Report: Wisconsin's Achievement Gap Is Highest Nationwide

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Report: Wisconsin's Achievement Gap Is Highest Nationwide

Premiere Date: 
November 8, 2013

Michael Bonds, president of the MPS Board, reacts to the report released this week.

 

Episode Transcript: 

Frederica Freyberg:

Now to education news and some very poor marks for Wisconsin students in the latest national assessment of education progress or the national report card. First the good news. State math scores are in the top third in the country. That's all the good news. From there, Wisconsin showed no improvement in reading scores, a flat performance that's no better than state students achieved more than 20 years ago. But the bleakest news for schools here is in the area of minority achievement. 8th grade reading scores for Wisconsin black students were the lowest in the nation. And the overall gap between white and black students in Wisconsin was the largest of any state. We consider this persistent problem now with someone who is on the front lines both as a scholar and school board official in Milwaukee. Michael Bonds is an associate professor of educational policy at UW-Milwaukee. Dr. Bonds is also president of the Milwaukee school board. He joins us from Milwaukee. Dr. Bonds, thanks very much for doing so.

Michael Bonds:

Thank you for inviting me on your show. I have to agree with you. The news was very disappointing.

Frederica Freyberg:

Yeah, because the headline is that Wisconsin has the biggest achievement gap between white and black students in the nation. Black 8th graders have the lowest reading scores. Mississippi's are higher. Math scores also bumping along the bottom. Tell me, what is going on?  

Michael Bonds:

Well, there's a lot of work that needs to be done, obvious from the test scores. I think with the new standards coming in, the Common Core, would help out a lot. But I think you got to look at statewide, at some of the unique challenges we have, like in cities like Milwaukee, where we're the fourth poorest city in the nation. You have a variety of education options. For too long the focus has been on providing additional educational options without looking at the quality. I'm hoping that with these test results that people can see that we need to focus on quality regardless of what sector you're in, whether it's public, charter or choice. That we really need to put our resources behind the kids to help improve the reading scores. Because for me it was very disappointing, because I don't think it reflects the work, at least for Milwaukee public schools, that's been put in the last several years to try to turn this thing around.

Frederica Freyberg:

How could it not reflect the work if those are the scores?

Michael Bonds:

Oh, what I meant by that, I'm talking about the amount of work that people have put in to try to turn it around. So the scores was very disappointing. But I know people are working hard every day to try to turn this around. That's what I meant when I said that the work-- and it's been very disappointing because this is statewide, not just MPS.

Frederica Freyberg:

Right.

Michael Bonds:

When I say turn it around, I mean I know people are working hard every day in MPS to try to turn this around.

Frederica Freyberg:

Why is it so intractable, this achievement gap, that Wisconsin continually talks about, both at local levels and at the state level and there are policymakers who call this their, you know, priority in education in Wisconsin. Why so intractable, this achievement gap?

Michael Bonds:

Well, I don't think it's so much intractable, as it going to take a lot of work and years to turn it around. We look at the fact that the scores was flat. If any promising news, it was that. We still have a lot of work to do. I just think when you look at some of the communities, the poverty, the percentage of our students with Special Ed and some of those factors, are impacting school. But I just think it's just a lot of hard work and we just gotta keep working towards turning it around. But I know people are committed to doing it. And we just got to keep pushing. We’re hoping with the implementation of the Common Core and the standard reading program in MPS that we can begin to turn the corner.

Frederica Freyberg:

How are the Common Core Standards going to help this?

Michael Bonds:

Well, the Common Core Standards are more rigorous than maybe some of the programs we had in the past. And it also deals with mobility issue, where if students are moving from school to school, which we have a high mobility in Milwaukee public school, that regardless of where they go, they will be exposed to the same, rigorous standards. And one thing about Milwaukee is GE has invested a lot of money in Milwaukee being a part of the Common Core movement. So right now we have 20 GE schools, and with some of those GE schools we are beginning to see some movement in test scores.

Frederica Freyberg:

This is a pointed question, but you're an academic expert and president of the Milwaukee school board. What responsibility do you feel like you have for these test scores and the achievement gap that clearly exists in your city even though these scores are statewide?  

Michael Bonds:

Well, even though they're statewide, I think a responsibility that I have as school board president is to support the administration in this effort to address these issues. And I think with the superintendent we have, he's probably one of the better academic superintendent in the nation. And I just think Milwaukee has some unique challenges that a lot of urban school districts doesn't face in terms of Milwaukee, with the competition with some of its competitors that don't have to take some of the special needs, some of the most challenging students. MPS is left with a larger proportion of those students. But I think with the current superintendent we have here, did a lot to centralize our reading program. When he first came, it was 27 separate programs, reading program. Now we have one. He has really been pushing the implementation of the Common Core standard here, reach out to partners to try to develop networks and support systems to help the district. So I think my role as board president is to supportive of the administration and day-to-day operation to try to turn this system around.

Frederica Freyberg:

Now, a couple of times in our discussion here you've talked about the competing schools with MPS. You're talking about private choice schools. You're talking about voucher schools. Is that right? And you think–

Michael Bonds:

Yes.

Frederica Freyberg:

--that, kind of, taking off the cream of some of the student population in Milwaukee public schools on the part of the voucher schools is making the test scores worse in your schools?  

Michael Bonds:

Yes, and then also the fact that MPS is the only school district in the state that-- public school district in Milwaukee that has to serve all students. Whereas some of the choice schools have their selection in terms of students that they can admit and retain. We have to serve all students. And we also have to serve students that have special needs and challenges, which mean that in the MPS you have a special need population of about 21%.

Frederica Freyberg:

9% of black children in Wisconsin tested, just 9%, tested as proficient in reading. What becomes of children who cannot read by the 8th grade?

Michael Bonds:

Well, they get left behind. And it makes it more difficult to bring them up. At the same time, you can't throw in the towel on them. You just got to keep working with them, try to get them to standards.

Frederica Freyberg:

Would you –

Michael Bonds:

But–

Frederica Freyberg:

Go ahead.

Michael Bonds:

But it's very disappointing. I could say as school board president, when I read this, and remember it's statewide, not just MPS, to see the results and everything. It just shows we got to do some more work and reassess some of the things we doing. And just keep working hard.

Frederica Freyberg:

Would you declare this an educational emergency in Wisconsin?  

Michael Bonds:

Yes. Yes, 'cause if kids at the bottom of the reading-- I don't see how it can be anything less than an education emergency. In fact, right before I came, I just came from the Milwaukee CC, which is a coalition of community leaders from the major businesses, the MMAC’s northwestern foundation. We talk about this very issue and the need to galvanize the community around a common goal of bringing students together regardless of what their educational focus, whether it’s choice or public. How can we get all students to improve? So we actually have ongoing conversation. I can tell you no one was thrilled with the results of the news reported about the 8th grade reading.

Frederica Freyberg:

Far from it. Dr. Michael Bonds, thank you very much.

Michael Bonds:

Thank you. 


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