Passing Notes: Research & Recent Events In Milwaukee-Area Schools

Jan 26, 2018

Every few weeks, WUWM education reporter Rachel Morello scans through her notes and brings us the scoop on the news out of area schools. Test your knowledge of headlines big and small with her news quiz!

By now, semester exams have ended for Wisconsin students – which means it’s time for the second semester, and another education news quiz!

This week, we’re sticking to local stories from around the greater Milwaukee metro area.

Sensitive Subjects

The following quote comes from a statement issued earlier this week, by three community organizations – the NAACP Milwaukee branch, the League of United Latin American Citizens of Wisconsin, and the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation…

“[This] action highlights the urgency of taking actions to ensure that the school celebrates tolerance and inclusion as part of its curriculum and culture.”

These groups responded to an incident that happened in one local school district…what was it?

Earlier this week, a photo started circulating on Facebook, showing a racist message scrawled above the bubblers at Franklin High School.

The signs have since been taken down. Franklin School District staff sent a letter to staff, students and families calling the incident an “act of intolerance,” and assuring community members administration would identify the individual responsible, and address his or her behavior.

But the photo spread like wildfire around the internet – prompting those Milwaukee-area organizations, among others, to raise concern.

The groups also called on the district to increase cultural awareness – suggesting the district start with a fix as simple as recognizing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a district-wide holiday:

“While we appreciate that administrators issued a statement disavowing this despicable action, the incident demonstrates the need for the school and the district to take immediate and ongoing action to make the school more inclusive and respectful of different cultures. Unfortunately, Franklin High School, like many schools and districts, does not recognize or celebrate the federal holiday recognizing the achievements of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We ask that the district consider changing that policy.”

This latest event in Franklin is hardly an isolated incident in Wisconsin. Late last year, another photo made the rounds on social media showing one teacher’s class assignment, asking students to formulate arguments promoting slavery.

Positive or Negative?

This week, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty – or “WILL,” a conservative think tank – released a report they say shows evidence one specific, federally-funded program had had a negative effect on student test scores and suspension rates.

The acronym for that program is “PBIS.” What does that stand for?

  1. Performance-Based Insight Statistics
  2. Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports
  3. Public Broadcasting in Schools

Credit Michelle Maternowski

Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports” is a federal school discipline policy created and implemented in public schools during Barack Obama’s presidency.

The goal is to find what the feds call a “multi-tiered approach to social, emotional and behavior support” – basically, to find alternative ways to discipline bad behavior by students.

WILL researchers say these types of suspension policies have hurt academic performance in Wisconsin’s K-12 schools. They say PBIS promotes “softer” discipline policies – “pro-active” interventions, rather than suspensions. And they say this has impacted proficiency in math and reading; their data shows those scores are lower in schools that implement PBIS.

They also say there’s evidence that teachers and students in those schools feel less safe. And they recommend that local leaders – school boards, district administrators and teachers – be the ones determining discipline policies, not the U.S. Department of Education.

“While the Obama administration may have been well-intentioned in their advocacy for PBIS, they usurped local authority by pushing this one-size-fits-all discipline on school districts,” writes WILL Research Director Will Flanders. “This study shows that while these policies may have accomplished their goal in decreasing suspensions among African American students, the policies appear to have unintended consequences on the education climate.”

Districts including Milwaukee Public Schools have had PBIS systems in place for several years. And leaders have said quite the opposite of what this report found – that PBIS reduces classroom disruptions and leads to increased student achievement.


Last Week's Assignment

You might remember, during our last news quiz I put out a call to parents: Send me your stories about how you selected a school for your students.

Many people responded to the call! And Friday marks the end of National School Choice Week – a celebration spanning several school communities here in Milwaukee, home to the longest-running parental choice program in the country.

You can listen to the parent submissions we received – plus, continue sending in your own – here.

What's coming up?

February means the Super Bowl, Valentine’s Day and – perhaps most importantly, for the education sector – last-minute ramp-up before the Forward Exam testing window opens up in Wisconsin schools.

And as always, eyes continue to be on Washington, D.C. as national lawmakers wrangle with school-related issues such as DACA, among others, which are deeply intertwined with negotiations around the federal budget.

What’s happening in your district? Your classroom? Your PTA meetings? I want to know! Connect with me on social media, or submit your question below. I connected with several new faces this month – let’s keep the trend going as the new year progresses!

Have a question about education you'd like Rachel to dig into? Submit below.