"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Saturday, May 26, 2007

War Against the Weak: The Sequel

I am as regularly impressed by the amount of education news coverage in Milwaukee as I am by the degree of media blindness to the larger problems of poor people in Milwaukee--problems that cannot be separated out when trying to understand education issues that are, indeed, manifestations of the larger problems that remain invisible to those whose refusal to even acknowledge those problems serves to help rationalize harsher and harsher performance demands placed upon those least able to comply.

When social historians look back in 50 years, no doubt they will see the current education reform regime of punishment, disenfranchisement, and oppression of the weak as a direct descendant of the unfulfilled eugenics agenda of the previous century that was driven by another "scientific," though no less archaic, form of social sorting.

In the meantime, the larger problems go largely unreported or are simply ignored by those who care and those who pretend to care, both of whom are now locked arm in arm in a national crusade to get tough and tougher and toughest in a malicious treatment of the more obvious symptoms of systemic brokenness among the black, the weak, the immigrant, and the poor.

Instead of focusing on the social, environmental, and economic problems that make learning difficult to impossible, the current bit of hand-wringing in Milwaukee is focused once again on the widening academic achievement gap. Education reporters once more cluck and shake their heads as yet another keep-on-the-sunny-side superintendent insists, Decider-like, on staying the course, even as the schools would seem to be on the brink of explosion or implosion, and even as the educators and children in them seem on the verge of a collective nervous breakdown.

The big scoop missed once more by the Journal-Sentinel reporters? As family incomes fall, so do test scores, and all the testing and all the threats that can be piled on the other tests and threats will only serve to push the schools and their children closer to eventual violent upheaval.

First, here is a clip from the Journal-Sentinel, and what follows then are a few very interesting facts from a recent report by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, New Indicators of Neighborhood Need in Zipcode 53206:

Three years ago, the gap between white and black high school sophomores in Milwaukee Public Schools in reading proficiency was 33 percentage points. This year, it was 35 points.

In math, the gap was 36 points three years ago and 42 this year, according to the data released Tuesday by the state Department of Public Instruction and MPS.

Two years ago, 37% of black sophomores in MPS were rated proficient or advanced in reading, based on their performance on the statewide standardized tests. This year, it was 31%. In math, the figure is 18%, down from 20% in each of the prior two years.

The gaps and scores between white and Hispanic sophomores are not quite as bad, but are still large.

In none of five subject areas tested did at least 40% of MPS 10th-graders as a whole rate as proficient this year.

. . . . But the message is clear: When it comes to high school in MPS, raising the achievement levels and closing the huge ethnic gaps in success remains a severe challenge, and overall answers have been elusive. For all the focus on improvement locally and nationally in recent years - it's the driving idea behind the federal No Child Left Behind law and has spawned innumerable reforms in Milwaukee - the results are just plain weak. Flat. Troubling.

. . . .

MPS Superintendent William Andrekopoulos said Monday that the signs of success at lower grades are evidence that the education plans now in place are beginning to work. It is important to stay the course, he has often said in recent months.

. . . .

So what else might be the answer?

More money? Per pupil spending is actually up, but staffing is down at most high schools, which means class sizes are larger in many cases and there are fewer adult figures around. A pinch on what is actually being provided for kids is visible in many schools.

Better safety? Efforts have increased in that area, with some signs that fresh steps are helping. But the problem of student behavior is huge, and the violence of the community keeps seeping into the schools.

Better-prepared kids? The dysfunctional and often just plain awful circumstances of many students' lives are a huge problem for schools. But if the solution starts at home and starts at the earliest ages, what do we do now about all these apathetic and/or angry teenagers who are reading far below grade level when they hit ninth grade?

Better teaching? That's the subject Andrekopoulos is stressing. As a visit to most any high school in MPS shows, the quality of teaching varies widely, from terrific to terrible, and overall efforts, local and national, to raise the quality have been mostly talk and not much action.

More concern? From low turnout at parent conferences to the almost total absence of audiences and speakers at three public hearings on the $1.2 billion MPS budget for next year, people every day are sending messages that they don't care, don't know what to do or don't think the education situation is worth their time. Yet it is hard to dismiss the observation that almost every successful education situation in the country, from suburbs to central cities, is one where there is an energized community around kids and schools.

So many questions. What a mystery this school failure remains!! What, oh what, is to be done!!

Now here are a few selected quotes from UW-M's New Indicators of Neighborhood Need in Zipcode 53206 on the problems that are ignored while we continue to blame the schools for not getting done what the schools can never do alone.

As New Indicators . . . points out in the introduction, "the 53206 ZIP code neighborhood serves as a bellwether for poverty changes in Milwaukee and nationally:"

Income and Poverty

The poverty guidelines provide the federal government’s estimate of the income level families require to meet their basic needs and are used to determine eligibility for federal support programs.

In 2005, the federal government set these guidelines at $12,830 for a two-person family, $16,060 for three persons, and $3,260 for each additional person in the family. These standards were used to determine the number of family tax filers showing income below the poverty line.

Over half of working families have incomes below poverty.

For the 4,824 single parent families with dependents, in zipcode 53206 in tax year 2005 about 48% of single tax filers with one dependent showed adjusted gross income (AGI) below the poverty level ($12,830 for two persons).

Over half (58%) of single filers with 2 dependents showed AGI below ($16,090 for three persons) and 63% (or more) of filers with three or more dependents had income below poverty.

When the number of filers claiming the state and federal earned income credit (EIC) was considered, the percentage of single parent families living in poverty was reduced to about 41% of filers with one dependent and 42% (or more) of filers with three or more dependents.

About 18% of married tax filers with one dependent showed adjusted gross income below the poverty level. About 24% of married filers with two dependents reported AGI below the poverty level, as did 37% (or more) of married filers with 3 or more dependents.
When inflation is considered, the real income earnings of residents in zipcode 53206 dropped by 18.5% over the 5-year period.

In 2005, income up 10% [for single filers] from the average of $15,902 in the 2000 tax year. After controlling for inflation the incomes remained nearly flat (with only an 0.5% improvement).

In 2005, income up 2% [for married filers] from an average of $40,447 in the 2000 tax year. After controlling for inflation, the average income for married tax filers showed a 6% decline.

When inflation is considered, the real income earnings of residents in zipcode 53206 dropped by 18.5% over the 5-year period.


78% of recent housing loans to owner-occupants are subprime or high interest.

Housing prices jumped 50% and more in last 3 years.
60 subprime lenders operating in Zipcode 53206.


90% of Jobs in the Zipcode Are Held by Non-Residents

Majority of Workers at 53206 Jobsites Are White, Resident Workforce Is Black

Public Assistance

The number of families receiving income support (AFDC or “W-2”) in July 2006 was the lowest seen since the W-2 program began and 87% below the 1994 levels.

The number of families receiving food stamp/Food Share benefits dropped from 4,612 in March 1994 to 2,934 in April 2000, or a 36% decline.


Since 1993, the number of individuals being released from state adult correctional facilities in zipcode 53206 has grown dramatically from 201 in 1993 to 879 in 2005, a 336% increase. Many [53%] subsequently return to prison. For most major crime areas, the numbers released each year in 53206 have tripled, although for individuals charged with “drug offenses only” the numbers have increased at an even higher rate (a 493% increase from 1993 to 2005).

For the 30 to 34 year old age group, 21% of the men from 53206 are reported in a state DOC facility, another 42% were previously incarcerated in a state correctional facility, and only 38% were never in an adult state correctional facility.

4% of ex-offenders have a valid driver’s license.

63% are not high school grads.

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