Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Reimagine Milwaukee: It's time to discuss an essential reform

We in the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association are reimagining and reinventing our union. But it’s not just our union that needs reimagining. It’s also MPS and Milwaukee itself.

In 2012, twelve years into the 21st Century, it’s long past time to address one of the most important but least-discussed issues in Milwaukee — segregation.

Most of Milwaukee's media and business/political leaders have a tradition of downplaying our region's “hypersegregation” and how it distorts not just educational opportunity but access to quality jobs, housing and healthcare.

When new groups announce their latest reform-of-the-day for MPS, more often than not racism, poverty and segregation are avoided. (A variation of this “let’s pretend racism and segregation don’t exist mentality” are those who blame parents and families for the problems of MPS, rather than dealing with institutional racism and poverty.)

Imagine what Milwaukee might have been like had the MPS School Board embraced court-ordered desegregation in 1976 and implemented a fair and thoughtful plan, instead of appealing the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Imagine how different metropolitan Milwaukee would look if the state legislature had the courage in the early 1980s to pass a metropolitan school desegregation plan that would have broken down both racial and class barriers in our county.

In neither case did political or business leaders speak out in favor of ending the segregation in our community. The consequences have been stark.

In 2010, Milwaukee was cited as the country’s most segregated metropolitan region in the country for African Americans. What’s more, our metropolitan region is divided not just by race, but wealth.
In 2010, Milwaukee’s poverty rate was 29.5 percent, with nearly half the city’s children living in poverty. In Waukesha county, meanwhile, the poverty rate was only 6.3 percent.
The jobs gap is equally troubling. As journalist Barbara Miner noted in her recent essay MPS at the Crossroads, “In 2009, 53.3 percent of working-age Black males in metropolitan Milwaukee were either unemployed or not in the labor force. The rate was 31 percentage points higher than for white men, leading to the highest Black/white jobless disparity in any major metropolitan area.”

In recent weeks, a number of articles in the national media have outlined the benefits of schools integrated by race and class.

Take the case of schools on U.S. military bases. These schools are among the most integrated in the country (nor are they subjected to the federal mandates of No Child Left Behind.) In addition, the children have at least one parent with a steady job and good healthcare. Overall, student achievement is high at the schools. As a Dec. 11 column by New York Times columnist Michael Winerip notes, “the achievement gap between black and white students continues to be much smaller at military base schools and is shrinking faster than at public schools.”

Winerip writes that the military “has a much better record with integration than most other institutions” and that at military schools “standardized tests do not dominate and are not used to rate teachers, principals or schools.”

It’s not likely that Milwaukee will be able to easily replicate the conditions at schools on military bases. But Memphis, another medium-sized city, provides another interesting example. This predominantly African American school district will be merging with the surrounding smaller (and whiter and more affluent) districts into a new countywide school district.

As Sam Dillon explained in a Nov. 5, 2011 New York Times article, this consolidation is bringing up issues of race and class. Median family income in Memphis is $32,000 a year, compared with the suburban average of $92,000; 85 percent of students in Memphis are black, compared with 38 percent in entire county.

Kenya Bradshaw, secretary of a commission set up to recommend policies for the new district, sees the merger as a chance for Memphis “to re-envision its educational system.”

“I hope people can see that this is an opportunity to reflect on our history and not make the same mistakes,” Ms. Bradshaw told the New York Times.

Issues of race and class are closely intertwined with student achievement. As a recent opinion by Helen Ladd and Edward Fiske asks, “Class Matters, Why Don’t We Admit it?” Ladd and Fiske criticize federal education policy for being “blind” to the impact of class. They note various national and international studies that demonstrate the relationship between “economic advantage and student performance.”

In Milwaukee, let’s start off 2012 right. Let’s reimagine metropolitan Milwaukee and frankly discuss our racial and class hypersegregation.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Reclaim our classrooms and schools. Demand a comprehensive, rigorous curriculum for all students.

This has been the most difficult school year for Milwaukee teachers and students since I started working for MPS more than 30 years ago.

Teachers not only face larger class sizes and less support. They are besieged by top-down mandates and testing requirements that have little to do with improving teaching.

Data, instead of a tool to help teachers, has become an obsession and an end in itself. Too many principals, worried that their schools may not make appropriate “data” benchmarks, are pushing teachers to adopt pedagogically unsound practices.

But good education is not “data driven.” It is “child driven and data informed.”  Good education is not based on fear and dictatorial orders. It is grounded in quality teaching and a rigorous, comprehensive curriculum.

As union president, every day I hear dedicated teachers express their frustrations and concerns.  Some of the increasingly common remarks: “I feel disrespected.” “There’s no time to teach.” “We’re not being treated like professionals.” “I’m spending time inputting data instead of planning my teaching and helping my students.” “They’ve taken the joy out of teaching and learning.”  “We’re turning both teachers and students into robots.”

The de-professionalization of teaching and the drill-and-kill/memorization approach to learning is happening throughout the United States. But it is most pronounced in urban school districts like Milwaukee, which predominantly serve low-income students of color.

Which raises a troubling but much-neglected question. Are we institutionalizing a dual system of education, not only in terms of segregation and resources, but also curriculum?  

Writer Jonathan Kozol has eloquently described the “savage inequalities” in funding between most suburban and urban school districts. He has, in equally eloquent language, written of the “educational apartheid” that separates teaching and curriculum. Poor children in urban schools (especially those who did not get into highly sought-after admissions schools) tend to get a narrower, skills-centered, textbook- and test-driven curriculum. Schools serving more affluent students, especially in suburban areas, tend to receive a full repertoire of art, music, and physical education, along with classrooms in which they work on projects, read entire books, and grabble with ideas and solve problems.

On the bright side, concerned people throughout the nation are fighting back. The Save Our Schools rally this summer in Washington D.C., attended by hundred of Wisconsin teachers, is just one example. Others include:

Parents organizing to defend quality education in public schools. This weekend in Milwaukee, parents met to launch a Milwaukee chapter of Parents for Public Schools. For more information contact Jasmine Alinder,  jasmine.alinder@gmail.com 414-378-7262.

Meanwhile, Chicago parent activist Julie Woestehoff, who is also Legislative Chair of Parents Across America, wrote a letter to Congress noting the lack of parent input in Senate hearings on the reauthorization of the NCLB. She called for “less emphasis on standardized testing and more reliable accountability and assessment practices including local, teacher-designed assessments supplemented by other measures such as site visits and teacher and parent surveys.”

Principals speaking out.
Scores of Long Island, NY principals recently wrote an open letter critical of tying pay and evaluations to student scores on standardized tests. “Our students, teachers and communities deserve better,” they wrote and called for changes in state legislation.

School board members speaking out.
A school board member took the NY test administered to 10th graders and wrote: “If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had.”

Academics speaking out.
Educational historian Diane Ravitch, an outspoken critic of testing, recently told a Seattle Times reporter, “"Schools have taken the fun out of learning with endless standardized tests. Some schools are testing monthly, even weekly. It's terrible."  

Speaking on Dec. 9 at the National Opportunity to Learn Summit, Ravitch criticized market-based reforms and the NCLB and goes on to say this about standardized testing: “One thing we know for certain about standardized testing. Poor and minority kids consistently get lower test scores than white and privileged kids. So why would we make testing the most important measure of education? Why would we take the technology that is most discouraging to children in the bottom half and then insist that it matters more than anything else? Why would we give more credibility to standardized tests than to teachers’ and parents’ judgments about children’s potential?”

Teachers speaking out.
Rethinking Schools editor and veteran New Jersey teacher Stan Karp spoke this fall at the Northwest Teachers for Social Justice Conference explains how there is “heroic resistance” to the corporate-supported “school reform” which rests on standardized testing and privatization.

Both here in Milwaukee and across the country, there are teachers, parents, administrators, and school board members who understand that education reform means more than filling in bubbles on a standardized test.  That a good education means more than training children to mindlessly regurgitate numbers and decontextualized facts.

Together we can, and must, do what is best for our students.

All children deserve art, music and phy-ed. All children deserve teachers who help them to think, question and problem solve. All children deserve a multicultural, challenging curriculum that speaks to their lives and prepares them for the future.

It is time to reclaim our classrooms and schools.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Recall Walker: News Highlights of the Week. Also — essay on “MPS at the Crossroads,” and founding meeting of “Parents for Public Schools.”

It’s been a busy week on the Recall Walker Front —highlights below on items you may have missed in the media, from TV ads, to opinion pieces, to parents organizing.

Coming up:  On Saturday Dec. 10, Parents for Public Schools will hold their inaugural meeting in Milwaukee. (Details at the end of this post.)

Finally, in the spirit of looking backward in order to move forward. Journalist Barbara Miner has written an essay, “MPS at the Crossroads,” that looks at the challenges facing the district within a historical context.

Some of the challenges are not new, especially as they relate to issues of race, segregation, jobs and unequal opportunities. But there’s also a new factor. As Miner writes, “Today’s crossroads also involves an issue that could not have been predicted by previous generations: the need to defend and support the very concept of a democratically controlled system of public schools serving all children.” The essay is especially useful for those who may not be aware of Milwaukee’s history.

The essay was written as a background paper for the Nov. 30 summit, "Reimagining the MTEA and MPS: Defending Democracy and Public Education."

Now, back to news highlights on the Recall Walker Front.

1) TV coverage: Sour Grapes or Rotten Grapes?
A new Walker TV ad features a Kenosha teacher claiming that those working to RECALL WALKER are motivated by "sour grapes." That is so wrong. We’re motivated not by sour grapes, but rotten, moldy grapes that Walker has served up to the kids of Wisconsin through his $1.6 billion budget cut to public schools, while giving away hundreds of millions in tax breaks to wealthy corporations and expanding vouchers to wealthy families to send their kids to private schools. That’s what I told a WISN news report.

2) Walker curtails freedom of speech at the Capitol —a la Myanmar.
Walker took the unprecedented step towards restricting basic freedom of speech and freedom of assembly last week.  According the Dec. 2 MJS article, the Walker administration issued a new policy that states, “Groups of four or more people must obtain permits for all activity and displays in state buildings and apply for those permits at least 72 hours in advance. “

 Ironically this came the same week that NPR reported that the totalitarian regime in the Asian country of Myanmar eased its law against public demonstrations, now requiring a five-day advance notice.  Is Governor Walker trying to imitate some of the worst dictatorships in the world, or is he merely ignoring the Bill of Rights?

3) Healthcare my editorial in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and good background on Badgercare, from Wisconsin Citizen Action.
Healthcare continues to be a key issue for Wisconsin workers. As I explained in an op-ed on Dec. 2 in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, we need to be guided by core principles that will protect all peoples’ health care and help school districts attract and retain quality teachers.

For good background on the ongoing controversy over Badgercare, read the op ed in the Capital Times, by Robert Craig of Wisconsin Citizen Action. As Craig notes, Governor Walker is on the verge of reducing health care for tens of thousands of people in Wisconsin, seeking .a waiver from federal regulations regarding. According to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the Walker waiver would force over 67,000 people off BadgerCare, including over 29,000 children.

4) MJS Opinion Defends Smaller Class Sizes; Parents for Public Schools.
In an opinion piece in the Dec. 4 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “Congratulate Kids, Don’t Belittle Them,” MPS parent Angela McManaman explains how small class sizes are essential for student academic and social development. Walker’s massive cuts to public schools in Wisconsin has led to larger class sizes in for many students. In Milwaukee it meant the elimination of the class-size reduction SAGE program in a number of elementary schools. McManaman’s opinion was in response to a piece by a senior fellow with the conservative think tank, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, who called the SAGE program a "horror" for Wisconsin. 

McManaman is a co-founder of the parent group, I Love My Public School, which is launching a chapter of Parents for Public Schools in Milwaukee.

The first meeting of Parents for Public Schools is on Saturday, Dec. 10, from 3 p.m. - 5 p.m. Community Room of the Washington Park Public Library, 2121 N. Sherman Blvd. Contact Sachin at sachin@ilovemypublicschool.com or 414-412-6099 for more information.