Massive Milwaukee Study Reveals Quality Gap

By Elizabeth Rose — January 15, 1986 4 min read

The $335,000 state-commissioned study that figures in Milwaukee’s desegregation proposal has found an “unacceptable disparity” between the educational opportunities and achievements of minority and non-minority students and a wide gap between the quality of city and suburban schools.

The Milwaukee Public Schools, it says, fare poorly in comparison with those in 22 suburban school districts on such indicators as dropout rates, parental involvement, standardized-test scores, and teacher satisfaction and performance.

The first comprehensive analysis of public schools in the Milwaukee metropolitan area, the study represents the results of 14 months of intensive research by a 27-member commission including educators, community leaders, and researchers from the University of Wisconsin. Its findings and dozens of recommendations are contained in an 11-volume report covering teachers, student achievement, magnet schools, dropouts, parental involvement, and other topics.

Perhaps the study’s costliest recommendation is that average class size in Milwaukee’s elementary schools, now as high as 35 in some cases, be reduced to 25--a move that it estimates could cost as much as $40 million.

The metropolitan analysis was commissioned in 1984 by Gov. Anthony S. Earl and Herbert J. Grover, the state superintendent of education, amid widespread expressions of public dissatisfaction with the city’s school system. Several sources on the 27-member study commission say the analysis was initiated, in part, in an attempt to head off the Milwaukee system’s suit against its 22 suburban neighbors--a charge denied by spokesmen for the Governor. The suit was filed three weeks after the commission was formed.

The study, which was presented to the legislature’s education committees at a hearing in Milwaukee last week, is expected to form the basis for initiatives in the current session.

Achievement Gap

According to the study commission, more than 45 percent of 2nd graders and 58.3 percent of 10th graders in city schools scored below the national medians for their grade levels. In the suburban school districts, 17.6 percent of 2nd-grade students and 29 percent of 10th graders were below the national medians.

“Differences in achievement between racial and economic groups exist in both the city and the suburbs,” the study notes, “but differences are larger in Milwaukee. The difference is smallest in 2nd grade but widens considerably by the 5th grade.”

Among the findings on student achievement:

Students in Milwaukee high schools fail one-quarter of their courses. In seven city high schools, 30 percent of all grades are F’s.

The grade-point average in 13 of Milwaukee’s 15 public high schools is less than 2.0.

There is a large gap in mathematics scores between boys and girls. Between grades 7 and 10, girls’ math scores drop significantly, particularly among Hispanic and black girls.

The dropout rate in city schools is more than double both the state average and the highest rate of any suburban school, with most dropouts occurring before the 11th grade.

Teacher Morale

The commission found a relationship between higher job satisfaction and morale among teachers and higher student achievement. It also found that achievement and class size were related, even after allowing for differences in economic status among students.

In response to the commission’s findings, the city school board last week adopted a maximum class size of 25 for kindergarten and 1st grade in the district, according to Lee McMurrin, superintendent of schools. Thirty-four of the 104 elementary schools will have class sizes of 25 students in 1986-1987, he said.

John F. Witte, the executive director of the study commission and an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said the Governor and legislature support the study’s recommendations, but he noted that state spending will be constrained by a budget deficit projected to be as high as $350 million.

To stem the disproportionately high dropout rate, the commission recommended that the city school system adopt an early-intervention process to target at-risk youths.

The commission also recommended an increase in state funding for a preschool through 5th grade early-intervention program, which is aimed at aiding low-income, inner-city children. The study credits the P-5 program with raising achievement scores and encouraging potential at-risk students to stay in school. Its techniques include reduced class size and councils of parents, teachers, and community leaders to monitor education programs.

Recommendations Criticized

Despite the gubernatorial and legislative support for many of the commission’s recommendations, the chairman of the commission expressed something less than optimism about improving city schools.

George A. Mitchell, a businessman and former assistant state budget director, said the commission’s recommendations did not go far enough. The problems documented in the study are of such magnitude that they will require much more fundamental changes to close the “learning gap,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 1986 edition of Education Week as Massive Milwaukee Study Reveals Quality Gap