulsion rates, and schools that are failing. We need to examine the children who are being suspended/expelled to understand why they are failing, why they are not succeeding and therefore why the school they attend is failing!!

    Observation Three

    Let us also look at a process that a friend who was a teacher and a principal uses with teachers he is consulting with. After the teachers have had their students for a month or so he asks them to think of the students in their classroom. He then ask them to first identify the ones that are the perfect students. They are always on task and cooperative, they are a joy to be with. Then to see those student who are almost as good and all they need is an occasional nudge. Then to see the students who need occasional reminders to stay on task and maybe help with a subject or two. The fourth group are those who are struggling but respond. The fifth group of students are those who act out who are contrary who at times are belligerent. It is this group that controls the behavioral atmosphere of the classroom. It is this group of students that can determines what the others learn.

    When the teacher has completed the reflection they see their classroom in a way that they may not have seen it before. They will see where their energy goes and also where help is needed. As we know all too often no help is available to help those students who are behavioral challenged.

    Observation Four

    As I see it, there are two sides of the equation for quality education – the academic side and the behavioral side. As I have suggested above let us examine the behavioral side to see if it bears fruit.

    The controlling element on the behavioral side may seem at first not to be that important. I have come to the conclusion that the unresolved abuse/trauma that some children suffer is the controlling element for the dysfunction of the child. We know there is unresolved abuse/trauma because we see the belligerent behavior which results in the classroom disruptions, the suspensions, and the expulsions.

    Some will argue that part of those disruptions are the fault of the “ineffective” teacher, but that begs the question because surely not all of the disruption (i.e. belligerent behavior) is the result of “ineffective” teaching/teachers.*

    The work of Dr. Lonnie Athens lays out very clearly that unresolved abuse/trauma is the foundation to all violent behavior. What Dr. Athens also observed, and is critical for all educators AND ALL OF US to understand, is that all abused/traumatized individuals who have NOT RESOLVED their abuse/trauma will become belligerent – will become so angry that they begin to act out. That acting out is either external – against others – or internal – against themselves.

    What is critical to understand is that the belligerent behavior must NOT be seen as an affront to authority BUT SEEN as a child’s CRY FOR HELP. The “CRY” is no different from a baby’s cry. In large part we know how to respond to a baby’s cry. WHAT WE DO NOT KNOW, IS HOW TO REPOND TO A CHILD’S BELLIGERENT BEHAVIOR. We need to learn how to positively respond to a child’s belligerent behavior!!

    This one change has the potential to change many if not most of the abuse/trauma outcomes.

    First to see the belligerent behavior as a cry for help and then to understand that the student’s UNRESOLVES abuse/trauma must be resolved.

    Also we respond very differently to a person who is crying for help, than one, who seems to us to be challenging our authority or more basically our safety.

    Dr. Athens’ work is most easily understood in Why They Kill written by Richard Rhodes. In Chapters 10 and 11, Rhodes explains Athens’ theory. Unresolved abuse/trauma is the underlying cause of violent behavior and all who are first abused/traumatized become belligerent before they become violent. The first nine chapters of the book are a biography of Dr. Lonnie Athens which explains how he came to understand what he was observing, as he did his research with prisoners who had committed violent crimes.

    Below are two real-life examples of the effects of abuse/trauma.

    A friend who was an assistant principal at a middle school could set her watch when a girl would come into her office. Finally, she told the girl that they needed to have a long talk before lunch. After a long pause the girl blurted out that her brother had died from sickle cell anemia. Before the assistant principal could get her arms around the girl to hold her, the girl further revealed that she, too, has sickle cell anemia. She did not know if or when she would die, and her family had not listened or responded sufficiently to her cries for help. Most would deem this, the family’s responsibility, not the school’s responsibility. But the girl was failing, the girl was disruptive, and so it became the school’s issue. Her UNRESOLVED trauma in this case needed to be resolved for her own good as well as the good of the school and MPS itself.

    The other story is one told by a social work who took time to listen to a boy who was doing good work, but then in a very short period of time, things fell apart. As the boy talked, it came out that he was homeless in that they had moved in with relatives, and he was sleeping in the basement. But that was not the problem. The real issue was that he did not have a blanket to cover himself. This so upset him (traumatized him) that he became belligerent. Once a blanket was provided, he went back to doing good work once again. It is easy to see how this story could have ended without the blanket.

    These two stories represent a far greater number of stories of our children. Some of the stories will be horrifying to say the least. How schools and school districts responds to the stories is key for both the child’s success or failure, and therefore, the success or failure of the schools themselves. What we know for certain is that the vast majority of the children who are being suspended in the elementary grades are children in dire need of social services (i.e. therapy). It is critical to first figure out what is troubling each child and then to find the resources either inside the school or through other agencies to address each child’s issues.

    WHO speaks for the children??

    Can we all be agreed that a child’s inappropriate behavior – belligerent behavior is what needs to be focused on? It is the inappropriate behavior – belligerent behavior that begins the process of suspensions which for some (many) leads to dropping out and the rest of the litany that leads to violent crimes and then jail or death. Have we ever thought that just maybe the belligerent behavior is not directed as an affront to authority?

    The question before us is clear

    1) Is, a child’s belligerent behavior, an expression of the child’s WILL (having nothing to do with past abuse/trauma)?


    2) Is a child’s belligerent behavior a response to unresolved abuse/trauma that the child has experienced (suffered)?

    These two statements are diametrically opposed. Either a child’s belligerent behavior is personal and intentional or it is a response to the unresolved abuse/trauma that the child has experienced.

    Which is it? How do we determine this?

    We have for years approached a child’s belligerent behavior as a personal and intentional act. That the child WANTS to be disruptive enough so they can be suspended from school etc. Schools have tried to control and change the belligerent behavior without realizing that there is something that is causing the behavior. What is causing the belligerent behavior?

    They have not understood that for many children, their belligerent behavior is a “cry for help” to resolve the unresolved abuse/trauma that he/she has or is experiencing, not an affront to authority much less a threat to their personal safety.

    This one change in how a child’s belligerent behavior is understood and dealt with produces significantly different outcomes for the child, the students in the classroom, the teacher, the school and even the family.

    A way to look at this is that the belligerent behaviors is a symptom of a problem IT IS NOT the problem. Another way to look at it is the belligerent behavior is like a fever, we know that if we only treat the fever the person will in all likelihood not get better and in fact may die because the real cause of the fever is not being treated.

    So to, today, most of the children who are belligerent, have issues of unresolved abuse/trauma, the underlying cause for the behavior, and those issues are not being addressed and so the anger turns to rage and rage turns to violent behavior.

    Understanding Failing Schools,

    Understanding Schools that are not succeeding is like learning a NEW computer program. At first it all seems very complex and yet once you have learned the program, it is, very easy to use. That is the complexity of what we are dealing with. The elements are basically understood it is the arrangement of the elements that at first seems complex yet once understood it is in fact easy.

    What are the elements of this new language?

    A) Suspension – We know about suspensions. Kids do stuff that breaks the rules, disrupt others and or endanger others or themselves and they get warned and finally they get suspended for a few days.

    B) Another name for the “stuff” that kids do to get suspended is Belligerent Behavior. The word “belligerent” is in and of itself very descriptive of the process.

    C) Belligerent behavior is the expression of UNRESOLVE abuse/trauma (This may be new) It is critical to understand this because it is the foundation of all violent behavior

    D) (This is new) It is in the telling of the story of the unresolved abuse/trauma that begins the healing process and brings the help that is needed to address the unresolved abuse/trauma.

    E) The abuse/trauma can be as simple as a young boy not having a blanket or as horrific as a girl of 11 being raped by her uncle for 2 years and then by her cousin for another 2 years. The boy got his blanket because a teacher took the time to ask him WHY he was so upset and to LISTEN to him. The girl of 11 was not as lucky, she raged all through high school but NO ONE ASKED WHY! NO ONE LISTENED because they ALL KNEW THAT SHE WAS A SPOILED RICH KID.

    These are the elements, it is first understanding them and then applying them that leads to proficiency!!

    An additional note:

    Circles/Classroom Meetings

    If I am right that abuse and the honor code (not covered here) are significant issues that must be worked on and eventually resolved for MPS to be successful, then what can be done in a classroom or school to be effective? I know a leap.

    William Glasser in his book Schools Without Failure has one specific suggestion which he explains in detail. Chapters 10 – 12 describe what he calls “classroom meetings”. Today they are called “circles”. He provides the detail necessary to have a good understanding of what takes place in a classroom meeting and how it will benefit the individual student, the class itself, and therefore the school. The abuse/trauma issues will come out in these classroom meetings. Some of them will be simple to fix while others will be very involved and more difficult to resolve. Support for unresolved or difficult issues can be sought with the help of the principal, school social workers or outside partner agencies.

    * There are a number of issues that I will only make reference to. I am not an academic nor am I Chris Hedges, so please bear with me here.

    Thomas Spellman 210 N 2nd St Delavan WI 53115 414 403 1341

  12. Virginia Small says:

    Dallas Police Chief David Brown recently said that police forces are being asked to somehow address all the problems of cities, and simply cannot do so.

    In some respects, urban schools are also expected to achieve a similar goal and keep coming up short. As others have noted, you cannot improve educational outcomes without also dealing with what is impeding students’ ability to learn and succeed. It’s definitely not possible when the schools in neighborhoods with high poverty also do not even have basic tools for learning and have fewer overall resources than schools in “good” neighborhoods.

    One of America’s current great writers and recent recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic, writes about root causes, dating back to slavery but also redlining and other institutional racism, that have bearing on issues that cities nationwide are grappling with. Coates digs deeper than most ever have and challenges readers to think beyond comfort zones.

    Profound critical thinking in education is every bit as important as the mastery of data. It will take the efforts of many to make a dent in problems with such deep and complex roots. Even the best teachers and most motivated students are up against more than most can fathom. Rather than throw up our hands, we can all do a bit to contribute in positive ways.

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