It’s time for schools to focus on quality, not politics or structure

Alan Borsuk:

I’m tired of talking about systems and governance and structures for education. If we’ve proved anything in Milwaukee, we’ve proved that these things make less difference than a lot of people once thought.
Since 1990, Milwaukee has been one of the nation’s foremost laboratories of experimentation in school structures. This has been driven by hope (some national experts used the word panacea) that new ways of creating, running and funding schools would bring big progress.
A ton of data was unloaded during the last week, including test results from last fall for every school in Wisconsin, a new round of studies comparing performance of students in Milwaukee’s publicly funded private school voucher program with Milwaukee Public Schools students and – for the first time – school-by-school test results for those voucher schools.
And what did I learn from all this?
1.) We’ve got big problems. The scores, overall, were low.
2.) We’re not making much progress overall in solving them.
3.) Schools in all three of the major structures for education in Milwaukee – MPS, voucher schools and charter schools – had about the same overall results.
4.) Some specific schools really did much better than others, even when dealing with students with much the same backgrounds as those in schools that got weaker results.
In my dreams, all of us – especially the most influential politicians, policy-makers and civic leaders – focus a lot more on the fourth point than we have been doing.

Related: Ripon Superintendent Richard Zimman’s 2009 speech to the Madison Rotary Club:

Zimman’s talk ranged far and wide. He discussed Wisconsin’s K-12 funding formula (it is important to remember that school spending increases annually (from 1987 to 2005, spending grew by 5.10% annually in Wisconsin and 5.25% in the Madison School District), though perhaps not in areas some would prefer.
“Beware of legacy practices (most of what we do every day is the maintenance of the status quo), @12:40 minutes into the talk – the very public institutions intended for student learning has become focused instead on adult employment. I say that as an employee. Adult practices and attitudes have become embedded in organizational culture governed by strict regulations and union contracts that dictate most of what occurs inside schools today. Any impetus to change direction or structure is met with swift and stiff resistance. It’s as if we are stuck in a time warp keeping a 19th century school model on life support in an attempt to meet 21st century demands.” Zimman went on to discuss the Wisconsin DPI’s vigorous enforcement of teacher licensing practices and provided some unfortunate math & science teacher examples (including the “impossibility” of meeting the demand for such teachers (about 14 minutes)). He further cited exploding teacher salary, benefit and retiree costs eating instructional dollars (“Similar to GM”; “worry” about the children given this situation).

I appreciate and approve of Borsuk’s sentiment.