A teacher’s perspective on the problems in Milwaukee Public Schools

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This was posted as a comment on one of my articles on the budget problems at Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). Although I believe most of what this person says, I do know from looking at the database myself that there are plenty of teachers making $80k to $100k a year when you add the excessive benefits packages to their salaries. Notwithstanding that, I think there are many valid points here that deserve to be highlighted in a separate post such as this.

I have taught in the state of Wisconsin for 11 years. My first 7 seven years were for MPS. My last four have been in the suburbs. I currently hold a masters degree and I can state for a fact that I have and never will earn anywhere close to $80,000. I can also state with assurance that the MPS union is extremely weak. If you talk about bringing the union in the administration laughs. The union is a joke now. The administration will make your life miserable for your attempt, though. The teachers (what few there really are) are not getting the money. The union is not getting the money, and the schools are not getting the money either. It is the top heavy administration that is not part of the teacher’s union and negotiates it’s own contracts that profits.

Like Floraine I am a good teacher. I’m interested in making sure that my students succeed, and my students always excelled on state and national tests. I was given students with few skills and would manage to make more than a year’s worth of progress with each student. I didn’t mind working in the tough urban classroom. Students responded to me and progressed better than they did with other teachers. I left because I chose not to raise my children in Milwaukee City.

MPS, despite my success was happy to see me go. Why you ask? Simple. They really don’t want qualified teachers in the classroom. While, I never made 1/2 of $80,000 in my life, compared to a substitute or a trainee I am expensive, not because of my salary, but because of my benefits.

What is little known is that MPS prefers to staff classrooms with substitutes and untrained teacher’s being trained on the the job to save money. The substitutes are paid half again of a teacher salary even if they qualify for some benefits. The trainees are even cheaper. They get no benefits, are paid less than the subs because they are “in training”, they have to pay a portion of the salary back to MPS as compensation for the “training”, and when their “training” is considered complete they are required to interview for a job with MPS (they are actually prohibited from interviewing or accepting a position where their training took place.)

There are many qualified teachers at MPS (I was one of them) working hard under difficult circumstances. However, there are just as many “Trainees” with no experience in the classrooms. Substitutes would be better. Most substitutes tend to possess some type of educational background. These trainees usually have none. They are thrown into the classroom and asked to sink or swim on their own from day one. They are expected to set up the classroom and establish control before they even begin their first “night course.” They do not have any support from the teachers or administration around them. A normal teacher works 12 hour days. 6-8 hours face to face time with students and 4-6 hours preparing lessons, grading papers, contacting parents, attending meetings, workshops, supervising after school activities, tutoring etc. This is in addition to continuously attending school to maintain certifications and keep abreast of the latest teaching practices.

So what is being asked of these “trainees” is no more than what they would ask from the certified teacher. The “trainee” is supposed to “teach” their class during the daytime (they arrive at 7:00 and leave for night school about 4:00pm). As soon as the school bell rings signaling the end of the day they pack up their things and head to their accelerated night class. About 7:30-8:00pm class ends, but alas they are not done for the night. Because they had to leave right after school they couldn’t prepare for the next day. To make matters worse school is already in session so what they are learning, while helpful, is not getting them prepared to tackle the next day. They must now go home and work until 11:00-12:00am on lesson plans for the next day. Forget grading papers. It is more important that they are prepared to teach tomorrow. They have no experience preparing “on the fly” , and a class of 28-33 students with time on it’s hand is going to get out of control very quickly.
Unfortunately, classroom management is not a subject that is often taught in a teaching program, and when there is one it is often the last subject to be taught.

MPS, obviously, has no interest in making sure these “trainees” are successful. If they did they wouldn’t throw them into a classroom on their own to sink or swim. It also wouldn’t prohibit them from getting employment in the school were they were “trained,” and require them to interview for position, elsewhere. It is a sad way to save money and cut costs, and it is the children who suffer.

MPS can only put “trainees” in classroom when they don’t have enough “qualified teachers” So they discourage qualified teachers with residency clauses, poor pay, poor working conditions etc. (did I forget to mention that you are lucky to even get a 20 minute lunch in your long day much less time to run to the bathroom?) Not to mention the generous pay (which the highest I ever got was $37,000) often goes back into the classroom because you have to buy all of your own materials. I usually spent about $5,000 on the classroom yearly.

Unfortunately, it is these types of practices that have given teachers a bad name. These “trainees” are referred to as teachers and filling the role.

So now are you curious where your increased taxes are really ending up? They are not lining the teachers pockets. Nor are they going to the union nor are they being used to improve school conditions, or even to give the classroom materials (the teacher pays for those) The money has to be going somewhere right?

The administration is not part of the teacher’s union. They negotiate their own contracts, and traditionally make between $60,000-$150,000 a year. Depending upon the years of experience and the size of their school. This is starting pay. Each administrator also receives bonus payments based upon the performance of their particular school. For instance, administrators receive a bonus for having a desired percentage of student attendance for the month, they receive bonuses for having fewer than a certain number of suspensions, for high tests scores for their students, etc. Not only are their bonuses contingent on these things so is their performance evaluations. These incentives are meant to inspire the principals to do good things. Of course, high attendance, test scores, and low suspensions etc. are desirable, right. Makes sense.

This practice inevitably backfires at MPS. The administration is not in the classroom with the teachers helping the kids achieve those high test scores. The only thing the administration can do to impact this area is adopt curriculum that he/she believe will help the teachers achieve it. Many administrators do just that. They are constantly spending their funds on new curriculum which they in turn pressure the teachers to learn and teach to the students. Purchasing new curriculum is extremely expensive. There are many programs out there that promise big results, and training in their new techniques when you purchase their program (highly enticing when I am an administrator with many untrained “trainees”) By expensive I mean extremely. For a popular program called “Direct Instruction” the teacher’s manual cost is $600 for 1 book. It is a program that prohibits copying, and each individual teacher must have their own copy because there is a script they must read to the students. Each student must have student materials, each textbook is $60-$80 a piece, and the consumable workbook is a cheap $18(but must be repurchased each year). Administrators are constantly switching or adding curriculum in order to influence student achievement and teachers are constantly trying to stay abreast of the new curriculum so that they can teach it. It is a never ending time consuming expensive process. What else is expensive besides administrator salaries, bonuses, and curriculum materials? Tests. Now each building must allocate part of its budget to pay for making copies of mandatory tests that must be given to students. Each building is charged fees. Each school is also charged for the collection and processing of the data for those mandatory tests.

Back to the bonuses. Believe it or not attendance and suspensions are linked. If a student is suspended they are counted absent for the day, thus affecting the principals attendance and suspension bonus at the same time. Principals are effectively discouraged from suspending students, and most try to avoid it at all costs. Most of them believe that they will have to suspend quite a few students towards the end of the year so they don’t start out heavy on suspensions. They believe it makes them look better, and maybe it does. I’ve seen principals bend over backwards not to suspend a student who truly deserves it. The administrator sends that student back into the classroom. After all they don’t have to deal with the student; the teacher does. Principals who do this; especially to unqualified teachers, are asking for out of control classrooms. What does the administrator care they get their bonus.

But this doesn’t account for all of those millions, especially the increased spending does it? No it doesn’t. Over the years, in response to these out of control, ineffective classrooms, that they created themselves a voucher system was begun. Poor disadvantaged students could choose a private school or a public school in another district more to their liking. The voucher school either agrees to take the student for reduced tuition or on scholarship. Each enrolled student is worth about $10,000 to MPS. When that student opts out of MPS, MPS can no longer claim the money for that student. The voucher is worth about $4,000, and is paid to the voucher school so it is a great way for the state to save $6,000; at least initially. Which is why it was originally supported by the state. After all they were giving these kids a better education for a huge savings, right? It was a win, win situation, just not for MPS which was steadily loosing money at first as more vouchers were approved.

True, there was a lower student population, but it was a fallacy to believe that costs of running the schools would be cut in proportion to the revenue that was being lost. Each school building had to be maintained, heated and kept up even though there were fewer students in attendance. The “good” students with the concerned parents were attending schools outside the district, leaving the rest of the student population with even fewer role models and less parental involvement than ever before. To make matters worse all the state mandated programs for students with special needs still had to be maintained and funded (students from poorer areas cost more to educate; especially in a public setting because of all the state mandated programs) There is a higher percentage of students with learning disabilities, handicaps, and emotional needs.

To add icing on the cake the students who were blessed to be accepted into the voucher system left only to find out the there were no programs at the private schools to help them if they were behind, or had learning disabilities etc. Private schools were not equipped or funded to handle this.

It was decided that since MPS was funded by the city and state that they should provide services to voucher students without them. So voucher students would attend private school, but still have access to a state funded speech therapist, etc. Now MPS was providing expensive services to students that it could not count in it’s enrollment, and was not receiving funds for.

This was causing an increased budgetary crisis. Through negotiations with the state it was finally decided MPS could recoup most of their losses for any and all students for which it provided services. This means that instead of saving money through the voucher system the state pays the voucher amount to the school and a student fee to MPS on top of it. No longer saving any money on its plan.

It was just beginning to balance back out when some genius dreamed up charter schools. Anyone who would like to start up a charter school may petition the city. In fairness to the city you do have to have a good idea of how your particular school is going to offer something unique to it’s students. At the time politics was such that people were really discouraged with MPS They didn’t see the voucher program as enough, after all MPS was still failing. Charter school appeared to be the answer, start up a school with an innovative curriculum, that would draw students and help them learn.

Sounds good except they went about it in exactly the same way as they did the voucher program. Money allocated for the student was diverted away from MPS and to the charter school. Unlike the regular MPS schools there were no budget restrictions, no pay back fees for testing materials, and fees paid to support administrative offices downtown. Charter schools while funded by MPS had complete autonomy on how they were run. The regular schools were again left with declining enrollment in buildings which still cost the same to heat and maintain, and bearing the burden of offering special services to all students in the area. These students were now more spread out, not just in MPS, but in charter schools and private schools as well. The cost of sending qualified professionals (speech therapists, physical therapists, etc.) everywhere is enormous. Unlike teachers, whom everyone believes that anyone could do our job, the state insists that these services be provided by trained highly qualified professionals. This area of education has become increasingly legislated over the years, much of it unnecessary and time consuming.

That is where all your money goes. It is time to stop blaming the qualified teachers who are only trying to do their jobs, and take a hard look at the practices of administration in education. The teachers have been the scape goats long enough. If the public would insist that there be a highly qualified teacher in every classroom, and insist that a support network structure be in place for that teacher and the students. I guarantee without reservation that the public would see a difference in MPS in a few short years for a fraction of the cost that is being spent now. After all, we teachers don’t require exorbitant salaries, or huge bonuses, to do our jobs. All we want is some stability , support, and, encouragement.

Like Floraine, I am considering leaving the profession. I am tired of being moved around from one place to another, always starting from scratch, and not being appreciated for the work that I do, the long hours I put in, and the sacrifices I make for the children I teach. While I don’t regret it, and I will miss it. I can get paid more with a Master’s in the business world without all this aggravation.

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