Friday, January 16, 2009

MPS: What's the problem?

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes what's the problem?

There are 426 school districts in the State of Wisconsin. 425 work and 1 does not. Governance, size and age and promotion from within all have something to do with the problem. What is critical is that even if all that changes nothing will change until the issues are addressed that I describe below. The children in the new smaller school districts will still fail. The difference between civil society and honor society is in essence the the most basic issue. Peace Tom Spellman 414 403 1341

March 1, 2008

An open letter to the Community of Milwaukee.

To those who say NO MORE KILLINGS.

How many times have we heard the cries, NO MORE, NO MORE death of our loved ones, THE KILLING MUST STOP, the guns must go. And then in a few days or weeks it is back to business as usual. The horror of the moment seems to be healed over, ignored, accepted, because we do not know how to stop the violence, we do not know how to stop the killing of our children. We are overwhelmed and at a loss!

There are THREE “things” yes just THREE that if understood and ACTED UPON can lead us out of the dungeon of violence that controls the lives of some of the residents of Milwaukee. Some will surely say that this must be too simplistic. We are FAR MORE COMPLEX than that, but let us go on.

The first of these “things” is that ALL (90+%) who commit violent acts HAVE BEEN ABUSED, have experienced devastating loss in there lives and the abuse/loss has not been resolved, acknowledged, healed, understood ……has not been dealt with and resolved.

The second “thing” is that ALL (90+%) who have been abused WILL BE BELLIGERENT, will act out, will act out against others, and or will act out against themselves.

The third “thing” is that ALL BELLIGERNT ACTS are NO DIFFERENT THAN A BABY CRYING. The belligerent act is a CRY FOR HELP - NOT AN AFFRONT TO ADULT AUTHORITY!!!! The belligerent act is a symptom of the underlying abuse and is not a challenge to authority. Just as a person’s elevated body temperature is a sign that something is not right in the body so to is the belligerent act a sign that something is not right in the person‘s life.


I think most will agree with me, that these are simple and easily understood behavioral concepts. Some will insist that ALL teenagers are RESPONSIBLE FOR ALL THEIR BELLIGERENT ACTS but the reality is that those belligerent acts are calls for help.

ONLY IF WE CHANGE, ONLY IF WE RISK, will the violence stop, will the killing stop. WHEN WILL THE CRY of the people, NO more Killing, the Killing MUST Stop, be reason enough to change, to risk?

Bob Dylan asked the question some 45 years ago in his song “Blowin’ in the wind”

Yes, 'n' how many ears must one “man” have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, 'n' how many deaths will it take till “we” know
That too many people have died?

Fortunately for us, if we choose to change, to risk, the answer is no longer “Blowin’ in the wind”. The answer is hearing the cry, of those who have not resolves the abuse, the loss, they have suffered.

Following is an expansion on these three “things” and more importantly what to do with them.

What I have to offer you on its face seems impossible. I ask for your indulgence until you have read the following.

I am specifically suggesting that violence can be significantly reduced (by at least 50%) in three years with an investment in Milwaukee of $2,000,000.

If you are still with me let me begin.

When the body suffers ABUSE, it needs to heal, just as the body needs to heal when it suffers “scrapes and cuts“. Our medical profession, deals with the “scrapes and cuts” in their many forms, but most unfortunately the damage caused by abuse is often ignored and neglected. An abused person must grieve the loss of trust, the loss of love that the abuse stole. If that abuse, that loss of trust, that loss of love is not grieved, it will turn to anger and if the abuse is still not grieved, that anger will turn to rage.

In her book All About Love, New Visions, bell hooks, observed and I quote;

“ Like every wounded child I just wanted to turn back time and be in that paradise again, in that moment of remembered rapture where I felt loved, where I felt a sense of belonging.

We can never go back. I know that now. We can go forward. We can find the love our hearts long for, BUT NOT until we let go grief about the love we lost long ago, when we were little and had no voice to speak the heart’s longing.”

First ABUSE, in its broadest forms, is the underlying element of all violence. Without abuse there is almost no violence. This statement is based upon the research of Dr Lonnie Athens and upon the observations of those who have worked in corrections and knows the personal life stories of those who are incarcerated. All violent offenders have been abused and most of the others offenders have been abused as well.

Knowing that abused children and adults are those who may be violent, allows us to focus our programs and efforts more directly than we might otherwise do. Knowing what abuse looks like also allows us to help those who might otherwise be missed. Abuse can range from the death of a mother, for a five year old, to being beat with a belt soaked in salt water, to….. As you well know the list is only limited by our imagination.

Second, and this is a critical point, all people who are abused will act belligerently. They will say to themselves I am not taking this crap any more. Belligerent acts will vary widely. From drug use, to cutting, to bullying, to beating others, to….. Again Dr Athens’ research demonstrated that belligerency was the second step in the process of becoming violent.

I have come to understand, that the belligerent act is a call for help and NOT A CHALLENGE to authority. When a baby cries, we know that it is hungry or uncomfortable but we also know that if the crying persists something physically may be wrong with the baby. It is the realization that belligerency is a CALL FOR HELP that will allow programs and attitudes to change so that the underlying abuse can first be found and then it can be addressed.

I often ask “what does MPS (Milwaukee Public Schools) do with their belligerent children”. Yes they suspend and expel them which is yet another form of abuse. Yes it is done to protect the rest of the children etc, but the essence of the suspension or expulsion to the child, is abuse, rejection, telling the child you are not wanted, you are not worthy to be in our place.

Again I ask you to be indulgent. How can it possibly be this simple? We have had violence with us forever and it can not be addressed so simply.

This is the summation of the first part of a journey, starting with a dream, and continuing through a number of books which when considered together, provides a very strong foundation for these observations.

If abuse and belligerency are the red flags, what are we to do about them? How do we heal abuse, because belligerency is just a symptom?

Third the healing process as bell hooks describes it, to “let go grief about the love we lost” is broad and varies from individual therapy to group therapy to various circles techniques that address the abuse the person has experience in their own life. Some work better than others, and this is one area where a review of the techniques would be very helpful for school officials who have a number of “methods” to use to help students but do not have an overall structure to understand an individual program’s effectiveness and usefulness.

The healing process also varies according to the cognitive abilities of the abused individual. For adults and older teens those who are primarily suspended and expelled a Community Building Workshop as described by Dr Robert E Roberts in his book My Soul Said To Me, is very exciting and seems to me to be a light at the end of the tunnel.

If this finds you in a place where the vision of a less violent Milwaukee seems desirable, even though it seems remote, is it worth trying? Does the unbelievable thought that violence could possible be reduced seem worthy of the risk of a two hour discussion? I will share my journey with you. The content of the journey is not mine but it is my responsibly to share it with those who will listen.

I have a very simple test of opposites that highlights part of the problem.

The opposite of…………….Hate…………..Love

The opposite of.……………War…………..Peace

The opposite of…………..Violence……….??????

Unless you are one of the few exceptional people who understands, the opposite of violence is not immediately “there” as in the case of hate and war. I have asked a number of folks and they guess, and even the guesses take awhile.

Peace through nurturing. Yes nurturing is the opposite of violence.

Thomas Spellman

414 403 1341