the Milwaukee Public Schools:
By David Dodenhoff, PhD.
Table of Contents:
I. Executive Summary
The Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) district, like many of its big-city counterparts in other states, continues to suffer from poor student performance. Student test scores and dropout rates are at deplorable levels, both in absolute terms and in comparison with the rest of Wisconsin. This fact has led to a veritable cottage industry dedicated to improving educational outcomes in Milwaukee. The district itself has embraced two reforms in particular: public school choice and parental involvement.
Advocates of public school choice claim that by permitting parents to choose among a variety of public school options within the district, competition for students will ensue. This should improve school effectiveness and efficiency, and ultimately lead to better student outcomes.
Proponents of parental involvement argue that even first-rate schools are limited in their effectiveness unless parents are also committed to their children’s education. Thus, the parental involvement movement seeks to engage parents as partners in learning activities, both on-site and at home. Research has shown that such engagement can produce higher levels of student performance, other things being equal.
Research has also shown, however, that both reforms can be stifled in districts like MPS, with relatively large percentages of poor, minority, single-parent families, and families of otherwise low socioeconomic status. With regard to public school choice, many of these families:
As for parental involvement, disadvantaged parents may withdraw from participation in their child’s education because of lack of time, energy, understanding, or confidence.
This study offers estimates of the extent and nature of public school choice and parental involvement within the MPS district. The basic approach is to identify the frequency and determinants of parental choice and parental involvement using a national data set, and extrapolate those results to Milwaukee, relying on the particular demographics of the MPS district.
This approach leads to the following estimates of parental choice behavior within MPS:
Taken together, these three estimates allow one to perform calculations regarding a hypothetical “ideal consumer” in a public school choice system. This consumer would maximize the marketplace pressures on schools, thereby creating the greatest prospects for school reform and student achievement. Such a consumer would:
The estimate of MPS parents meeting all three criteria is just 10 percent. Given this number, it seems unlikely that MPS schools are feeling the pressure of a genuine educational marketplace.
As for parental involvement, this can be broken into two types: on-site involvement (at the child’s school), and at-home involvement. Considering on-site involvement first, an estimated 34 percent of MPS parents can be considered “highly involved” at their child’s school. (Given the comparatively limited impact of on-site involvement on student achievement, only high levels of parental involvement are worth considering.)
Estimates of at-home parental involvement were derived separately for three different groups of students. Those groups are listed below, along with the estimates of the percentage of parents in each group that are moderately or highly involved in their child’s educational experience at home:
The numbers above can be combined to estimate the percentage of MPS parents who are highly involved at the school site and moderately to highly involved in their children’s learning at home. The children of these parents would expect to enjoy the most significant boost from parental involvement. The estimates for each age group are as follows:
Taken as a whole, these numbers indicate significant limits on the capacity of public school choice and parental involvement to improve school quality and student performance within MPS. Parents simply do not appear sufficiently engaged in available choice opportunities or their children’s educational activities to ensure the desired outcomes.
This may be just as well. Relying on public school choice and parental involvement to reclaim MPS may be a distraction from the hard work of fixing the district’s schools. Recognizing this, the question is whether the district, its schools, and its supporters in Madison are prepared to embrace more radical reforms. Given the high stakes involved, district parents should insist on nothing less.
The Milwaukee Public School (MPS) district, like many of its big-city counterparts in other states, continues to suffer from poor student performance. Test results released in May of 2007 serve to illustrate.
Figure 1 presents reading, math, and science proficiency levels for MPS students and students in the rest of the state, respectively, at the fourth, eighth, and tenth grade levels. At the fourth grade level, only about half of MPS students achieved a level of “proficient” or “advanced” on the mathematics and science portions of the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concept Examination (WKCE) or the Wisconsin Alternate Assessments (WAA). Their counterparts in the rest of the state had combined proficient and advanced levels of about 80 percent. MPS fourth graders performed somewhat better at reading, achieving proficient/advanced levels in the low 60s. Students in other parts of the state also did better, however, scoring in the low 80s.
Over time, these differences become more pronounced. Figure 1 indicates that between fourth grade and eighth grade, the combined proficient/advanced levels for students outside of Milwaukee more or less hold steady. MPS student performance, though, drops considerably. This trend continues through the tenth grade. By that point, just 40 percent of MPS students are at the proficient or advanced level in reading; 30 percent in mathematics; and 27 percent in science.
Given the poor performance of MPS tenth graders, one would not be surprised to find that many of them do not make it to graduation. The most recent data available confirm these suspicions. Only 68 percent of MPS high school students avoided dropping out and successfully earned their diploma. The comparable figure for the rest of the state was 91 percent.[i]
Results like these have led to a veritable cottage industry dedicated to improving educational outcomes in Milwaukee. This paper will discuss the theory and practice of two important reforms in particular: public school choice and parental involvement.
PUBLIC SCHOOL CHOICE
“Public school choice” refers to a variety of measures designed to put parents in the role of educational consumers, shopping for the best product for their child from among a variety of public schooling options. These options include:
As an educational reform, public school choice follows a market model. Advocates argue that if parents are limited to an assigned school in their home district, schools have no incentive to perform, to improve, and to build educational programs to meet the unique needs of their students and community. Schools are, in effect, granted a monopoly, and behave like monopoly operators who do not have to work to keep their customers.
By way of contrast,
Though “school choice” is often used as short-hand for “vouchers”—that is, programs that provide public funding for students to attend private schools—the logic of the educational marketplace applies just as well (in theory) to choice among public schools.
Advocates of parental involvement argue that choosing an appropriate school for a child is not enough. Once the choice is made, parents must then become actively engaged in the child’s education, both at home and at school. This engagement can take a variety of forms, including:
Other things being equal, parents who are actively engaged in the support of their children’s education through such activities are likely to see them earn higher grades, score better on standardized tests, attend school more regularly, and progress further in their education.[iv]
There is some disagreement in the literature as to which forms of parental involvement produce the most meaningful results. There is, however, a consensus around the idea that at-home involvement is considerably more productive than on-site involvement at the child’s school.[v] Similarly, the mechanism(s) whereby parental involvement produces beneficial results are not entirely settled in the literature, though the likely avenues are fairly intuitive. By interacting with children in the educational process at home, parents impart skills to their children, communicate to them the value of education, help cultivate their interest in learning, and create an expectation of attention to schoolwork. Thus, children with involved parents have a head start in terms of basic skills, motivation to learn, and the value they ascribe to education. When parents follow up their at-home involvement with involvement at school, they reinforce for the child their commitment to and belief in the importance of his or her education. They also serve as a conduit for important information from home to school and school to home, which can also improve learning outcomes.[vi]
As with all theories of educational reform, the primary appeal of these two theories—public school choice, and parental involvement—is the promise of improved student performance. Beyond this, though, they have a less advertised, and less obvious, political appeal to supporters of traditional public education.
First, public school choice presents a clear alternative to the favorite education reform of political conservatives—private school choice. If extending market principles to education works in the context of private choice initiatives such as Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program (MPCP), public school defenders ask, why should it not work equally well in an exclusively public school context? While this is a serious, legitimate question, it is also intended to raise a another question, one with more explicit political implications: if parents have public school choice, why do they need private school choice as well?
As for parental involvement, it is supported by both liberals and conservatives. The logic of that support, however, is different for the two groups. For conservatives, parental involvement is consistent with a philosophy of individual responsibility and accountability, with the investment of authority in individuals and families, and with the divestment of authority from the government. (Though one may not often think of public schools as “the government,” they are in fact just that.)
For liberals, parental involvement serves different political purposes. Pointing to the importance of parental engagement is a way for the education establishment to downplay schools’ need for self-assessment and continuous improvement. If public schools have performance problems, the argument goes, they can hardly be blamed. The burden for producing desirable educational outcomes really lies with parents, who are responsible for preparing their children to succeed at school. If and when parents are sufficiently engaged with their children’s education to produce success, only then will public schools deliver the results we expect of them.
That, in any case, is an argument one hears among advocates of public education.
A story in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel recently noted that “parents might have more choices in publicly funded education in Milwaukee than anywhere else in the United States.”[vii] This claim applies to both private school choice—that is, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program—and public school choice. As for the latter, MPS has an intra-district choice program through which parents may list up to three schools they would like their children to attend. Nearly 17,000 parents took advantage of this option in 2006, and almost 95 percent received their first choice assignment.[viii] Milwaukee parents also have a variety of different school options from which to choose. The district is home to 38 charter schools (out of 218 schools total), neighborhood and city-wide specialty schools (which operate similarly to magnet schools), small high schools, schools for at-risk or otherwise challenged students, and traditional neighborhood schools.[ix]
Turning to parental involvement, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) created a number of new parental involvement requirements for school districts and individual schools. To begin with, each district and school receiving federal Title I funds must have a written parental involvement policy in place. The stated purpose of this requirement is to create avenues for active, sustained parental involvement in children’s education, particularly types of involvement associated with student achievement and school improvement.
At the district level, officials are expected to facilitate parental participation in the development of improvement plans for both the district as a whole and individual schools. The district is also required to provide technical assistance to individual schools in order to enhance their parental involvement programs. Finally, the district must review its parental involvement policy with parents once a year, identifying areas for improvement and strategies for more effective parental engagement.
Individual schools receiving Title I funds must convene an annual meeting to inform parents of the various avenues available for their involvement, and must invite them to participate. Thereafter, schools are expected to involve parents, on an ongoing basis, in the planning, review, and revision of school policies and programs. This includes the provision of timely information to parents on school programs and curricula, and on the schools’ processes for setting and measuring student achievement levels. Schools receiving Title I funds must also develop a school-parent compact that outlines schools’ and parents’ respective roles in helping to improve student academic performance. Finally, Title I schools must provide instruction, training, and materials to parents to help improve the level and quality of their involvement in their children’s education.[x]
Because of its receipt of Title I funds, the Milwaukee Public School district must meet the foregoing parental involvement requirements, as must approximately 75 percent of MPS schools, accounting for almost 95 percent of MPS enrollment.[xi] This means that parental involvement programs are nearly universal throughout MPS.
Limits to the two theories of reform
Given the commitment to parental choice in MPS and the pervasiveness of parental involvement programs there ought to be grounds for optimism. Unfortunately, these reforms do not always work as advertised. The efficacy of the two reforms can sometimes break along lines of race, class, educational attainment, family composition, income, and ethnicity (or some mix of these, due to the often strong inter-correlations between them).
The obstacles to effective parental involvement are more easily explained than those to public school choice, and so will be addressed first. A key finding in the parental involvement literature is as follows:
In simpler terms, the more disadvantaged the parent, the less likely he or she is to be involved in a child’s education, other things being equal.
In a district with the demographics of MPS, this should be cause for concern. Table 1 presents some of the relevant data on this point:
In most of the categories potentially related to levels of parental involvement, the MPS numbers are substantially less favorable than those in the U.S. at large. The percentages of non-white residents, of households receiving public assistance, and of single-parent families in particular suggest some of the possible demographic challenges to achievement of desired levels of parental engagement in MPS.
There is, however, one bit of good news. The research has not established definitive links between socioeconomic variables and parental involvement at home. That is, the evidence is mixed on the question of whether parents with lower income, lower levels of educational attainment, and other disadvantages are less involved in at-home activities such as reading to children, helping them with their homework, etc. Thus, the primary area of concern relevant to parental involvement in MPS would appear to be in the school setting.
Turning to public school choice, many of its potential problems are also linked to parents’ socioeconomic status. Disadvantaged parents may not have the time, energy, information, understanding, or confidence to become active, effective public school consumers. Consider this summary of the requirements parents must meet if the public school choice model is to work ideally. Parents must:
For many parents—but particularly those of lower socioeconomic status, with English language deficiencies, and so on—this can be a daunting process. It can be so daunting, in fact, that some families choose not to choose. This reality is presented insightfully in a discussion of school choice in Britain. The most disadvantaged group of choosers are referred to as “disconnected”:
They are disconnected from the market in the sense that they are not inclined to engage with it. It is not that these parents have no views about education, or no concerns about schools and their children’s experiences and achievement. They do, but they do not see their children’s enjoyment of school or their educational success as being facilitated in any way by a consumerist approach to school choice.[xv]
Not surprisingly, these attitudes have an impact on parents’ participation in the process of choosing a school:
There is little or no attempt to collect information about other schools and little awareness of other schools apart from those within the locality. Choice here means something different from the process gone through by the privileged or the semi-skilled. Choice for these parents typically seems more or less predetermined, often a process of confirmation rather than comparison.[xvi]
Of course, many lower-income, lower socioeconomic status parents do engage in school choice, despite the challenges they may face. For these parents, though, the concern becomes the sufficiency and accuracy of the information they are able to acquire. This is not an indictment of these parents; as noted above, effectively choosing the best school for one’s child can be a difficult task even for parents with abundant resources. But disadvantaged parents may have less access to quality information, and less experience in evaluating it, than their better educated, more socially-connected counterparts. A few illustrative excerpts from the research literature follow:
Yet another concern has to do with the criteria that disadvantaged parents apply when considering schooling options for their children. Even if parents have easy access to information, they may base their choice on factors other than school quality, academic rigor, and the presence of experienced, effective teachers. Again, a few excerpts from the relevant literature serve to illustrate:
These conclusions are by no means universal in the research literature. Indeed, there are highly credible dissenting voices. However, the prevalence of findings such as the ones above should give advocates of public school choice some pause. If in certain circumstances:(1) parents fail to exercise choice altogether; or (2) parents exercise choice, but do so with insufficient or inaccurate information; and/or (3) parents choose schools largely on the basis of non-academic criteria, then public school choice as a tool for boosting school quality and student achievement may very well be a chimera.
Data sources and methods
This section offers estimates of the extent and nature of public school choice and parental involvement within the Milwaukee Public Schools district. The basic approach was to identify the determinants and frequency of parental choice and parental involvement using a national data set, and extrapolate those results to Milwaukee, relying on the particular demographics of the MPS district. The national data set is the U.S. Department of Education’s 2003 Parent and Family Involvement in Education survey, part of the National Household Education Surveys (NHES) program. The source for MPS demographics is the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2005 American Community Survey. The specific demographic variables used to extrapolate from the national survey to MPS were as follows:
For each estimate given below, the analysis was limited to students enrolled in public schools (rather than private schools, or home-schooling arrangements) in grades one through twelve. The methods used to make the extrapolations and arrive at the specific estimates are explained in detail in the Methodology Appendix.
As noted above, for parents who have a choice among two or more public schools, the threshold decision is whether or not to make a choice. In theory, the more parents who exercise their option to choose, the more the education system will operate like a marketplace, and the greater the impact on school improvement and student achievement will be.
The first estimate is as follows:
of MPS parents actively choosing a school for their child: 33.6%[xxiii]
Based on the data and methods described above and in the Methodology Appendix, it is estimated that just under 35 percent of MPS parents actively choose a school for their child, rather than simply opting for the default neighborhood school. For the sake of simplicity, this group will be referred to as “choice parents” below.
The nature of parent choice, too, can have a potential impact on school performance. If parents engage in an extensive search among many schools, and emphasize criteria clearly related to school and student performance, one would expect schools to feel more pressure to perform. On the other hand, if parents choose after considering only one school, or choose on the basis of non-academic criteria such as proximity to home or the school’s racial mix, schools might feel less compelled to produce results. The second estimate, then, is of the percentage of choice parents who consider more than one school in making their choice:
Estimate of MPS choice parents choosing from among two or more schools: 44.4%
That is, about 45 percent of parents who actively choose a school for their child are estimated to do so after considering at least two schools. Among these “two-choice parents,” the following estimate represents the percentage who explicitly seek information on school performance, such as test scores, dropout rates, and so on:
Estimate of MPS two-choice parents considering academic factors when choosing: 64.8%
Taken together, these three estimates allow one to do some calculations regarding a hypothetical “ideal consumer” in a public school choice system. This is the consumer who would maximize the marketplace pressures on schools, thereby creating the greatest prospects for school reform and student achievement. Such a consumer would:
Based on the figures above, the estimate of MPS parents meeting all three criteria is roughly 10 percent.
(This is derived by multiplying: .336*.444*.648.)
[iii] Lynn Bosetti, “Determinants of school choice: understanding how parents choose elementary schools in Alberta,” Journal of Education Policy, Vol.19, No.4, July 2004, pp.387, 8.
[iv] A number of literature reviews attest to these effects. See, for example, Professor Charles Desforges (with Alberto Abouchaar), “The Impact of Parental Involvement, Parental Support and Family Education on Pupil Achievements and Adjustment: A Literature Review,” Research Report RR433, Department for Children, Schools and Families, Government of the United Kingdom, June 2003; Anne T. Henderson and Karen L. Mapp, “A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement,” Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, Annual Synthesis 2002; and Bonnie Stelmack, “Parental Involvement: A Research Brief for Practitioners,” Alberta Initiative for School Improvement, 2005.
[v] See, for example, Kathleen Cotton and Karen Reed Wikelund, “Parent Involvement in Education,” Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, May 1989; Desforges, “The Impact of Parental Involvement,” op. cit., and Stelmack, “Parental Involvement,” op. cit.
[vi] This overview is derived from Desforges, “The Impact of Parental Involvement,” op. cit., Chapters 6 and 7.
[ix] Source: The 2005-2006 MPS District Report Card, “MPS District Data for the 2005-06 School Year,” December 2006, p.7, Chart 7; and “Types of Schools within MPS,” available on-line at: http://tinyurl.com/24fvoe, accessed on July 25, 2007.
[x] This discussion was derived from several sources, including the text of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (Public Law 107-110), January 8, 2002, especially Section 1118; National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education, No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) Bulletins, Volume I, Issue 2, “Parent Involvement Policy Statements,” date not given, available on-line at: http://tinyurl.com/283fty; and State of Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, “ESEA Information Update,” Bulletin No. 03.04, August 12, 2003, available on-line at: http://tinyurl.com/yw5yns.
[xi] United States Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, “Characteristics of the 100 Largest Public Elementary and Secondary School Districts in the United States: 2003-04,” NCES 2006-329, September 2006, Table A-6, p.A-14.
[xii] Cotton and Wikelund, “Parent Involvement in Education,” op. cit.
[xiii] Source: author’s calculations from the 2005 American Community Survey.
[xiv] These bullet points are taken verbatim from Mark Schneider, Paul Teske, and Melissa Marschall, Choosing Schools (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), p.87.
[xv] Sharon Gewirtz, Stephen J. Ball and Richard Bowe, Markets, Choice and Equity in Education (Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1995), p.45.
[xvi] Ibid, pp.45, 6.
[xviii] Schneider, Teske, and Marschall, Choosing Schools, op. cit., p.163.
[xix] Stuart Martin, “Choosing a Secondary School: Can Parents’ Behaviour Be Described as Rational?”, paper presented at British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Bath, 1995, p.13.
[xx] Justine S. Hastings, Richard Van Weelden, and Jeffrey Weinstein, “Preferences, Information, and Parental Choice Behavior in Public School Choice,” NBER Working Paper Series, Working Paper 12995, National Bureau of Economic Research, March 2007, p. 3.
[xxi] Diane Reay and Stephen J. Ball, “’Spoilt for choice’: The working classes and educational markets,” Oxford Review of Education, March 1997, Volume 23, Issue 1. Citation drawn from alternate format version of article; page citation not available.
[xxii] Clark Robenstein, “Public schooling, the market metaphor, and parental choice,” Educational Forum, Vol. 65, Number 3, Spring 2001; citation drawn from p.7 of the on-line version of the article, available at: http://tinyurl.com/yt7vhh.
[xxiii] Based on the actual structure of the NHES dataset, the technically correct reading of the data is that an estimated 33.6 percent of MPS students have one or more parents who actively choose a school for them – not that 33.6 percent of MPS parents actively choose a school for their child (which is how the result is presented in the text). Though this distinction is more than purely semantic, the data will be presented in the text in terms of frequency of parent participation. This helps keep the discussion as clear and accessible as possible.
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