You've probably read or heard quite a bit lately about the need for solving MPS's problem. That sentiment is unlikely to draw opposition. However, we're not all on the same page as to what the problem is exactly.
Is it a governance problem? A finance problem? An achievement problem? Many would say all three. At least one local education blogger, Jay Bullock, feels we've got to pick our problem:
The Milwaukee Public Schools face two intractable crises, concurrently. There is the crisis of finances, and the crisis of achievement. One fact is clear: We cannot solve both.
Mayor Barrett seems to feel the same, as the audit he calls for focuses on the fiscal issues, leaving instruction out of the picture. Gov. Doyle supports the audit and seeks its results prior to releasing his state budget, implying that finances are the first issue to tackle.
Meanwhile the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has called for governance change.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act, in contrast, is aimed at the achievement problem in MPS and other districts, and frankly, because it compels the district to meet its requirements or risk losing federal funds, it has the focus of the district itself.
Is there no way to holistically approach the many facets of the MPS problem? New commentary in Education Week by three professors with the Center on Reinventing Public Education argue that there is a way to address these problems simultaneously: policymakers and district administrators should be focused on "productivity." Instead of pruning around the edges by cutting teacher's aides or football programs when in a fiscal crisis, districts should analyze which instructional programs bring them the biggest bang for their buck and cull those that aren't cost-effective. Perhaps those new laptops didn't have any impact on student learning--well, then, cancel the plans to buy more for every school. Perhaps a full-time arts teacher is associated with higher attendance rates--maybe arts shouldn't be the first thing to go in a budget crunch.
Focusing on productivity may seem like a good idea, but, as the proponents themselves concede, it is nearly impossible to do in most districts. Not only is there the universal difficulty with measuring learning quantitatively, but district budgets are not fashioned in a way that would allow administrators to put a price tag on specific educational programs. For example, what are the costs of the MPS learning targets (the curricular goals) at each grade level? If they aren't working, how much would it cost to revamp them or to implement a different program? Those questions are unanswerable with the current budgeting process. If learning targets aren't improving instruction, you won't see the consequence at budget time. What you will see are changes in busing routes, switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs, and other items for which the cost-benefit analysis is much easier to calculate.
Unless we can agree on the problem to be tackled, there is no chance of reaching consensus on a solution. If we can somehow agree that we are capable of resolving the financial and achievement crises simultaneously, then we will need to agree that the district's current budgeting process should be redesigned so that effectiveness in the classroom can somehow be evaluated. A governance change ushering in new administrative leadership might be one way to implement that type of procedural reform, but probably isn't a necessity to do so. What is for sure, however, is that arguing about the "right" problem to solve wastes time, money, and kids' opportunities.