“You Betcha” and Other Wisdom from Education Conference at Eckstein Hall

Can we expect kids living in impoverished central cities to have the same levels of educational success as other kids?

“You betcha,” answered Michael Casserly.

I’m reluctant to reduce three hours of insightful conversation about urban education to two words, but more than a week later, that phrase is among several that sticks with me from “Lessons from Elsewhere: What Milwaukee Can Learn from Work on Improving Urban Education Systems Nationwide,” a conference at Eckstein Hall sponsored by Marquette Law School and Marquette College of Education.

Nobody among the speakers nor in the audience minimized the challenges of raising the overall achievement in schools in Milwaukee. But there was a widespread feeling of commitment to taking on the job, and even some optimism that it can be done.

Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based coalition of leaders of urban systems, amplified on his confidence that low income kids can succeed. “Just because a kid is poor doesn’t mean that that kid can’t learn. What it means is that we have to do things different, more intensely, maybe over longer periods of time,” he told the Law School’s Mike Gousha, who moderated the conversation. Casserly said one reason urban district leaders are big proponents of the Common Core learning standards movement is that it sets high standards for everybody, no matter what their background.

Overall, Casserly said he’s more optimistic now than at any point in his past. There are districts making significant improvements, he said, and understanding is increasing of why they are improving and how to get better results more broadly. “I know the public perception of urban schools often is that we’re a hopeless basket case, . . . but the truth of the matter is that across the country, urban public schools are often the sites of some of the most interesting reforms and innovations going on any place in public education across the nation,” he said. He mentioned Boston, Los Angeles, Atlanta (even with its cheating scandal), and Denver as places where improvement was clear. Education programs in such places had clear, rigorous goals, well-executed programs for development of teachers and teaching practices, and persistent, high-quality leadership, among other traits.

Asked by Gousha whether people should be patient or impatient with efforts to raise student success in Milwaukee, Casserly said the need is to be “impatiently patient.” While tackling needs with urgency, people need to understand change doesn’t come quickly, he said. Often, people cut off good steps because they get too impatient. “We can’t keep swapping out our leadership all the time, we can’t keep changing up our theory of action all the time, and expect that we’re going to get long term progress,” Casserly said.

Paul Hill, founder of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, was not as optimistic as Casserly about the overall urban education picture. “We still don’t know how to solve this problem, although we’re working at it and there are hints,” he said in a conversation that I moderated. Hill is a leading figure in the charter school movement and in advocating for “portfolio” school management. In a portfolio system, an overall authority allows a wide range of schools to operate, while aiming to constantly weed out low quality schools and encourage high quality schools.

In Milwaukee, Hill suggested, each major stream of schools – MPS, charter schools, and private voucher schools – “is staying in its lane” and defending itself. “What we’ve gotten to is a very slightly higher equilibrium than we had before, but there is no mechanism to drive this continuous improvement,” he said.

Nationwide, Hill said, “there’s not enough continual search for something better. Unless we do that, we’re not going to get the problem solved.” For Milwaukee, he urged MPS to give more opportunities to people sufficient autonomy to build good schools, the charter sector to get “much more self-critical” and to prune low-performing charters, and the voucher sector to reduce the number of participating schools, with a priority on quality control.

Casserly’s ”you betcha” wasn’t the only short phrase from the conference that stuck with me. Three other quotes formed an important subtext. In opening remarks for a panel discussion he moderated, Dean Bill Henk of the College of Education said that the audience was a who’s who of Milwaukee education. “This is like a family reunion,” Henk said.

But panelist Larry Miller, a member of the Milwaukee School Board, said that, while some might see a family, “I might see the Hatfields and McCoys.” He strongly criticized those working on education efforts outside of the Milwaukee Public Schools system. When an audience member said that she was concerned about how angry he seemed, Miller replied. “I don’t mean to disappoint you, but I am angry.”

Nata Abbott, community relations director of GE Healthcare, said as the discussion closed that she had been taught years ago in training by GE that “you can only move at the speed of trust.” While there were signs of broad willingness among those at the event on working together on Milwaukee’s education needs, Miller’s comments left many wondering what the speed of trust could be here.

Video of the conference may be viewed by clicking here.






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