Data Wonk

Gap Grows Between MPS and Charter, Choice

State school report cards since 2014 tell the tale. Are there solutions for MPS?

By - Nov 28th, 2018 02:23 pm
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Milwaukee Public Schools Office of School Administration, 5225 W. Vliet St. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Public Schools.

Milwaukee Public Schools Office of School Administration, 5225 W. Vliet St. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Public Schools.

Last week’s Data Wonk column looked at what could be learned from the most recent state school report cards. In particular, it found a gap between MPS regular schools and Milwaukee charter schools and private schools participating in the choice program.

Has that gap been widening? The next graph shows the results of the last four report cards (none was issued for the 2014-15 schools year). The average Overall Accountability Scores for Milwaukee charter schools are shown in blue. Those for non-charter MPS schools are shown in yellow.

Starting with the 2016-17 school year, private schools that are part of the school choice program have participated. These schools were allowed to choose whether to report results for all their students (shown in red) or just those in choice (in gray). Some reported both ways.

Average Milwaukee School

Average Milwaukee School

The dotted lines show break points between the categories of ratings used by DPI. Schools with scores between 63 and 73 are rated as “meeting expectations.” Between 53 and 63, they are described as “meeting few expectations.”

Over this period, average scores in all three categories of schools have improved. However, the average regular MPS school has lagged behind the other two groups, allowing the gap to grow. This is consistent with Alan Borsuk’s conclusion in a recent article that “based on the report cards, the overall separation between MPS and the charter and private schools is more visible now.”

The school report card uses two measures of academic success: achievement and growth. Achievement reflects scores on the state tests. A school whose students get high test scores will rate highly on achievement. Growth is measured using a value-added model that compares student improvement on state standardized assessments to similar students from one year to the next. In schools and districts with a high proportion of high-risk students, student growth is weighted more heavily than student achievement. For example, in MPS achievement contributes 5 percent of the score versus 45 percent for growth. For Whitefish Bay, the weights are 45 percent for achievement and 5 percent for growth.

The next chart shows the average growth scores for Milwaukee charter schools, private schools, and regular MPS schools for the 2017-18 school year. This is the first use of growth scores for private schools in the choice program, because the previous year was the first time their students took the state tests.

Average Growth Scores

Average Growth Scores

For comparison, students statewide got average growth scores of 33.0 in both ELA and math. Charter school students had average growth scores substantially greater than the state average in both English language arts and math. Choice school students exceeded the state average in ELA and equaled it in math. Regular MPS school students equaled the state in ELA and fell behind in math.

MPS defenders advance several theories as to why MPS cannot be expected to do better.  One theory is that charter and choice schools get rid of their most challenging students by counseling them to withdraw after the third Friday count that is used for calculating state funding. The student then enrolls in an MPS school. I am aware of no evidence supporting this story. If true, this story would be fairly easy to document: just keep a record of students enrolling in late September and October including their previous school.

A more sophisticated critique is that MPS schools face a student population whose challenges are not fully captured by the data used by DPI in its school report card. There is probably some truth to this but, at some point, it becomes an excuse to avoid identifying ways to make MPS more effective.

I would argue that a big factor in MPS’ difficulties reflects a lack of a sense of ownership, of someone who has made a long-term commitment to the success of a program or school. Too often, promising MPS schools and programs are left to wither and die. By contrast, successful charter schools have boards and others who are committed to their success. The same is true, I would guess, of successful private schools.

Here are four examples of where promising MPS schools and programs were allowed to fall apart:

  • Arts schools. At one time the arts schools, notably Elm and Roosevelt, were viewed as among the most desirable schools in the city. The year before my daughter started at Elm, it had the highest test scores in the city. Today, both schools are labelled as failing to meet expectations. Elm has a total ELA and math growth score of 3.6 out of a possible 100 points.
  • Urban Waldorf. MPS established a school that was predicated on applying Waldorf principles to an urban public school. Some years later, while visiting the school, I asked a teacher about the Waldorf program. She told me that the school’s only Waldorf teacher was on sabbatical.
  • Direct Instruction. Direct Instruction is a very structured program aimed at teaching reading and math that appeared to have considerable success at some schools, but not others. It was also intensely opposed by some teachers (and board members). It was wiped out in MPS when the administration introduced a new curriculum.
  • Instrumentality charter schools. Under Wisconsin law, MPS can authorize two kinds of charter schools. “Noninstrumentality” charter schools are mostly like the charters authorized by UW-Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Common Council. They are considered separate entities, with their own boards and are responsible for hiring their own staff, so there is that sense of ownership.

“Instrumentality” charter schools, by contrast, are considered part of MPS. Staff are members of the MPS unions and are MPS employees. A few years ago, there was a flurry of interest in becoming charter schools, motivated in part by the availability of $75,000 government planning grants. Today, only five instrumentality charter schools remain—two (Honey Creek and Whittier) are converted regular schools and three (ALBA, Alliance, and IDEAL) were organized as charters.

Instrumentality charter schools

Instrumentality charter schools

The instrumentality charters are the orphans of MPS. It is unclear how their charter status gives them significantly more freedom to innovate compared to regular MPS schools. Today, the five schools report to four regional offices, as shown below. A start would be to have one office, charged with defining what an MPS instrumentality is.

MPS needs to figure out what it wants from so-called “instrumentality” charter schools and identify someone to help them grow and succeed.

A second opportunity for improvement is expanding the number of Montessori schools and offering them better support, while making sure that they have staff and leadership with Montessori training. In recent years, the number of Montessori schools has grown to eight in Milwaukee, as shown in the chart below. Six of the eight are regular MPS schools (shown in yellow).

Montessori Schools in Milwaukee Overall Accountability Scores

Montessori Schools in Milwaukee Overall Accountability Scores

The same chart shows that most of the Milwaukee Montessori schools performed well on the latest DPI report card. Six of the eight are rated as meeting or exceeding expectations.

The next chart shows the combined ELA and math growth scores for the eight Montessori schools. Most were able to meet or exceed the Wisconsin state average growth, shown as a dotted line.

Montessori Schools in Milwaukee School Growth Scores

Montessori Schools in Milwaukee School Growth Scores

One of the biggest challenges facing Milwaukee Montessori schools is hiring teaching staff and school leadership with Montessori training. This is a particular challenge for MacDowell, which has expanded into high school.

MPS Montessori Schools

MPS Montessori Schools

As with instrumentality charter schools, MPS’ administration of Montessori schools is fragmented. No one is charged with developing an overall strategy. The seven MPS Montessori schools report to five regional offices, as shown to the right.

The gap between MPS schools and charter and choice schools is widening. Defenders of MPS need to move past excuses and push for solutions. Expanded and well-supported Montessori schools and instrumentality charter schools could be part of the solution.

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