Driver assesses state of Milwaukee Public Schools
I can sort of get my head around how private schools in Milwaukee are doing (overall, somewhat better, but still a long way to go). I can sort of get my head around how charter schools in Milwaukee are doing (some of them are outstanding, but the movement as a whole has slowed).
But I struggle to get my head around how Milwaukee Public Schools is doing.
For one thing, the system is so big — enrollment in conventional MPS schools has been declining for years but was still over 65,000 as of last year. And MPS encompasses so much — some of the best, some of the worst, some great results, overall bad results, lots of great kids, lots of kids who are seriously not on track, and on and on.
So how is MPS doing? Maybe the best and broadest answer I’d give is: Somewhat better, probably better than a lot of people think, but there is still a mountain to climb and reasons to worry.
That’s not much different from the answer MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver gives. As she starts her fourth year at the top of the system, I asked her what shape things are in.
“Big-picture wise, we have definitely made some progress,” Driver said. “We’ve been willing to make some tough decisions around our infrastructure and how we are organized, how we are prioritizing things to get things done. But it’s clear we have a long way to go.”
Driver is an energetic booster for MPS. She can rattle off initiatives and changes that are encouraging — expansion of successful programs, new offerings, some improvements in ACT scores, attendance and suspension rates. The large majority of MPS schools now have policies for kids to wear uniforms and many schools started in mid-August, instead of in September.
But she acknowledges a lot of results haven’t changed (or changed only slightly) — graduation rates, test scores overall, achievement gaps and so on.
If MPS as a whole is too much to take on in this space, let’s focus on a few subjects.
Reading. Fewer than 20% of MPS students were rated proficient in reading in state tests in 2016. The same is true overall for Milwaukee students attending private schools using publicly funded vouchers. (Results for 2017 have not been released yet.) Low reading success is a crisis, a major roadblock to good futures for thousands of Milwaukee children.
What would it take to get much broader reading success?
Driver agreed that changes in how reading is taught haven’t achieved much. Good initiatives, she said, “make a difference, but the improvement rate, it’s just slow.” She said she used to think a great reading program would make the difference. Now, she thinks, the solutions have to come from much broader efforts.
“It has to be beyond what’s happening in the classroom,” Driver said. Parents have to be engaged, and the community has to get into reading a lot more.
“We have to make reading as exciting and engaging as we do video games, as we do amusement activities,” she said. “I just don’t know that as a society anymore we really truly emphasize literacy and reading and a love of that the way that we should.”
Adult literacy needs to be a higher priority, she said. Functional illiteracy rates among adults in Milwaukee are high, and it has long been known that growing up in a home with books around has positive effects on reading — and vice versa.
“Finding ways that we just bring everyone into the conversation and give them an opportunity to love reading” would help, Driver said.
And everyone in education, including across the various sectors of schools, needs to work together.
“Enough with the competition conversation. Can we all just work together to figure out how we’re going to improve this?” Driver said.
“But don’t lose hope,” she said. “I don’t want people to give up, it’s something you’ve got to stay the course on.”
Equity and race. Driver said she was proud of new MPS policies on gender inclusivity and equity in educational opportunity, as well as the opening of an office focused on improving achievement for black and Hispanic males. Some people think these things are just talk, she said, but MPS is committed to being deliberate and intentional about improvement.
“That gives me encouragement, that we’re all talking about this. Look at the (hateful) rhetoric out there (nationwide),” she said. “We’re a district family that stands up for people.”
She suddenly choked up. Then, she continued. “I get emotional very easily. It matters. God, I never thought I’d have to say things like that in 2017, but it’s real.” Darienne Driver herself. One reason MPS was not the target of major legislative meddling this year is because Driver remains held in high esteem across a wide range of viewpoints. But, even though her contract goes into 2019, people frequently wonder how long she’ll stay. She is not a native of Milwaukee, she’s well known in education circles nationwide, she has excellent credentials — and she’s not yet 40.
She says she’s committed to Milwaukee.
“I’m still very excited. I feel like we’re just getting started . . . . I just want to see us fly.”
“I love it here, I love what I do, I love my team, I love my kids. This is home. I’ve been here five years now (including two before becoming superintendent) and this really is home. I can’t see myself doing anything else for a while — for a long while.”
She laughs. “You guys are stuck with me a little longer, Alan.”
Best as I can see, especially from the standpoint of MPS, that’s a positive statement.