Data Wonk

Why Can’t MPS Improve Results?

Perhaps because our leaders ignore data on which schools work.

By - Jan 31st, 2018 04:51 pm
Rufus King International School. Photo from MPS.

Rufus King International School. Photo from MPS.

Why does Milwaukee lag other large cities when it comes to the success of low-income students, particularly African American and, to a lesser extent, Hispanic students? The recent attempt to terminate the charter school contract for Daniels University Preparatory School helps, I think, illustrates the problem.

Let me start my exploration of this problem with a seemingly unrelated question, but one that the Data Wonk series has increasingly concentrated on: why an increasing amount of innovation is taking place in a relative handful of cities that vote Democratic. A large part of the answer, I think, is these are the places that are most tolerant of odd ideas. Expecting the demand for coal to recover, for instance, is not a formula for economic success. When ideology overwhelms evidence, problems become much harder to solve.

When it comes to Milwaukee education, the loudest voices on the left owe more to the Tea Party than to pragmatic liberalism. They only get truly energized when they sense a threat to their ideology favoring traditional public schools. Once the threat is over, they withdraw until the next threat. Meanwhile Milwaukee Public Schools enrollment continues its slow decline. When Mayor Tom Barrett proposed taking over MPS some years ago, he was confronted with a very energetic opposition. Much the same thing happened when County Executive Chris Abele agreed to legislation that would have allowed him to take responsibility for a couple of underperforming MPS schools.

The chart below shows the breakdown of results on Wisconsin’s 6th grade language arts test for two MPS charter schools and one regular MPS school. Both charter schools–Milwaukee Excellence and Daniels University Preparatory School– had a rocky time before the Milwaukee School Board.

Milwaukee Excellence’s application for a charter was initially rejected by the board. Several months later the board reversed course and approved a charter for the school. I was on the MPS charter school review committee that unanimously recommended that the board contract with the school.

More recently a board committee recommended that Daniels’ charter not be renewed because it had not met the conditions of its contract. Among those opposing the renewal was the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association.

The third school whose test results I show is a regular MPS school, the Hopkins-Lloyd Community School. During the fight over the establishment of the Opportunity School District by Abele, opponents of the district pointed to Hopkins as an example of the kind of school that should be established.
I picked those three schools to look at not as a random sample, but because each, in its own way, was a player in the fight over whether MPS should authorize more charters. In addition, the three are near each other on Milwaukee’s north side. They also serve similar populations—over 90 percent African American and heavily low income.

Data Wonk Graph

The next chart shows the breakdown of the same schools’ results on the state’s 6th grade mathematics test. I chose this grade because it was the only grade that all three schools have tested so far. Milwaukee Excellence is only in its second year of operation, starting with 6th grade and planning to add a grade each year.

Data Wonk Graph

The next chart shows how two of the schools fared on the state report cards and compares them to the average MPS district and statewide schools score. Because Milwaukee Excellence is a new school it did not receive a report card; with only one year of data, student growth could not be calculated. As can be seen, the Daniels school outscores Hopkins Lloyd school but also outscores the MPS district score in the state’s calculations, implying that closing Daniels would have resulted in most of the displaced students attending a lower state-rated school.

Data Wonk Graph

The next chart shows the growth score for the two schools, as well as for the district and for Wisconsin as a whole. This score is calculated on how much a student’s score improves on the Language Arts and mathematics test from one year to the next. Particularly with students who start out behind, I consider this growth measure the most meaningful measure of school success. Do their students continue to fall further behind—or does the gap narrow? On this measure, Daniels beats not only Hopkins and the district, but Wisconsin as a whole.

Data Wonk Graph

Measurement of student achievement and student progress remains controversial in education circles—particularly if multiple-choice tests are used. Yet without some sort of measurement it is hard to see how the process can be improved. There is also a clear, but not perfect, correlation between test results and other measures of student success. Some years ago, I looked at 8th grade scores and student graduation five years later. The better the score the more likely a student would graduate.

Milwaukee is often ranked high among cities for its poverty and other sources of student distress. Among possible factors inhibiting student success is lead exposure from paint and perhaps lead laterals, trauma from living in a violent neighborhood, and evictions and homelessness of a child’s family. But these challenges are not limited to Milwaukee.

Figuring out how schools can help their students meet these challenges is not a trivial matter. However, a first step is to recognize that some schools do better at this than others. The next step is setting aside prior beliefs whether from ideology or from adult self-interest and looking at what the evidence tells us.

Categories: Data Wonk, Education

36 thoughts on “Data Wonk: Why Can’t MPS Improve Results?”

  1. Terry says:

    Being born into entrenched poverty and hopelessness in Walker’s Wississippi and then drinking lead water certainly doesn’t help.

  2. Troll says:

    Terry, there was a time in the late 1940’s and 1950’s that African Americans were the most productive farmers but they wanted more and a large migration of African Americans came to the Midwest and were confronted by the UNIONS that were German, Irish and Italian workers. They prevented the American dream. Auto, tool and die, electricians, plumbers and constructions all discriminated on African Americans because they were more productive and reliable. President LBJ created the Great society and your Wissississippi began.

  3. Terry says:

    @Troll, Wrong.

    Learn to spell.

  4. max says:

    Bruce makes a fundamental point about how evidence, fair, impartial, scientifically supported evidence, has so often melted in this country under the burden of blind ideology, an observation that certainly applies to education:

    Pick your favorite blind ideological preference over evidence:
    “Global climate change is a hoax, human’s have no role in the climate change threat”
    “Trickle down economics always works to enhance prosperity for everyone”
    “Guns prevent mass murders”
    “If the government provides it, it’s bad”
    “If the private sector provides it, it’s bad”
    “Government deficits don’t matter”
    “Locking up illicit drug users makes us safer”
    and on and on it goes, on just about every topic, meanwhile, the oceans rise, the economic class divide escalates, poorly performing schools continue to deprive children of good education, whether they are private or public, depending upon the ideological bent of the funding source, good access to privately provided health care is in jeopardy for many, government deficits escalate, and the USA imprisons more people than any other nation. Amazing how dysfunctional and ignorant the USA has become.


    The two Bruces — Murphy and Thompson — must wince at the often inane comments generated by Data Wonk.

    From having observed the MPS scene for 3+ decades I have come around to the view that the system is fundamentally incapable of necessary change. John Norquist was correct in advocating a universal voucher system for all Milwaukee residents.

  6. GRNDPAKWH says:

    The author managed to get in a critical remark against liberals and the teacher’s union, then proceeded to post graphs which are misleading.
    According to an article in the Journal Sentinel, January 26, 2018 written by Alan J Borsuk the Daniel’s Preparatory school is not preparing our youth to succeed in a university as their name implies. Mr. Borsuk states that only 3% of students in grades third through eigth were proficient and 74% were found below basic.
    The author clearly favors taking resources from MPS and placing them in private or in this case The Holy Redeemer Church of God in Christ. I do not agree this is the best use of our tax dollars and in keeping with our tradition of public education. We need to educate children to freely think, yes evolution is real and the earth is more than 6500 years old.
    We need to support our public schools and our university educated certified teachers, not play with statistics. Children are not numbers they are our future.

  7. PMD says:

    How is a universal voucher system the answer when those schools perform the same as or worse than public schools?

  8. JUDY says:

    Terry, you have to say more than “Troll, Wrong”. Where are you facts???

  9. Tom M says:

    Correlation does not equal causation. It is stated in the article that the schools are nearly the same; however, I would argue the exact opposite is true. Every student’s parent that attends a charter has taken the additional step of signing their child up for a different school. That takes research, resolve, and most importantly time. If that parent takes that much time to sign their child up for school, I would argue they are that much more likely to take additional time helping their child with homework, providing a balanced meal, and helping them get a good night’s sleep before the school day has even started.
    As for the Hopkins-Lloyd parents, some of them may have only done the bare minimum required to get their kids into school, and possibly, simply so they as parents, don’t run afoul of the law and end up with a fine, etc. Those parents are more likely to NOT devote any additional time to their child’s education.
    No amount of testing or legislating will alter that reality for those kids. At the same time I rarely solutions to those larger issues discussed.

  10. PMD says:

    One could say the same about Troll. Not once has he ever provided a link or shared any evidence, and he lies and peddles misinformation on a daily basis here. I mean he’s a troll.

  11. Terry says:

    @Judy, Here are my “facts.”

    “Being born into entrenched poverty and hopelessness in Walker’s Wississippi and then drinking lead water certainly doesn’t help.”

    Now, where are Trolls “facts?” Furthermore, where are yours?

  12. Chuck says:

    I’m pretty sure Terry and Troll are the same person

  13. Terry says:

    @Chuck. Wrong. Yet again…

  14. PMD says:

    Yeah and other studies show exactly what I claimed George.

  15. Terry says:

    Heaven help us all if people like Judy actually need convincing that drinking lead contaminated water since birth and being born into entrenched poverty and hopelessness is somehow conducive to helping kids learn!? Seriously Judy. Have your water tested!


    PMD….cite one.

  17. Bruce Thompson says:

    You bring up a number of interesting questions.

    One is whether a charter school should be closed if it falls short of its contract, yet the students will then end up in schools with poorer outcomes. I can understand the school board’s reluctance to take that action. The Daniels school’s growth scores were particularly striking to me. I did not expect that when I started this analysis.

    More generally, I have long believed that schools should be judged based on how well they serve students, not their legal structure.

  18. Rich says:

    GEORGE MITCHELL offers up a highly biased source with an agenda; from the linked page:

    Will Flanders is the Research Director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. Dr. Patrick J. Wolf is Professor and 21st Century Chair in School Choice in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas College of Education and Health Professions.

  19. George Mitchell says:

    PAT wolf is recognized as one of the leading academic researchers in the field. His peer reviewed research shows important gains from Milwaukee’s program. One of his collaborators is UW Prof John Witte. Unclear why you deny the published research.

  20. PMD says:

    You can’t be shocked that people claim bias when he is a voucher proponent whose research always shows positive results for voucher schools. So do you acknowledge all published research George including the studies I cited that show voucher schools do no better or even worse than public schools? I believe that even the strongest voucher advocates would admit that the results have been mixed at best at this point. It’s hard to argue otherwise when so much research shows results that are mixed at best. If that’s the case, why is the answer universal vouchers?


    PMD reminds me of an error I told myself I would stop committing, namely, attempting to respond to bogus comments about school choice research. I provided a list of more than a dozen gold standard, peer reviewed studies, by many different researchers, showing positive effects. This is “all the published research” that relies on gold standard randomized experiments. But again, my bad for even providing the citations. Adios.

  22. PMD says:

    Feel free to stay away and live in your echo chamber if you have no interest in a discussion. Doing the rest of us a favor as you are always aggressively unpleasant here and seem like a massive pompous jerk every time you post. Good riddance. Adios.

  23. Bruce Thompson says:

    Your comments are always stimulating. I would hate to see you go.



    Thanks. Prior and current efforts to address the issue of school choice research through Urban Milwaukee comments have been futile. Awhile back I promised myself I would not go down that rabbit hole but the bait from PMD (voucher “schools perform the same as or worse than public schools”) was too strong. I hope I have learned my lesson.

    Enjoy your Data Wonk writing.

  25. PMD says:

    That didn’t last long George. And it’s funny because your argument is that only your sources matter. You say your sources must be taken seriously because they are published research, but you casually dismiss all sources whose research conclusions differ from the research you prefer. That makes no sense and can’t be taken seriously. I also didn’t bait you. I asked a question and then you asked me to share a source. Which I did. And you never addressed my question. So why are you here then?



    See what I mean? He makes a claim (voucher “schools perform the same as or worse than public schools”) that is refuted by gold standard, peer-reviewed research. His claim is wrong.

  27. PMD says:

    Bruce what exactly is stimulating about this guy? You would miss what exactly? He won’t even engage with people. He is acting like a troll.


    PMD: “So do you acknowledge all published research George including the studies I cited that show voucher schools do no better or even worse than public schools?”

    One “study” cited by PMD was a 2014 article in the Journal Sentinel. Here’s what the Journal Sentinel reported more recently (spring of 2016): “Third- through eighth-grade students in Milwaukee’s private voucher and independent charter schools outperformed their public school counterparts in math and language arts, according to statewide assessment data released Wednesday by the Department of Public Instruction.”

    Other “studies” cited by PMD were a NYTimes op-ed and a critique of school choice research published by the labor union-financed Economic Policy Institute. Neither of these two “studies” constitute “research.”

    There has been a good deal of academic research involving school choice. Unique to the education world, many of those studies have used gold-standard, randomized experiments. With few exceptions the results are positive.

    Returning to square one, PMD’s claim that “voucher schools do no better or even worse than public schools” is simply untrue. PMD won’t accept that but others who follow UrbanMilwaukee should at least be aware of the error.

  29. Barbara says:

    This article and the conversation following miss a central point: Our school funding formula is discriminatory against low income schools. Money isn’t everything but it sure makes a difference. You can shift it around to private v. public schools but if Milwaukee schools get significantly less per pupil than suburban schools, they aren’t going to measure up. How, when this country supposedly celebrates equal opportunity for all, do we justify unequal public education funding? Isn’t education the most basic underpinning of opportunity?

  30. Karen Coy-Romano says:

    Thank you to Bruce Thompson for trying to inform an audience that seems destined to circle the wagons for MTEA. Congrats to Daniels Preparatory for its renewal. Let me remind those of you on the soapbox for only MPS regardless of performance that charter schools are public schools–not private– with comparable accountability standards. Choice/voucher schools at this time are not subject to the same performance measures. BTW–all public schools should have equal funding. Unfortunately, at this time, MPS schools that are not performing typically do not close nor come before the Milwaukee Common Council to report on performance contracting.


    Karen says, “Choice/voucher schools at this time are not subject to the same performance measures.” Actually, with respect to tests, private schools in the choice program participate in the same tests that students in public schools take, and have done so since the 2011-2012 school year.

  32. Kurt says:

    Get this…I was tuned into the school board meeting last Monday when the Board was going to review the MPS superintendent. She asked that the clerk be excused and the review was to done privately without public disclosure. Members of the Board questioned why and wanted further understanding, but were told the explanation was “5 pages long, so…” The board voted, the radio went back to the music, and her review was kept private. What’s wrong with transparency? What’s the big secret? These are our tax dollars and our people. It irritated me.

    Another snipet of info: did anyone know that MPS was hiring employees from Goodwill to stand in as substitute teachers? They quietly ended this in Board meeting at the end of December. Many certified substitute teachers were wondering why they weren’t getting calls for work. Well, that’s why. I dug into the minutes from the meetings and found that hiring Goodwill employees has taken place for some time. Some of the reasoning was due to the limited ability to get subs in certain schools…word travels fast in the community when a school becomes too dangerous for the risk to be worthwhile.

    I take personal interest in these topics because I have a family member who works in a “dangerous” school. The teachers won’t say anything because they’re afraid of retaliation. The principal does nothing because it’ll make him/her seem like a lousy employee (which can be true at some schools). There’s also a problem with violence against the teachers and the lack of money in the budget to afford a security guard (meanwhile, that same school hires an interior designer). Who’s pulling this crap? Why can’t anyone use their name and blow the whistle loud and clear? MPS is a corrupt organization that needs a complete overhaul. Get all those old dogs out of there. Run that place with the rules and regulations that we put on businesses. Hire the young, bright minds we have in this city to do the job vs these old dogs who helplessly roll their eyes every time something scandalous goes down. These children are OUR children, and if nothing changes in this corrupt organization we are setting the kids up for failure. Am I the only one who sees this? Am I wrong? Sure, we have some great schools in our system, but I’m not talking about them right now.

  33. Ingrid Buxton says:

    Nobody asks the people who could tell them why the kids are failing or how to fix it…. the teachers.

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