It is just so tired by now, this idea that if we just improve student test scores, if we can just get teachers to improve those scores, if we try racing to the top, competing for funds, create more incentives for performing well on standardized tests - everything will turn out okay!
Here's what a friend who is a social worker in the MPS system tells me she deals with every day - kids with brain damage from lead poisoning, kids suffering from malnutrition because of poverty, kids who didn't have breakfast and are hungry because there's no food in the house, kids traumatized by violence in their neighborhoods or because maybe their mom or other caretaker was beaten up the night before.
Now they're supposed to sit quietly in school and memorize for testing, learn for performance on tests, absorb lessons in math and science so that they can compete favorably on tests with folks in countries in Asia.
Who are we kidding? A lot of teachers whose students have problems with testing, and therefore can't show improvement in 'performance,' are dealing every day with the problems of gross neglect in this community that has put Milwaukee among the highest in poverty, in de facto racial segregation (racism - deep roots here), in income disparities between whites and blacks, between rich and poor, in health indicators among children, of any city in the United States.
And then we get mad at teachers when their students don't perform well.
Not all teachers are heroic or even compassionate, of course. I hear of teachers who actually don't like their kids, are uninspired, just going through the motions, who are also demoralized. But teacher 'performance' based on improved test scores will continue to get us nowhere. Neither will all these grand schemes for 'reform' or restructuring the system if the focus remains there alone.
But what this focus does do is continue to deflect our attention from the real issue - the deep roots of poverty, violence, trauma, racism, and neglect of city neighborhoods over decades. Until those things are addressed, and WE address them as a community that ought to care about one another and about the quality of life throughout our city, we will continue to be frustrated and demoralized that our kids in the MPS system don't do better.
Easy to shove it off on the shoulders of teachers, but teachers, the school board, churches, affluent folks, businesses, community groups, and political leaders all need to shoulder this responsibility. We need to change an entire culture that surrounds the MPS system.
You can't learn unless there is an atmosphere for learning, unless kids feel good about themselves, have stable relationships, a sense of dignity, worth and purpose. Test all you want, without this, our schools will continue to fail our kids.