April 3, 2010 by JSOnline — Milwaukee Public Schools – an urban district in need if ever there was one – and Wisconsin have missed out on federal Race to the Top money because no help is due to those who will not help themselves. Need is one thing; enough cohesion and commitment among all the stakeholders to inspire confidence that problems will be tackled intelligently is quite another.

That’s the lesson in the first round of the Race to the Top sweepstakes. And the winners provide models that MPS and Wisconsin should be scrutinizing.

The winners’ plans had much going for them, but key among them was stakeholders signing on to a bold plan and getting past the blame game.

There is no reason this can’t happen here. It worked in both Tennessee and Delaware, states that received Race to the Top dollars to put their innovative action plans into place.

It’s clear: Milwaukee and Wisconsin need a new approach in which all parties are willing to collaborate to do what is necessary to save our youth – particularly minority boys – and, hence, our future.

But after the latest national scorecard gave the state’s fourth- and eighth-graders a failing grade in reading, the blame game went into overdrive.

Teachers blamed parents. Parents blamed schools. School officials cited too many reading programs, and others cited poverty and a lack of minority role models for boys, who tested the worst in reading.

The Journal Sentinel Editorial Board has long cited lack of accountability as one of the main impediments to progress. This is just another way of saying that the governance structure of MPS is broken.

But even after years of failure of Milwaukee School Boards to make inroads, folks can’t even agree on this. This couldn’t have inspired much confidence in those vetting the Race to the Top applications.

Still, there is no reason Wisconsin and Milwaukee can’t make some measure of cohesion happen here.

In Tennessee, state Education Commissioner Timothy Webb said the teachers union, the business community and school districts worked together on a united plan. Was there conflict? Of course, but when it came to building a workable solution, everyone expected hurt feelings. But they also expected compromise and sacrifices. That’s the stuff of what progress is often made of. And no one here seemingly gives an inch on these.

Tennessee stakeholders decided to remove the cap on the number of privately run, publicly funded charter schools; tied teachers’ evaluations to student performances and took bold steps to close failing schools.

In Milwaukee – due mostly to a lack of accountability – no one even knows where the power lies.

Last week, Alan Coulter, the independent expert assigned to oversee the state Department of Public Instruction as it implements an education improvement plan in MPS, said he was perplexed by Milwaukee’s resistance to change. He said the district’s resistance was unlike any other district in the country.

Now, consider that statement and the state’s reading scores for fourth-graders, influenced heavily by MPS’s lapses in this regard. Yes, there’s a connection.

Former MPS Superintendent Howard Fuller was so upset at the state’s inability to teach kids how to read that he questioned if the state cares about minority boys in particular.

“I refuse to sit by any longer on this issue. We’ve known about this for too long,” Fuller said.

Fuller said he will form a strong coalition that brings everyone together to work on this problem, including the church community, minority leaders and parents.

Fixing the state’s reading woes will not be as easy as ABC.

But the city could send a message by making this summer the “Summer of Reading.” If reading and education aren’t the No. 1 priority for a city (giving the mayor control over the district would be one way of demonstrating this), then how can it be the priority for MPS?

This effort needs to extend beyond students. If parents can’t read, then they, too, need to be taught. A literate community begets literacy.

Milwaukee also should consider duplicating the wrap-around idea of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone. His approach has helped put low-achieving students in New York on academic par with their grammar-school peers.

We can break the cycle of poverty by making sure kids are prepared for college. We can do this with longer school days, smaller class sizes and a shorter summer vacation.

Gov. Jim Doyle’s plan called for giving Milwaukee’s mayor the power to hire and fire the superintendent and giving the state superintendent of public instruction more power to intervene in poor-performing schools. But that plan failed to gain traction in the Legislature.

High-quality early childhood education also should be a priority. For too long, too many of the city’s child-care centers have allowed children just to sit in front of the television, while the providers raked in millions of the state’s dollars. The focus should be on literacy and vocabulary skills that prepare these kids for kindergarten so they don’t start out behind.

YoungStar, Doyle’s quality rating system, will link quality to state payments and give working parents a chance to place their children in a higher-rated child-care facility.

MPS increased reading up to 90 minutes a day in all elementary schools last year. This is a good start, but the district also should use the Internet and afterschool programs to beef up the teaching on reading.

All things should be on the table including:

• Single-gender schools or classes. Cities that have moved to the single-sex format have seen a dramatic rise in reading and overall academic scores for boys.

• Reducing the number of suspensions is also important because children cannot learn if they are not in school. Expanding programs such as Running Rebels and Violence Free Zones has been effective in cutting down on disturbances in classrooms and schools. It will be money well-invested.

• Parents need to read to their children, and fathers need to be consistent, strong presences in boys’ lives in particular.

Change starts with leadership. It should escape no one’s attention that many folks here have abdicated on this score. And we need look no further than the Legislature’s failure to act on the governor’s education reform package – including the governance issue – to see this in action.

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