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Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009

Milwaukee Teachers Release MPS Reform Plan

Proposals include new administrators, smaller classes, alternative compensation

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While Gov. Jim Doyle and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett have said they want the mayor to take over the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and appoint a new superintendent, they haven’t provided any concrete details on how they’d improve student achievement or decrease the racial gap on test scores.

But the teachers, both the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA) and the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), have presented their Milwaukee Opportunity Plan, a comprehensive reform package that encompasses changing leadership at the top of the administration to making changes in the classroom.

The purpose of the plan is to add to the debate on how to improve MPS’s student achievement and teacher performance, and to provide innovative ideas for the state’s application for federal “Race to the Top” funds.

Instead of having the mayor appoint the superintendent, the unions suggest splitting that position into two: a CEO that manages operations and a chief academic officer focused on student learning.

MTEA President Mike Langyel said it’s difficult to find qualified superintendent candidates for the soon-to-be-vacant position (current Superintendent William Andrekopoulos is retiring in 2010).

“When you need someone with a skill set who can run a $1.2 billion operation like MPS, they probably would be in some corporation making 10 times as much as a superintendent of a public school district,” Langyel said.

The unions have presented their plans to state legislators, who will be deciding MPS’s fate in the coming weeks.

Contrary to Doyle and Barrett, though, the unions do not support a mayoral takeover of the district.

“We believe that what is necessary is a democratically elected school board that appoints a new superintendent and has adequate funding for programs like this Milwaukee Opportunity Plan,” Langyel said.

Opportunity Centers Modeled on Affluent Schools

Other reform suggestions in the Milwaukee Opportunity Plan include:

n Create 20 Opportunity Centers at struggling schools. Langyel said resources and support should be channeled into the schools that are most in need. These centers would have smaller class sizes, art, music and physical education, plus support for teachers.

“We want to replicate the resources and support that would exist in a more well-to-do part of the metropolitan area,” Langyel said. “We thought the real irony was that students that come to school with a lot of challenges have even less resources and support in their schools than students that possibly don’t have those same challenges, and come from a more well-to-do background.”

n Decrease class sizes for 4-year-old kindergarten (4K). While the state’s SAGE program holds the student-to-teacher ratio at 15 to 1 from kindergarten through third grade, it doesn’t apply to 4K. The plan calls for SAGE-level class size for 4K.

n Decrease class sizes for the ninth grade. Langyel called the ninth grade a “make it or break it year” for students, since those who find success in that grade are more likely to graduate from high school.

n Standardize the curriculum. Combine MPS’s high mobility rate with an inconsistent curriculum around the district, and it’s easy to see why students are struggling. The teachers would like to streamline the curriculum, especially in core subjects, so kids who switch schools mid-year don’t get left behind.  

n Get chronically disruptive students out of the classroom. The teachers advocate re-establishing alternative schools for students with disciplinary problems. “We used to have those many years ago,” Langyel said. “We’re advocating that we go back and start up a few of these alternative placements.”

n Increase intensive mentoring for new teachers. Langyel said this suggestion was modeled on residencies for medical students. This would allow new teachers to “team teach” with more experienced instructors for one year.

n End the residency requirement for teachers. MPS’s city-residents-only policy has led to hundreds of positions being filled by teachers who are not fully qualified. Ending this policy “would allow the district to fill teaching positions that right now are being staffed by teachers who are not fully licensed,” Langyel said.

n Create an alternative compensation system. While Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is encouraging districts to pay teachers for performance—for example, by tying a teacher’s pay to his or her students’ test results—Langyel said that notion isn’t universally accepted by educators. Instead, the Milwaukee Opportunity Plan would compensate teachers for working longer hours, during a longer school year, or for doing extracurricular work.

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