A road map for education reform
Yesterday's structures are inadequate to the task

Milwaukee Public Schools

Milwaukee Public Schools "Great Schools Fair", January 23, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • Milwaukee was once regarded as 1 of nation's iconic cities when it came to #edreform. It can be that way again.

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  • Transformation requires revisiting the basic building blocks of schooling.

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  • How do you upend and rebuild an educational ecosystem that's up for today's task?

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As much as any city in America, Milwaukee has played a pioneering role in educational choice. More than two decades after establishing the nation's first urban school voucher program, Milwaukee offers families a raft of options, including district schools, charter schools and publicly funded private school scholarships.

Yet, this dramatic expansion of options has not yet translated into dramatic improvement. Student performance and graduation rates have not moved as reformers once hoped, and the achievement of low-income students continues to languish. On the 2011 urban National Assessment of Educational Progress, just 10% of Milwaukee eighth-graders were judged proficient in math and just 12% in reading. Especially disturbing is that the vast majority of public and private high school graduates who go on to attend the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee do not complete colleg

But this should be cause for renewed energy, not despair. After all, the Milwaukee Public Schools district has displayed a willingness to find ways to turn around struggling schools and to tackle long-standing fiscal challenges. Milwaukee's charter school authorizers have shown themselves willing to hold low-performing schools accountable. Schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program increasingly have embraced accountability for performance. Across all three sectors, there are instances of high-performing schools where even Milwaukee's most challenged pupils can excel.

Moreover, today, there are new opportunities to revisit old assumptions. The passage of Act 10 offered Wisconsin school districts the chance to rethink old staffing and spending routines, many of which will expire along with employee contracts next month. Wisconsin also recently received a federal waiver from many of the burdensome requirements of No Child Left Behind. In short, Milwaukee has the chance for a fresh start. The question is where to go. And that's where a road map can help.

Along with the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, we have spent the past year asking a number of the nation's top education thinkers to help sketch such a map, compiling their suggestions into a series of papers that will be released this month.

These proposals seek to move beyond our familiar "reform" conventions, eschewing familiar enthusiasms that can color the world of school reform. Reformers, for instance, can wax enthusiastic about merit pay, while leaving intact notions of the teacher's job description, school staffing and the organization of instruction. These efforts ignore the fact that yesterday's structures are ill-suited for today's ambitions.

Our contributors adopt a different mindset: that transformation requires revisiting the basic building blocks of schooling. Together, they consider the interlocking pieces of any city's educational ecosystem, including teaching, management, new school formation, technology, resource allocation, quality control, research and data collection, and explore how this might be rethought. They explain how all the interested parties, from officials to Madison to city hall to private philanthropies, can help do their part.

Among the recommendations:

 • Michael Horn and Megan Evans, of the Clayton Christensen Institute, suggest that MPS allow the 8% cap on district-authorized, nonunion school enrollment to go away when the current collective bargaining agreement expires. They also recommend that the Legislature modify statutes so that online learning providers can be paid in part on the outcomes of the students they serve.

 • Doug Lemov, author of "Teach Like a Champion," sketches a model of "professional practice" as an alternative to today's largely ineffectual professional development. Lemov explains how school and district leaders can identify their best teachers and study what they do, and then use that to help practitioners improve. He suggests creating citywide mechanisms to share this information and coaching collaboratively across district, charter and private schools.

 • Jon Fullerton, executive director of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, makes the case for launching a local education research consortium that partners with MPS, charters and private schools. That kind of research collaboration, anchored by university-based researchers partnering with schools, school systems, state and local agencies and funders, would promote transparency, allow educators to learn what's working and foster mutual accountability across all three sectors.

This is only a tiny, illustrative slice of what the project's contributors offer. At the same time, WPRI polling teaches that Milwaukee's citizens are skeptical of most proposals for reform. And who can blame them? Years of grand promises and disappointing results have soured many a community on reform.

What's notable and different about this effort, we hope and suggest, is that we are offering neither an airy vision nor sugarplum promises. The recommendations make no claims of providing miracle cures. They can, though, help to create the kinds of schools where great educators thrive, get the support they need and are held accountable in more sensible and appropriate ways. Civic and educational leaders can help make that happen.

A decade ago, Milwaukee was regarded as one of the nation's iconic cities when it came to school reform. It can be that way again.

Frederick Hess is director of Education Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, an assistant professor at Seton Hall University, is an expert on education policy.

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About the Author


Frederick M.
  • An educator, political scientist and author, Frederick M. Hess studies K-12 and higher education issues. His books include "Cage-Busting Leadership," "Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age," "The Same Thing Over and Over," "Education Unbound," "Common Sense School Reform," "Revolution at the Margins," and "Spinning Wheels." He is also the author of the popular Education Week blog, "Rick Hess Straight Up." Hess's work has appeared in scholarly and popular outlets such as Teachers College Record, Harvard Education Review, Social Science Quarterly, Urban Affairs Review, American Politics Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Phi Delta Kappan, Educational Leadership, U.S. News & World Report, National Affairs, the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and National Review. He has edited widely cited volumes on the Common Core, the role of for-profits in education, education philanthropy, school costs and productivity, the impact of education research, and No Child Left Behind.  Hess serves as executive editor of Education Next, as lead faculty member for the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program, and on the review boards for the Broad Prize in Urban Education and the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. He also serves on the boards of directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and 4.0 SCHOOLS. A former high school social studies teacher, he teaches or has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University and Harvard University. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Government, as well as an M.Ed. in Teaching and Curriculum, from Harvard University.

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