By Peter Hansen
he chancellor of Milwaukees public university sits at a conference table with the superintendent of the citys public schools, the president of the school board, the leader of the citys teachers union, a chamber of commerce vice president, several UWM education professors, and many others with an interest in the citys public schools.
A photo opportunity? A soapbox for lofty rhetoric? Hardly. The media arent even invited. The people at the table, these high-level public officials with busy schedules, are taking time to speak candidlyto each otherabout challenges facing public education in Milwaukee.
Some questions are holistic: How do we know were turning out good citizens who are able to manage diversity? asks Gary Williams, UWMs director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs.
Other concerns are more practical. I would like to be able to say that fifty percent of the African American boys in MPS (Milwaukee Public Schools) graduate and dont go to jail, says Jeanette Mitchell, a former school board member and president who now oversees education grants at the Helen Bader Foundation, a supporter of several UWM education initiatives. That to me would be a life success.
Welcome to a meeting of the Milwaukee Partnership Academy for Teacher Quality. As the name suggests, the academys goal is to improve the education of urban children through better preparation of teachersa major concern in big cities throughout the country.
We are inextricably joined at the hip, UWM Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher tells the gathering at the start of the retreat. That is what this partnership is all aboutsetting mutual goals, and then taking the responsibility for achieving those goals. Just think of what we could do if we really interlocked our work and strove to accomplish those goals that are mutually important to us.
Major efforts to enhance teacher education are widespread in schools of education and large school districts across the country. Involvement of the wider community in efforts to improve public education are also common in urban areas. What sets Milwaukees partnership apart is the inclusion of business and industry groups andZimpher hopesthe parties sustained commitment.
Leaders of seven major Milwaukee organizations compose the Partnership Academys board of directors: UWM, MPS, the Milwaukee School Board, Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, the Private Industry Council of Milwaukee County, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, and Ameritech.
Let me tell you, Zimpher says emphatically in an interview, if that wont put together a consistent commitment to make the changes that will allow children and youth to be successful in our educational system, I dont know what will. Its every possible lever pulling together at the table.
The Milwaukee Partnership Academy has allowed us to institutionalize that relationship, and thats very significant. I dont know if theres another city in the country that can say it has brought those parties to the table. She is quick to point out other future partners. We dont have enough parent input at the table. We have been advised to have more civic and corporate input at the table, and other higher education institutions involved in MPS. So we are in a process of becoming.
Theyve existed on the periphery of both institutions, and often embedded in projects that are funded by extramural funds, explains Howey, who is also director of the national Urban Network to Improve Teacher Education. One faculty member will have an association with one school and will work with the faculty at that school and the student teachers in that school.
And thats healthy in many regards, that we have established a more sustained and visible relationship with schools, but the problems really are larger than that. Youve got to have an inter-institutional partnership where the formal leaders in institutions sit down at the table on a sustained basis to address long-standing and deep-seated problems.
Beyond Parallel play
While Zimpher is ecstatic that the partners are at the table, she says they have yet to take the next step in the commitment. I think we have some way to go in terms of truly understanding that when you enter into a partnership, you merge your institutional goals.
UWM graduates comprised nearly 27 percent of the teachers MPS hired in 1999-2000. It should matter to us that the graduates we produce meet the expectations and the needs of the Milwaukee Public Schools. I expect we still have a lot to do in that arena.
As UWM feeds teachers to MPS, the district also feeds students to UWM, Zimpher says. It should matter to MPS whether those students come to UWM capable and ready to learn and be successful here, and I suspect we have a long way to go there, too.
Zimpher says UWM and MPS are in parallel play. Were doing what we do; theyre doing what they do. Were aware that we affect each other but weve not found a good way to really adequately document the effects of our work on each other, let alone to understand that it is a real part of our charge to make that work.
Its so easy for institutions to see themselves as single entities without the symbiotic effects of each other. And Im looking for that symbiotic relationship, that synergy that comes when two or more organizations decide that their fate is inextricably linked. Were not there.
Back at the retreat, Zimpher points to the model used in health care as an example of what education institutions could be doing. Clinical faculty have always been the purview of the health professions across the country. That is the norm, she argues. Clinical faculty members are tenured. They have a pay plan so they earn money as a professor and money as a practicing physician. Everybody understands that. They expect it. They assume it. Schools have the same need.
The Partnership Academy is bringing teachers and university faculty together with the innovative Teachers In Residence program, a cornerstone of the Academy that enlists the expertise of veteran MPS teachers in the preparation of new teachers at UWM (see separate article).
MPS Superintendent Spence Korte, who says he is by nature a collaborator, seems to be a perfect fit for the Partnership Academy. He assures retreat participants that theyre not intruding on some fiefdom that Im prince of.
I dont think its possible for any of you to get in our way. We dont own these children, he tells the retreat. We need all the help we can get. We need people who can look us in the eye and say, This is well-intended and dead wrong. I hope we can do that here. If we cant do it here, then I think we have a whole new set of problems.
In a report released last March, the state Department of Public Instruction found that only 56 percent of enrolled ninth-graders in Milwaukee Public Schools in 1995-96 went on to graduate from high school in 1998-99, compared to about 90 percent statewide. Also, the districts dropout rate is five times higher than the statewide average.
The same report found that MPS students who took the ACT college admission exam in 1998-99 achieved an average composite score 14.3 percent lower than students statewide. The districts 33% pass rate on the Advanced Placement Test was less than half of the statewide average.
Statistics such as theseand often-contentious issues such as the citys school choice program, neighborhood schools initiative, and standardized testing expansionhave attracted a lot of national attention to Milwaukees public schools. This and other qualities about the city convinces Zimpher that now is the time to take action. Milwaukee has some really critical ingredients that make it the right community at the right time to make the right moves.
Its a really compelling time, she continues. If we dont get it right, some seriously bad things are going to happen. There are great inequities in economic quality. There are issues related to race and culture that are unresolved. There are people who feel deprived of opportunity. Those three ingredients could signal a downward spiral.
We have an opportunity to turn this around. And if it is missed, I dont know when that opportunity will come again.
Under the microscope
The national interest in Milwaukees public schoolsalong with UWMs history of collaboration with MPS, and Zimpher and Howeys reputations and bold ideas for teacher educationhave attracted an unprecedented amount of funding from the U.S. Department of Education. In a six-week period in the summer of 1999, the DOE awarded UWM and its partners over $26 million. In addition to an $8.4 million, five-year Title II Partnership Grant for Improving Teacher Qualityone of 25 awarded nationallyMilwaukee also was awarded two federal GEAR-UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) grants, totaling $14.5 million, to increase college admission rates and preparedness; and two grants totaling $3.2 million for programs to help UWM and MPS train teachers to more effectively use computer technology.
Zimpher views the Partnership Academy as a way to unite all these major grants and programsas well as UWMs existing reform effortsunder one umbrella.
You cant talk about GEAR-UP and the curriculum for young learners without talking about the content of teacher preparation and the work of teacher leaders, Zimpher tells the retreat. Weve got a good head of steam on understanding what weve put together.
Marleen Pugach, director of UWMs primary/middle teacher education program, describes the Title II grant and the resulting Partnership Academy as invaluable.
We were involved in reforming the program before grant arrived, she says in an interview. We were working toward change, but we didnt have a structure to unify all those efforts, and the grant provided the strucutre to unify and push ahead all of the efforts.
After the retreat, Korte expresses his appreciation of Zimphers efforts, crediting the Partnership with improved communication between the district and the teachers union.
We have a long history of a contetious relationship with the bargaining units, Korte says of MPS, where he was an administrator for 25 years before becoming superintendent in 1999. Were actually finding new ways to talk to each other or to try to hear each other. Really, our conversation with the universitythis one and othersis of much better quality than has ever been developed.
Before Nancy arrived, there was a lot of grumbling and finger-pointing, but now were actually saying, We both have a vested interest in doing this better. Lets do it together. So the whole notion of Nancy committing UWM to be involved in education as an institution is really driving a lot of this conversation.
I think shes the first chancellor who really understood the absolutely critical relationship between what the university does and its impact on the schools, Korte says. Weve always had little conversations and seminars and this and that. The conversation here is about changing the face of structures, changing our cultures.
Im excited because its promoting a greater understanding between the theorythat is, the theory of education that takes place at the university level, the theory of preparing teachers, the theory of childhood developmentand real life.
Zimpher and Howey envision a larger role for the MTEA. I think over time the union will play a leadership role in defining what constitutes quality teaching and learning and what performance standards are appropriate, what rewards and incentives ought to exist for teachers who are performing roles in professional development, Zimpher says.
I really think they play a huge role in defining the nature of initial teacher preparation and how veteran teachers can help beginning teachers, and then their commitment to the importance of continuing professional development. I think theyre pivotal on all aspects.
Educational institutions arent the only local organizations with concerns about education. As a major recipient of MPS graduates, Milwaukee-area employers are making their concerns heard in the partnership.
The bottom line for business and industry, Zimpher says, is that Milwaukee Public Schoolsand all of public and private educationproduce for them a competent and qualified workforce. Were all working to better understand what the ingredients of a qualified worker are. It is obviously high technological skill, but its also good communication skills and good team skils and leadership skills and, frankly, intellectual and cultural skills.
Gerard Randall, CEO of the Private Industry Council, agrees. Leadership is critical. In those buildings where youve got staff that is enthusiastic, believe that all students can achieve, are willing to work with modest resources to achieve phenomenal outcomes, indicate to students and parents that they truly care about them, you will also have better student achievement and student attendance.
Howey says the business community may also contribute their ideas about management.
I think we have a lot to learn from the private sector about leadership development, about organizational development, about well-run businesses, he says. A lot of urban schools arent well-run from a business perspective.
Most people in that sector are well intentioned, and as a matter of fact want to be helpful and have something to offer. Thats not to say that they dont have their own agenda at times and that that agenda can be somewhat self-serving. But after all, these are public schools and (businesses) are vested stakeholders, and I dont think weve done a good job of both listening to them and enlisting their support.
Does Zimpher have any reservations about a close relationship between business and education?
None, she says firmly. The closer the better, because the realities of schooling are incredibly complex, and I think the further away you are from the front line, the more facile you think the solutions are. So the closer the better.
The wide-reaching Milwaukee Partnership Academy is just one example of the big ideas Zimpher has had for the university and the community since coming to Milwaukee. The academy is a component of The Milwaukee Idea, her ambitious, university-wide plan unveiled amid much fanfare shortly after her arrival in 1998. Community-university partnerships are at the heart of The Milwaukee Idea, which addresses issues ranging from campus and community design, cross-cultural understanding, and economic opportunity to aquatic, environmental, and personal health, to technology and globalization.
Zimphers focus on the community has been refreshing for many people on and off campus.
Very few chancellors take a view toward the community, says Marshall Goodman, former dean of the UWM College of Letters and Science. One of our goals and aspirations is to really be a great asset to the community, and of course one of the key community institutions is the schools. And thats what I think in particular Nancy has brought to Milwaukee thats so remarkable.
The Partnership Academy board of directors first met in September 1999. I think some of them were startled, Goodman recalls. Here was the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee taking this initiative. Previous chancellors had not taken an interest in MPS or the school system in general. There was no coordinated mission. She really put that on the table immediately. It was quite something to see.
The partnership has led to change inside UWM as well as outside. Zimpher views the collaboration between the School of Education and the College of Letters and Science that was accelerated by the Partnership Academy as a critical ingredient.
The power of what UWM brings to this partnership is the internal partnership between Education and Letters and Science, between the teaching disciplines and the pedagogy of teaching those disciplines, she says. I think its really evolved as a part of these grants and this partnership.
Other partnership members recognize the uniqueness of such a collaboration.
I think just to have different schools within a large university working together is something of a breakthrough, says School Board President Thompson. Universities tend to be very segmented.
MTEAs Carmen agrees. The traditional vision of a liberal arts education and what role it might play in training and preparing teachers, teachers that are practicing, and the next generation of teachersto me thats very exciting, he says.