The Crisis of MPS’s Invisible Students, Part Three: Solutions

To sum up where we are: On Tuesday, I examined a large sample of students from the Milwaukee Public Schools, comparing achievement between students who had been in a school for a full year prior to the test (Full Academic Year, or FAY) and students who spent part or all of the prior year in another school or even another district (non-FAY). The result was stunningly clear: Non-FAY students score worse, in some cases significantly worse, than their FAY classmates. These students’ scores are generally not reported and, in the case of individual schools, not used to calculate their progress toward things like No Child Left Behind benchmarks.

This is why I am calling them invisible students, and calling their low achievement a crisis.

Yesterday, I explored the implications of recognizing this crisis. Changing schools itself is a bad thing–either it causes a slowdown in achievement or it’s a red flag that a student is likely to be a low achiever. This is not a problem limited to MPS; as MPS’ Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Heidi Ramirez, told me, “There is considerable national research showing the inverse relationship between [the] number of school transitions students make and their academic performance.”

Recent years have seen MPS trying to mitigate that inverse relationship. As noted yesterday, MPS has adopted comprehensive, district-wide curricula in literacy, math and science, with the theory being that a school switch will be less disruptive to a student’s continuity of learning.

But Terry Falk, city-wide representative on the Milwaukee Board of School Directors and long-time advocate of minimizing school transitions, doesn’t think this is the right approach.

Not that comprehensive, standardized curricula aren’t important, he said. Rather, he doesn’t think that student school-switching should be the cause.

“That’s not the reason to do it,” he told me. “The problem with using mobility to justify standardization is that it will be seen by some parents and school officials that it’s okay to switch during the year. It’s like going from one McDonald’s to another – the food’s all the same.”

“We’re better off trying to have the fewest transitions than figuring out ways to mitigate the impact of those transitions,” Falk added.

How to do that? I have four recommendations, parts of which MPS can and should do itself, and parts of which would require the cooperation of the Department of Public Instruction and the political leadership of the state. Here they are:

1. Begin Better Reporting of the Data. Because of federal restrictions on how school testing data get used, neither Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction nor MPS report state test scores for non-FAY students in individual schools, or the scores for students who are non-FAY district-wide. But both MPS and DPI should be able to do what I have partially done here, which is to aggregate the non-FAY data and release the composite scores, allowing parents, press, and public to see the difference.

As much as I and virtually every other educator I know hate No Child Left Behind, the 2004 act’s reporting requirements – requirements that simply no longer allow public schools to hide data that might be embarrassing – have been revelatory. We can talk now about the “achievement gaps” between white and minority students, or between rich and poor students, because now we have concrete evidence that those gaps are there; we can also see what works and what doesn’t to close those gaps. Making plain the “FAY gap” could benefit MPS in the same way.

To be fair, MPS does report other data about non-FAY students. Dr. Ramirez noted that MPS does not distinguish FAY status when it reports, for example, ACT scores or MAP testing scores. Within schools, MAP screening, RtI interventions (that‘s another post, someday), and other school-level reporting doesn’t distinguish, either. Indeed, it is because MPS makes extensive data available to schools that I was able to find, aggregate, and analyze the scores of non-FAY students. Ramirez also said of these non-differentiated data, “we use these data to assess both school and leader progress.”

But without public identification of this “FAY gap” as real, measurable, and critical – the way we now talk about the “achievement gap” – there will be little or no public pressure to make the gap disappear.

There is some modest hope that this could change; the next couple of years will see major revisions both to DPI’s tests and to its accountability measures. DPI’s Education Data Consultant Phillip Cranley told me “there is concern/consideration regarding which schools and students should be included in accountability determinations and may be subject to sanctions.”

Anneliese Dickman, of Milwaukee’s Public Policy Forum, said that “DPI’s new test will calculate individual growth. From what I’ve heard, DPI will say, ‘Here’s a growth target for a particular student,’ then they have to decide how to deal with kids who aren’t in the building” for the full year, she said. Dickman added that some projects, like the Value Added Research Center based at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have found ways to kind of pro-rate a non-FAY student’s score based on how much of the year that student did spend in a school.

Knowing that individual students can be tracked across schools suggests some kind of reporting ability and accountability for non-FAY students could be coming from DPI – and I think it should.

2. Identify Factors that Encourage School Continuity. In MPS, by far the most stable student populations were in schools that depend on multi-year continuous enrollment for a particular program. At the elementary and middle grades, the sample of schools I looked at showed that by far the lowest number of non-FAY students could be found in MPS’s Montessori schools.

Montessori presents a comprehensive program for students that encourages parents to keep their children enrolled and often makes it harder to accept students mid-program. Plus, some of these schools have wait lists, which no doubt increases the value parents place on keeping their children enrolled.

At the high school level, the lowest non-FAY numbers are at Rufus King, Reagan, Milwaukee School of Languages, and High School of the Arts – the only high schools in my sample with non-FAY numbers less than 12% of enrollment. King and Reagan are International Baccalaureate schools, where the IB program is a multi-year program that, like Montessori, makes it difficult to join part-way through.

MSL’s foreign language program draws almost exclusively from MPS’s language immersion elementary schools, suggesting students and parents already have a long-term commitment to foreign language study. Arts has, well, the arts programs that encourage continuity of enrollment. More important, though, is that all four schools have entrance requirements and wait lists.

Another correlation seen in the data is that high-achieving schools tend to have lower non-FAY enrollment. Golda Meir school, which topped my sample in both reading and math scores at both 4th and 8th grade, had just 16% non-FAY enrollment in 4th grade (below the average in my sample of 25.6%) and a staggeringly small 8% non-FAY enrollment in 8th grade (compared to an average of 22.5%).

Of the top 10 4th grades, seven had non-FAY enrollment in the single digits; of the top-performing ten 8th grades in my sample, eight had non-FAY enrollment below 10%; and in 10th grade, seven of the 10 top-performing schools had non-FAY enrollment under 16%. Again, the top-performing schools were also, often, the ones with multi-year programs.

Which suggests that MPS needs more of those programs. Things seem to be moving in that direction, with a coming push for more Montessori schools at the K-8 level (and maybe another high school), and up to five schools soon to start implementing SpringBoard, a 6-12 program that serves as the College Board’s official pre-AP program.

These programs can increase the number of students who stay with their schools from year to year – statistically, the kind of students who achieve higher than those who switch.

That is not a complete solution, and board member Falk told me that it might even be illusory, citing the case of Kosciuszko, a south side Montessori school that had so few FAY 4th-graders enrolled in November 2011 that DPI can’t even report out their WKCE scores.

The other Montessori schools’ success “may not be a function of the program,” he said; “it may be a function of parental attitudes and a perception of a desirable school.” Kosciusko did not have that perception, and in recent years has lost its middle school grades and, starting next fall, will be only a K-3 school.

3. Educate Parents About School Switching’s Dangers. When I asked Anneliese Dickman if she had any recommendations for addressing the gap between students who stay in a school and those who don’t, she didn’t hesitate to offer one. She did clarify that she was speaking only for herself, as the Public Policy Forum doesn’t make recommendations. I have long considered her one of the best analysts of Milwaukee’s education landscape and her suggestion, which is to go at this issue through parents, makes a lot of sense.

Dickman told me we have to make sure that “parents have enough information during the time they are making schooling decisions.” Is this school the right fit? How do new parents who haven’t been in a school since they graduated themselves make that determination? It’s critical at the earliest phases to minimize the risk of making a bad choice. In Milwaukee, this is no small task.

Importantly, Dickman added, we have to support parents when they’re dealing with that school throughout their child’s career. Sometimes, she said, “parents don’t know how to interact with teachers and staff at a school, how to be an advocate.” When difficulties arise, then, “switching schools is easier. Everything else is harder – what’s easy is to switch schools. Switching should be the last resort option, not the first resort option.”

Terry Falk echoed that concern, telling me about what he called “serial movers,” parents who find that when faced with a challenging situation at a school don’t stick it out and resolve it. “Their response to a dispute is to change schools,” he said. I’ve seen it myself; every year one or more students hand their textbooks back to me mid-semester, explaining that their parents were pulling them out of that school for one (often small) reason or another.

This sort of thing–helping new parents navigate the initial selection of a school and educating parents who don’t know how to advocate for their children’s best interests – is not and should not be MPS’s responsibility. Here is where the city and state need to come together to support the needs of our parents, which will alleviate some of the needs of our students.

4. Implement Strict Rules Against Switching Schools. If all else fails coming at this problem obliquely, then we have to hit it head on. Terry Falk said this has come up before: “There has been talk on the board whether we simply not allow parents to pull kids out of one school and transfer to another.” He said that maybe a date of October 1, for example, could serve as a hard deadline unless a student’s family moves. This is a reasonable idea, though it flies in the face of much of what Milwaukee’s school ecosystem, the center of the school choice universe, has been doing for years.

Even if a family moves within the city, Falk suggested, MPS might be better off busing students from their new home to their old school. He noted a program from the Guilford County Public Schools (Greensboro, NC) called “Home Field Advantage” that kept students in the same school after a move, right up until they would normally have left – going from middle to high school, for example–sometimes years. (Remember that extra transitions, even if done between school years, can be harmful to a student’s achievement.)

Guilford County is not immune to the recession, so recently they scaled back the “Home Field Advantage” program to only cover the balance of the year in which a student moves – it can be expensive to bus extra children, and given MPS’ budget constraints, selling an idea like that may be impossible.

Another angle of attack is to do something about the “central office suspension” process in MPS. This process moves severely disruptive students to different schools, mid-year, with the idea that a new location means better behavior.

How often this happens is a mystery, as MPS continues not to provide information on how many students go on CO suspension and ultimately move within a year, including not responding to two specific requests as I prepared this series. (Falk said the board can’t even get this information.) This is the kind of movement MPS has direct and complete control over, and MPS must work to reduce them.

And, perhaps most importantly, there must be tighter regulation of the movement between MPS and the other school systems in the city. The “churn” that exists in the Milwaukee Parental Choice (voucher) program, in particular, is huge, with thousands of students leaving voucher schools to get back into MPS. Those students, researchers found, invariably had lower scores before leaving the voucher program and, I found, almost certainly have lower scores their first year back in MPS.

Given the current state of politics in Madison, it is unlikely that any kind of change will happen to the voucher program anytime soon. However, there’s probably nothing more critical to changing the “FAY gap” than staunching the flow of children between MPS and the voucher program.

When you know that more than half of all non-FAY students in MPS are coming from outside of MPS, and most of them are from voucher schools, it becomes clear that we must address the problem that switching between voucher schools and MPS creates. This is the biggest target, and it needs to be attacked vigorously and soon.


This series started because a particular focus on my own school’s FAY students got me wondering about what made them so special, and what was going on with the non-FAY kids. What I found was a shocking reality – a significant number of Milwaukee’s children were invisible on state tests, with no easy way to monitor or document their achievement. And that achievement was dismal, even by MPS standards.

I hope that this analysis spurs some discussion of this issue, at least at the local level. The “FAY gap” is real, severe, and in desperate need of solutions.

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