Putting Lipstick on a Pig

The Mighty Cougars Attend a (Still) Crappy School

By Joe Williams, DFER Executive Director

If you believe in silver bullet theories of education reform, the Carver Academy of Math and Science in Milwaukee ought to be one of your favorite public schools on the planet. Just read how the schools' leaders describe it on the website:

Carver Academy's mission is academic proficiency in all subject areas and strength of character. We focus on student strengths, use assessments to ensure instruction is well received and build student knowledge and skills by providing multiple opportunities for students to achieve inside and outside the classroom. At Carver, we take persistent, consistent approaches to teaching and use research-proven strategies.

The school staff, we learn, takes a "whatever it takes" approach. The school has literacy and math coaches. Students learn African dance. Art hasn't been cut out of the budget. There are extended learning time opportunities, and tutoring at the Boys and Girls Club. Parents and teachers are thrilled with the quality learning environment. The school has partnerships with all of the major local universities and businesses. The kids, known as the Mighty Cougars, do the whole 'Mad Hot Ballroom' thing.

It ought to be wonderful. The only problem is that the students at Carver aren't learning. They attend a school that has been beyond crappy for several decades. A few years ago, after the crappiness could no longer be swept under the rug by the Milwaukee School Board, they made the decision to launch an all-out turn-around effort at the school. They changed the name from Palmer Street Elementary School (because by then, "Palmer" had become synonymous with "crappy education") to the George Washington Carver Academy of Math and Science. (Calling a crappy school an 'Academy' was so early 2000's...) They converted the place from an elementary school to a K-8 school. (Remember when that was cool?) They started making kids wear uniforms. Etc, etc. In short, Milwaukee tried a lot of the tricks that most places try when they launch a turn-around effort. They used the well-worn "turn-around" playbook.

To be fair, there are a ton of people at that school and at the Milwaukee Public Schools administration building who have worked their tails off to try to turn this school around. But when you look at the results, can anyone reasonably argue that these types of superficial turnarounds amount to little more than putting lipstick on a pig? (Apologies to Sarah Palin.)

Test scores aren't everything, of course. Still, everyone who stayed up late enough to watch the end of the Packers-Vikings tilt last night (a.k.a. everyone in Wisconsin) knows that the Badger State's math and reading exams are kind of a joke, and the results (as they have for the last few decades) show that the majority of kids who attend Palmer/Carver/Crap school simply aren't able to do basic math. They can't really read.

Carver Academy is an American tragedy. We're not sure how else to put it. What is most tragic is that the school has been allowed to be crappy for as long as it has. We have blogged about this school before, noting some of the dubious changes that were under way and some of the bizarre history from the 1990's and how Milwaukee's school choice climate had changed the calculation for a lot of families there. Back when I lived a few blocks from this school, a friend who happened to be a leader in the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association confided to me that I'd be crazy to send my kids to Palmer. She was preaching to the choir. It wasn't going to happen, though I still feel guilty about it.

Carver Academy made the news this week because, after all of these years and failed turn-around efforts, the Milwaukee School Board is finally looking at putting a padlock on the building once and for all. Under-enrollment (which happens in places like Milwaukee where many parents can choose traditional public, private, and public charter school options) makes it no longer feasible to keep the lights on in Carver.

The marketplace is working here, but did we really need to wait this long? Think of how many thousands of kids have been harmed by having to attend this crappy school in the last few decades. And, while hindsight is 20/20, wasn't it kind of predictable that making a bunch of simple, feel-good, cosmetic changes wasn't going to really, uh, turn things around?

The only thing worth salvaging in the old Palmer Elementary School was the building. That lesson should be obvious by now. We think of this all of the time in Washington when we hear people getting excited about "school improvement grants" and school turn-around efforts. We're naïve to think that going into chronically failing schools without REAL tools to build new school cultures from scratch is going to make a real difference. (It's not that we're against turn-arounds, we just are bewildered at how much support there is for fake turn-arounds like what Milwaukee did at Palmer/Carver.)

Don't start a turn-around effort unless you are ready, willing, and able to have the kind of fight it will take at the local level to really change things. Forget the lipstick. Get rid of the pig.

Joe Williams has built a reputation as one of the most effective strategists and coalition-builders in the education reform community. He is a nationally recognized analyst and public speaker on education policy and politics, reaching thousands of listeners in audiences from coast to coast each year. Read more about Joe here.