After Detroit, Milwaukee is the country’s most segregated city. The Milwaukee Public School District (MPS) has an endemic racial achievement gap, in which, in terms of aggregate statistics, African American students perform three to four years below their European American counterparts in both math and reading. Combine this with a general dearth of resources – as is common to virtually all of public education – and you have a recipe for inadequate schooling that is failing its almost 90,000 students.
The crisis in Milwaukee is indicative of the educational crisis roiling the nation. Across the United States, school districts are facing enormous budget deficits, decreasing enrollment and intense pedagogical and ideological debates questioning the very foundations of modern education. The debate is particularly vociferous here in Wisconsin, where the Wisconsin Education Association Council feels threatened by Governor Scott Walker’s educational platform. This past Tuesday, however, WEAC introduced a series of reforms it would endorse, many of which took observers by surprise, and received mixed reactions.
The reform drawing the most ire is the proposal to carve up MPS into multiple smaller districts to make them more manageable, and thus more successful. However, as pointed out by one observer, this separation of districts would probably mirror racial divisions within the city, compounding instead of alleviating racial achievement gaps.
Instead of having one large district with significant general achievement challenges, the Milwaukee area would have a series of districts with high concentrations of minority students performing poorly on standardized tests and a series of districts with high concentrations of white students performing well on standardized tests. The distribution of financial resources between these districts would also be skewed, since unfortunately the educational gap is not the only racial disparity in Milwaukee; in 2007, the average white family’s wealth was $95,000 greater than the average black family’s.
There are pervasive social institutions that underlie these inequalities, and isolating minority populations will only serve to reinforce this systemic oppression. The Milwaukee Public School district is facing serious challenges, and there are only hard solutions. But splicing the district into small, unequal districts is no solution – it is only an escalation of an underlying problem.
WEAC proffered other reform proposals as well, including a merit-based pay system for teachers. Teachers would be routinely evaluated to ensure the most qualified professionals were not only employed by the state, but were also the most highly compensated.
In theory, both teacher evaluation and merit pay are good ideas. We’ve probably all had teachers who have gone the extra mile and really imparted a passion and knowledge of a subject. We’ve also probably all had teachers who did not seem invested in teaching at all, or who actively made an academic experience horrible. Students deserve to be taught by the best, and good teachers deserve to be rewarded for their amazing contributions.
However, both of these ideas are problematic in implementation. Evaluating teacher performance is a bit of a dilemma for a number of reasons. First, if teacher performance is linked to student test scores, then teachers whose students start at a higher academic level are advantaged over teachers whose students start at a lower performance level. (Then there’s the whole debate over whether standardized tests are even a valid measure of academic performance; a worthy debate, but one for another time.) Alternatively, some measure of student improvement could be devised, but that would also be tricky. Peer evaluations are problematic because of unavoidable bias, and administrators are often not in the best position to determine if their teachers are effective. Finally, student input should ideally be taken into account, but students can hold their own grudges and motivations when it comes to evaluating teachers.
Once the problematic nature of determining merit has been dealt with (assuming it can be effectively mitigated, which is a large and precarious assumption), there is the problem of actually implementing merit pay. Unions negotiate teacher contracts with school districts in what is generally a highly contentious process – especially given the tight budgetary climate – so they would have to establish merit levels and negotiate contracts for each one. Would benefits, such as health and dental insurance, also be tied to performance? What about retirement? These are challenges individual districts would have to confront, and the eventual agreements may unfairly disadvantage younger teachers who have not had time to climb the merit ladder.
WEAC has repeatedly shown itself to be a powerful advocate of Wisconsin’s teachers and is widely popular with its constituency. These reform proposals mark a break in previous sentiments, and are viewed by some as a reaction to Scott Walker’s election, and as a pre-emptive strike in what is presumed to be an oncoming battle over educational budgetary allowances in the state budget.
The theoretical justification for teacher evaluation and merit pay may be sound, and a case can be made for the benefits of smaller school districts. However, the problematic nature of actually implementing these reforms lessens the supposed benefits of such programs to almost nil. The proposed break-up of MPS is particularly unpalatable because of the harsh realities of racial segregation, and achievement and wealth gaps. WEAC should be sure to only offer reforms that actually act in the best interest of students and teachers, not reforms that seek to score political points with a hostile state government.
Elise Swanson ([email protected]) is a second year majoring in political science and English.