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Will Any Milwaukee Child Be Left Behind?

Reforms allowed for Wisconsin schools

Jul. 11, 2012
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Last week, Wisconsin received a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements, setting up potentially big changes in our state's public schools.

While students in public schools will still be required to take standardized tests—albeit different tests that are aligned with the nationally recognized Common Core program—their performance goals have been altered to be more realistic.

The waiver also changes the labels used to identify struggling schools, a boost for students and teachers in “failing” schools that are show signs of improvement.

That said, the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) has developed a “red flag” system that identifies struggling schools early and retains the right to intervene in the lowest performing schools to close achievement gaps, reduce absenteeism and raise graduation rates.

Teachers, too, will be affected by the changes. Students' test results will be one component—but not the only component—of their professional evaluations.

Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), said in a statement that the waiver was “good news” for state students and that it “sets the stage for the state Legislature to adopt legislation to hold all schools that receive taxpayer dollars, including those participating in the voucher program, to the same standards.”

MPS Already Implementing Waiver Requirements

But the reforms will have a mixed impact on Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), the state's largest school district and one that was penalized by NCLB's ever-more-stringent performance standards.

The upside is that the waiver grants MPS, and all schools receiving Title I funding for low-income students, more freedom in how they can use funds that NCLB would otherwise have required them to pay for private-sector tutoring services.

But the state's waiver will have little to no impact on the state DPI's ongoing intervention in MPS, according to documents filed by the state in its request for the waiver.

A spokesman for MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton said he was still going through the details of the waiver and did not want to talk about the specific impact of it on MPS. But in a statement Thornton said he welcomed the changes in general.

“The waiver raises the bar for our students and holds us accountable and we embrace that,” Thornton said. “We look forward to meeting higher expectations. We are already aligned on a number of issues connected to the waiver, including implementing the Common Core for state standards, expanded ACT participation, graduation rate growth and tougher graduation requirements. We also look forward to working with the Department of Public Instruction to put resources where they're most needed, including having more control over the federal dollars used for tutoring.”

Bonds: The 'Milwaukee Miracle' Is Real

Under the original NCLB, the state was able to intervene in schools and districts that were failing to attain adequate yearly progress standards, which escalated each year. The waiver now eases those standards and implements new performance goals.

By 2014, all schools were expected to achieve 100% proficiency in reading and math, a goal that MPS Board President Michael Bonds called “unrealistic and detrimental to schools” because it labeled too many schools as failures and did not take into account the number of English-language learners, special education students or students living in poverty.

MPS schools have a high proportion of these harder-to-educate students. For example, special education students make up around 19% of the MPS population—higher than other Wisconsin schools and big urban districts around the country—and more than 80% of MPS students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Yet MPS was held to the same performance standards as every other school in the country, rich or poor, large or small, urban, suburban or rural.

“It punished schools when in reality there might be significant changes within the schools,” Bonds said.

While MPS students' test scores and graduation rates are improving, the district had fallen so far behind the escalating NCLB standards for multiple years that DPI directly intervened in the district and instituted a Corrective Action Plan, which DPI says in waiver documents that it will “maintain and enhance... due to the evidence that these structures and interventions have positively impacted individual school performance and student achievement across the district.”

The corrective plan requires MPS to recruit highly qualified teachers, especially in its lowest-performing schools; improve its professional development of teachers; implement one district-wide comprehensive literacy and math plan in all schools to address the high mobility of MPS students; implement “differentiated and customized” instruction; and improve safety in struggling schools. MPS must also continue to work with a DPI-created committee to monitor its turnaround plan.

Bonds didn't want to comment on the waiver's requirements in detail, but he said the corrective plan and Thornton's district-wide reforms have been positive elements in MPS's rising performance rates.

“I thought the Corrective Action Plan really forced us to target schools that needed help,” Bonds said. “I thought that was good. But I thought that No Child Left Behind was a bad policy overall.”

He said that in contrast to schools that are showing signs of quick, dramatic improvement—possibly the result of cheating on tests or falsified data—MPS is showing small but real signs of progress.

“We are doing the real work, the hard, in-the-trenches work that's going to take time,” Bonds said. “We're making incremental changes but they are real changes. These aren't inflated changes. If you actually really looked at what's happening in Milwaukee, you'd call it the 'Milwaukee miracle.'”


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