Do Milwaukee’s children deserve art and music classes?
Do young children deserve art and music classes?
Or, instead of art and music, should kindergarten and first-graders spend two hours a day in Dilbert-like cubicles, keyboarding answers into computers while uncertified aides monitor the room and maintain order?
Such questions should be part of a much-needed public discussion on the City of Milwaukee’s expectations for its charter schools.
A PBS Learning Matters report on Dec. 29 provided a fascinating glimpse at the privately run Rocketship Education network of charter schools in California that, beginning next year, will be in Milwaukee. The show, which aired Dec. 29, is available online and is worth the nine minutes it takes to watch.
The PBS report looks at both strengths and weaknesses in the Rocketship approach and focuses on the Rocketship Mosaic school in San Jose, Calif. It begins by likening Rocketship’s business plan to Henry Ford and his mass-produced, assembly line Model T that became the “first innovative and affordable car available to the masses.” The show also has scenes of energized students, known as Rocketeers, chanting about their potential, and interviews with supportive parents and enthusiastic young teachers.
But the PBS story raises some tough questions — for instance the lack of art and music at Rocketship Mosaic, that the computer learning labs aren’t working as planned, and that half the teachers have less than two years’ experience.
In November 2011, the Milwaukee Common Council approved Rocketship to open its first city charter school in September 2013, enrolling 480 students the first year and to be known as Rocketship Milwaukee. The Council also gave Rocketship Milwaukee an unprecedented go-ahead to grow to eight schools and 4,000 students — even though Rocketship has yet to demonstrate that even one of its schools here will live up to its marketing promises.
Rocketship, which started in 2006 and runs seven schools in California, has national ambitions to reach 50 cities and one million students. Powerful movers and shakers, including Mayor Tom Barrett, wooed Rocketship to Milwaukee. With a business approach not unlike that of McDonald’s or Wal-Mart, national franchises such as Rocketship develop a uniform, cost-efficient product that can be marketed and replicated nationwide, especially to cash-strapped urban districts.
Rocketship is focused on working with low-income students to raise test scores; its background is with Latino students. Attempts to open schools in Oakland, Calif., and East Palo Alto were rejected when critics said the franchise lacked experience educating African American children. A July 29 report in the Washington Post also noted that about six percent of Rocketship’s students are classified as having learning disabilities — “about half the rate found in the surrounding traditional public schools.”
Rocketship has limited its efforts to kindergarten to fifth-grade schools, and has not ventured into the more troubled (and more expensive) educational waters of middle and high schools.
One of Rocketship’s biggest selling points has been its “learning labs” —a computer-room where students sit in individual cubicles and the computer substitutes for traditional classroom interaction between students and teacher. The computer labs are promoted as a digital-era innovation of “blended learning” that will spur academic achievement. The Scholastic Administrator magazine describes the learning lab as “the financial and academic key to Rocketship’s ambitious mission.”
But that key may be broken.
“The learning lab saves schools a lot of money,” Merrow notes in his report, “but there’s just one problem: They’re not really working.”
A Rocketship teacher, for instance, notes that the learning labs don’t provide information that teachers can then use in the classroom. “A problem we saw,” Merrow adds, “is that some students in the lab do not appear to be engaged. They sit at their computers for long periods of time, seemingly just guessing.”
The problems are such that the school may drop its learning labs, the principal tells PBS.
The learning lab has been key to the Rocketship model because it allows a school of roughly 500 students to hire six fewer teachers and save money to put into other areas, such as a longer day and teacher training.
That saved money, however, is not necessarily used to provide an enriched curriculum.
“One thing the savings are not used for: art and music classes,” Merrow reports.
Merrow also notes that more than 75% of the teachers at Rocketship Mosaic come from Teach for America (TFA), which recruits college graduates, trains them during the summer and then sends them to urban schools. The problem? Studies have repeatedly shown that experienced, quality teachers are one of the best guarantees of academic improvement. Relying on TFA, which only requires a two-year commitment, also means that staff turnover will likely be high. (John Danner, the former Silicon Valley entrepreneur who founded Rocketship, is philosophically opposed to unions.)
Interestingly, all the teachers shown in the PBS special were white, and all the students were Latino. PBS did not mention, but it is well known, that Rocketship does not believe in bilingual education for its Spanish-speaking students and has adopted an “English-only” approach. It promises to follow federal and state laws regarding services for “English Language Learners,” but that is a far cry from supporting students in both languages so that they enjoy the academic, personal and economic benefits of being truly bilingual.
The Rocketship model raises a number of questions which merit public discussion about the city’s expectations for its charter schools. Does the public support the view that schools, as part of a deliberate education strategy, should forego art and music classes? Is it good education policy to rely on inexperienced teaches? Is it sound education practice to put five- and six-year-old children in front of a computer for two hours straight during the school day?
Perhaps most important, why is Milwaukee’s Common Council in the business of overseeing schools in the first place?
The questions are particularly important given the proliferation of privately run charter schools approved by the Common Council.
Charter schools have their roots among progressive educators in the 1990s who wanted charter contracts with school districts so they could operate outside the bureaucracy and experiment. The goal was to improve academic achievement, strengthen the connections between school and community, and use the lessons learned to improve all the schools in a district.
Some charter schools still uphold those values. But in recent years, the charter movement has become the darling of hedge-fund managers and marketplace entrepreneurs who view parents as consumers, not deciders, and who chafe at public control. Such forces are driving the charter school movement’s dominant agenda of promoting privately run, franchise charters that operate outside the supervision of democratically elected school boards.
Leading business people have been a guiding force behind Rocketship’s entry into Milwaukee, in particular Tim Sheehy of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and Michael Grebe of the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Sheehy visited Rocketship and spearheaded efforts to raise $3.5 million in additional funding that Rocketship said was necessary.
Rocketship has worthy aspects, for instance its administrative support for teachers. But I’m always nervous when hoped-for education miracles are first tested on poor children in Milwaukee.
If these charter franchise schools are so great, why aren’t the Whitefish Bay or the Lake Country school districts clamoring for Rocketship?
Imagine if Tim Sheehy were to tell his neighbors in Whitefish Bay that he wanted to raise $3.5 million to bring in a California-based outfit to compete with and take money away from the Whitefish Bay schools, that these privately run schools would not provide art and music, that kindergarten children would be put in front of Dilbert-like cubicles for two hours a day, and that the board of directors would be dominated by people who did not live in the community? What do you think the response in Whitefish Bay might be?
If I had to put any money on it, Whitefish Bay parents would echo the thoughts of Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. “These are schools for poor children,” she wrote in a blog titled “Rocketship to Nowhere,” where she summarized her impression after watching the Merrow show. “Not many advantaged parents would want their children in this bare-bones Model-T school. It appears that these children are being trained to work on an assembly line. There is no suggestion that they are challenged to think or question or wonder or create.”
The MMAC’s Sheehy is not the only influential businessman promoting Rocketship Milwaukee.
The Bradley Foundation, which is a strong proponent of both voucher schools and privately run charter schools, granted Rocketship Milwaukee $375,000 last year. The ideologically conservative foundation also gave $3 million to the Colorado-based Charter School Growth Fund, a venture capital initiative that — surprise! — has given money to Rocketship.
Michael Grebe, head of the Bradley Foundation, is on the board of directors of the Charter School Growth Fund. (In Wisconsin, Grebe is better known as the chair of Scott Walker’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign.) Sheehy, meanwhile, is chair of the board of directors for Rocketship Milwaukee.
Another prominent local person involved with Rocketship is Deborah McGriff, the staff person at the California-based NewSchools Venture Fund that has invested $1.18 million in Rocketship. (The Fund promotes “entrepreneurial organizations” and is yet another indication of how the private sector believes there is money to be made in charter schools.) McGriff is married to Howard Fuller, who founded and directs the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, which oversees the City of Milwaukee charter school initiative. Until recently, Fuller personally chaired the city’s charter school process. Last year, the Bradley Foundation gave $50,000 to the Institute to support the approval process for city charters — on top of $875,000 in funding to the Institute in the previous four years.
McGriff and Fuller, meanwhile, are two of the three members of the board of directors of the Quest schools, another privately run charter initiative approved by the City of Milwaukee.
If it all sounds a bit too cozy and ingrown, well perhaps it is.
A few key people are calling the behind-the-scene shots for City of Milwaukee charters, and even many aldermen have little idea what’s going on in these city-approved schools. Several alderpeople have begun asking questions, in particular Robert Bauman, Tony Zielinski, Nik Kovac and Jose Perez. But by and large the council has rubber-stamped the decisions by Fuller’s Institute, providing a fig leaf of public oversight.
REASON TO BE DUBIOUS
It’s enlightening to look at the last big school reform pushed by Fuller, the MMAC, and the Bradley Foundation.
All three have been key forces behind the voucher movement, under which tax dollars are funneled out of public education and into private schools. Using the seductive rhetoric of ‘choice,” vouchers began in 1990 and were supposed to usher in a golden era of educational achievement in Milwaukee.
The voucher movement reflected a virtual wish list of conservative, free-market reforms: no unions, no central bureaucracy, minimal government oversight, the ability to hire and fire teachers at will, and wide latitude to institute just about any innovation desired, from the length of the school day to curricular reform.
But the voucher movement’s rhetoric crashed on the rocks of reality. In 2010, for the first time the voucher schools were required to take the same tests as public schools and the test scores were released publicly. The results? The voucher schools scored about the same in reading as comparable MPS students, and worse in math.
Substitute “charters” for “vouchers” and this troika of the MMAC, Bradley and Fuller is up to the same old same old. There’s little to indicate the results will be significantly different — and everything to indicate that the major consequence may be even more public dollars flowing into privately run schools, with the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) left to pick up the pieces when a charter school fails or expels an unwanted student. (Charter school expulsions are one of many issues that need to be addressed. The city charter high school CEO Leadership Academy, for instance, expelled roughly 16% of its students last year, according to a performance reviewed submitted to the Common Council. The review also notes that the academy’s test results were far below scores for low-income students in MPS. Fuller helped found the school in 2003, and until 2011 the academy was a voucher school; Fuller remains chair of its board of directors.)
MPS, for all its shortcomings, problems, and challenges, remains the only institution in this city with the capability, commitment and legal obligation to serve all children. We abandon it at a peril not just to democracy and public control of public institutions, but at peril to our moral obligation to provide a quality education to all the children in the City of Milwaukee.
At the very least, we need to ask ourselves: do the children of Milwaukee deserve art and music classes?
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This blog is cross-posted at my blog, “View from the Heartland: Honoring the Wisconsin tradition of common decency and progressive politics.” At the blog, you can also sign up for email notifications.