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Add 30 Days to the MPS School Year
Small may be good sometimes, but small can’t solve the big problem of K-12 education in Milwaukee. Guest column by Jay Bullock.
The Recombobulation Area is a six-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
Guest column by Jay Bullock
Jay Bullock is a veteran English teacher for the Milwaukee Public Schools. He has written for Bay View Compass, OnMilwaukee, Blogging Blue, and his own long-defunct blog. Follow him on Twitter @folkbum.
The crisis in Milwaukee K-12 education is huge. This cannot be overstated. Yet, the trend seems to be toward getting smaller and smaller.
For example, Milwaukee Public Schools just released its annual budget proposal noting it expects to lose 1,000 students between now and the start of the 2022-2023 school year, reducing enrollment to about 67,500 students. MPS has been shrinking for the better part of three decades for many reasons—some political, some demographic. Either way, the trend is shrinkage.
Some want to accelerate that. A bill passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature this year, sponsored by State Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), would have split MPS into between four and eight smaller districts. This bill was vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers.
There is another law actually on the books that, if triggered by MPS’s status on state report cards, would force the district to hand over control of a handful of schools—called the “Opportunity Schools District''—to the Milwaukee County Executive. And for decades now, the legislature has been expanding the city’s non-MPS schooling options, from the Milwaukee Parental Choice (voucher) program to schools chartered by UW-Milwaukee and the City of Milwaukee.
These other “districts” are all pretty small compared to MPS—the LUMIN Lutheran schools in the voucher program enroll about 1,800 students; the Messmer schools, 725; the Seton Catholic schools, 2,500. Plus lots of other individual schools and even small “districts” are affiliated with MPS. On the whole, some small “districts” outperform MPS somewhat; others, not so much.
Take Seeds of Health. At the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Alan Borsuk wrote about these five public schools chartered primarily through UWM. Borsuk likes what he sees—and he should! Seeds of Health schools are pretty good as far as Milwaukee schools go. But these schools are also perfectly emblematic of why going small to address Milwaukee’s massive crisis in K-12 education is so difficult.
Consider that there are 60,000, maybe 70,000 children in Milwaukee whose academic achievement is below grade-level expectations, below the achievement of their peers in Wisconsin, and below the achievement of children nation- and world-wide. This is usually presented as a challenge unique to the Milwaukee Public Schools, but state data show this crisis exists among the city’s private and charter schools as well.
Even at Seeds of Health, where in pre-COVID 2018-2019, only 26% of students tested proficient on the state Forward English test, compared to 41% statewide; in math, 31% were proficient compared to 43% statewide.
This is not a knock on Seeds of Health. Indeed, that small “district” far outpaces MPS, where 19% of students were proficient in English and 16% in math on those same tests. But it does show something I’ve been saying for years: Educating Milwaukee children well is hard, even for generally successful programs.
Small success doesn’t scale
Mostly, though, Seeds of Health doesn’t scale—and doesn’t want to. Borsuk quotes Marcia Spector, the school’s executive director, as saying “I truly believe that the reason we have been successful is that we’re small and we’re going to stay small.” 1,300 students small, in fact, a far cry from the 60,000+ City of Milwaukee students who need intensive intervention.
All over the city you can find other small, non-MPS pockets of schools making a comparative success of K-12 schooling, none of which is trying to scale up to cover the whole city: Carmen Schools, Rocketship Schools, Milwaukee College Prep, to name a few.
And you can find pockets within MPS, too, doing similar things— language immersion schools, Montessori schools, International Baccalaureate schools. The district’s attempts to replicate these successes have a long history of general failure, too long to get into here, which is why these pockets are still small.
So, you may be asking about now, why not take up Darling on her plan to split MPS into smaller districts?
MPS, right now, is the size of fifty-two Seeds of Healths or thirty Carmens. Splitting into four or even eight pieces isn’t the answer, especially not when you consider the funding challenge that will come when you separate some parts of the city from others – like downtown, with high property value and few students – that help subsidize the rest.
Instead, we should stop trying to capitalize on what MPS is not (small) and instead should be trying to capitalize on what it is – the only organization in the city with the human resources and facilities to actually address the crisis of more than 60,000 children in the city being behind in their education.
Don’t try to make the small, comparatively successful districts like Seeds of Health scale up. Instead, empower the one district already at that size.
The legislature is not helping
The problem, of course, is that those with the ability to actually give MPS the power to address the crisis steadfastly refuse to do so, and have for decades instead been working to undermine traditional public schools in this city of Milwaukee.
As noted, the legislature has repeatedly moved to reduce MPS enrollment, and therefore revenue, through expansions of voucher, charter, and open-enrollment programs. The state also saddles Milwaukee with a below-state average per-student revenue limit and total revenue well below neighboring public school districts, including $6,000 less per student per year than the public schools where Alberta Darling’s neighbors send their children. (I will leave it to the reader to decide which schools need the resources more, those educating Milwaukee children or those educating River Hills children.)
But I’m not the guy to merely suggest a vague answer to something as enormous and critical as the crisis in Milwaukee education. If we can convince the powers-that-be to get MPS the resources, there’s a very specific solution the Milwaukee Public Schools can implement that will make a huge difference in Milwaukee K-12 educational achievement.
We should add 30 school days—six weeks—to the Milwaukee Public Schools’ calendar. Start all schools in August. End all schools in June.
Only MPS has the staff, the buildings, the curriculum, the bus and vendor contracts, and the city-wide reach to pull this off on the needed scale.
More time, more learning
The data support the idea that more time can lead to more learning and help close the so-called achievement gaps between traditionally advantaged groups and traditionally disadvantaged groups of the kind we see throughout Milwaukee.
Without question, the best time-related intervention is what researchers call “high-dosage tutoring”: 20 to 30 minutes a day, two to three days a week after school, individually or in small groups organized by needed skills, for a whole school year. But that would mean thousands of daily tutors for the tens of thousands of Milwaukee children who need the help. The human capital for high-dosage tutoring just doesn’t exist.
Luckily, there’s evidence that well-used extra days in the school year can have a similar impact, but it takes more than a few of them. Research says between 10 and 30 days is what you need to match the impact of high-dosage tutoring. We’ve also long known about the benefits of an extended school year for students with special education needs, the opportunity summer school provides to recover learning loss or credits toward graduation, and the way summer literacy programs, for example, can help halt what we affectionately call the “summer slide,” which disproportionately affects non-white and poor children.
It will be expensive—I estimate about $2.5 billion over the next decade, give or take a bit depending on how many days more we add to the teacher calendar (I vote 25, not 30—cutting some existing non-student days).
It sounds bad, but $2.5 billion is something the state government can afford. Wisconsin is sitting on a $3.8 billion budget surplus right now! That would be more than enough to fund this effort for a full generation of Milwaukee children.
Indeed, the cost of six extra weeks of school per year in Milwaukee would be—and I am not exaggerating here—less than one-half of one percent of Wisconsin’s annual budget spending.
This is it, people. This solution is just sitting right there, waiting for Milwaukee and the state to do it. All it will take is an understanding that while small—like Seeds of Health—can be good, the crisis is too huge for small to be the answer.
Go big—the biggest school district in Wisconsin. Go bold—30 extra school days per year. Go Milwaukee.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.