Two years ago, WPRI undertook a broad examination of our quality of life in Wisconsin. One of the primary threats to our quality of life is the quality of our schools. Milwaukee schools are especially problematic. Almost three generations can’t remember the time when the K-12 schools in Wisconsin’s first-class city were first class. And so, WPRI has once again turned its focus to the schools in Milwaukee – all schools including public, charter and private voucher schools.
What you will find in the pages of this book is not an indictment of Milwaukee schools but rather a blueprint for some of the changes that would begin the turnaround. It lays out the steps needed to return a culture of excellence to Milwaukee schools. In addition, this volume will also unveil our most profound discovery; we discovered the reason why achieving this turnaround will be really, really challenging.
Since its founding in 1987, WPRI has been researching and writing about Milwaukee schools. Over those twenty-six years, WPRI re- search has supported many reforms to Milwaukee schools; school choice being the most familiar. During that time, other researchers with other perspectives have supported other reforms such as reduced class size. The list of reforms that have been tried in Milwaukee is a long one. But, in spite of the breadth of reforms, even the most ardent supporters on either the liberal or conservative side of the school debate would be hard-pressed to make the case that the education picture in Milwaukee is in its ascendency.
While overall school performance is disappointing, things have changed. Today, fully 40% of Milwaukee’s children attend something other than a traditional Milwaukee public school. Some attend private schools, some attend charter schools and some have chosen to attend public schools in the suburbs. Yet by another measure, really the only measure that matters, the Milwaukee education scene is indeed unchanged. It is at least as disappointing today as it was in the late 1980s. Somewhat telling is that by the most optimistic measure, 28% of MPS students don’t graduate from high school (26% for students using vouchers to attend private schools). As for performance, only ten percent of Milwaukee’s eighth graders are proficient in reading or math. This explains why their average ACT score is 15.9 (the average college student has an ACT score of 22) and why 73% of MPS students who attend UW- Milwaukee are placed in remedial courses.
Of course, not all is negative. Milwaukee schools can point proudly to pockets of success. However, widespread success remains a goal, not a reality. In spite of the billions of dollars spent, the myriad of reforms and the will of the community to improve, overall student performance is nowhere near where it should be. Why is that? This simple question is the basis for the ambitious volume. WPRI set out to learn what it will take for Milwaukee schools of all kinds to elevate student performance on a grand scale. What is the blueprint for success?