Educate All Students: Larry Miller's Blog

June 4, 2015

Response: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Op-ed

MPS is changing the status quo
By Larry Miller June 3, 2015 MJS Op-ed

Charles J. Szafir’s May 31 opinion piece contains a glaring factual error that undercuts his entire piece — and it repeats the often-used but false claim that Milwaukee Public Schools leaders believe the “status quo” is acceptable (“At MPS, the status quo is unacceptable,” Crossroads). Both claims are just plain wrong. A clear reading of the piece also calls into question the credibility of a recovery district plan that does not include some of the city’s lowest-performing schools.

First, Szafir falsely tied an analysis showing low test results in reading among schools whose students are mostly African-American and low-income to MPS when it in fact represents results from voucher and charter schools as well, as PolitiFact Wisconsin has noted.

When the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel took a closer look at data for such schools, it found that seven of the 10 lowest-performing schools in the group were, in fact, voucher schools. Of the five lowest-performing schools — schools where no students were proficient in reading — three are voucher schools.

If Szafir and his allies in the state Legislature are concerned about improving all of the low-performing schools in Milwaukee, why doesn’t their plan address low-performing voucher schools, as those schools have results that are the same or worse than those in MPS’ lowest-performing schools?

Put another way: Why is the status quo at voucher schools apparently acceptable to them?

Milwaukee Public Schools is already implementing its plans to accelerate student achievement growth, and the district is seeing early signs of success, a fact that Szafir failed to note. Specifically:
■MPS’ Commitment Schools effort to transform underperforming schools is accelerating reading and math achievement enough to narrow achievement gaps in most grades K-8.
■MPS’ GE Foundation Schools are seeing similar gains.
■MPS’ 5-in-1 collaboration at Carver Academy is improving school climate and academic outcomes.
■MPS’ work with Milwaukee Succeeds on a foundational reading pilot is seeing some encouraging early results.
■MPS’ four-year graduation rate is up slightly to 60.9% and five- and six-year rates (68.7% and 72.9%, respectively) show that significant numbers of MPS students are willing to take additional time, if necessary, to graduate.
■MPS’ eight strategic objectives — created with input from students, staff and the community — are in place to further accelerate improvement.

Szafir also plays fast and loose with facts about MPS buildings. He falsely claims that Bradley Tech High School is “operating well below capacity,” when its 2014-’15 enrollment of 889 puts it at about 95% of its capacity of 931 as identified in the district’s facilities master plan. He made a point of identifying the number of buildings his organization considers underutilized while failing to note that by his organization’s own standards, MPS has substantially more buildings that are at 100% capacity or above than are underutilized.

MPS has utilized buildings strategically to expand successful schools with waiting lists — such as Golda Meir School and Ronald Reagan College Preparatory High School — and it will continue to do so, which helps address the overcapacity issue identified above.

Of the remaining MPS school buildings not currently in use, four already have been specifically identified as sites for expansion of sought-after programs, including international baccalaureate education, language immersion and a charter school. Another nine have been declared surplus by the Milwaukee Board of School Directors and transferred to the city for redevelopment. Yet another is being redeveloped into housing.

The efforts MPS is undertaking to improve outcomes for students may not have the “flash” of plans to strip local control of schools, to transfer public buildings to private entities or to fire teachers en masse. But they are far from the “status quo” and they have the benefit of being strongly rooted in what has worked and is working to improve achievement for students in Milwaukee.

Larry Miller is vice president of the Milwaukee School Board.

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