Hope and despair in Milwaukee

A diploma from a Milwaukee public high school isn’t worth much, reveals part one of a Journal-Sentinel series. Only 60 percent finish high school on schedule; those who go to college are far more likely than other students to take remedial classes and fail to graduate.

Quality varies widely among high schools and inside high schools, part two emphasizes. Writer Alan Borsuk describes three classes at Madison University High, a school with “611 students in ninth grade in the fall of 2002 and 219 in 12th grade three years later.” In the trigonometry class, 20 students (26 are enrolled) show up for “a high-grade, serious math class.” Elsewhere, students are snacking, chatting and listening to music instead of slogging through busywork.

Scene two: The class is called Employability Skills. If so, Lord help our future employers.

The teacher, Milton Perry, has been at Madison for 39 years. What kind of class is this, a reporter asks before entering the classroom. “Wild,” Perry answers. He says there are 35 students on the roster. About 20 are present on a typical day. On this day, 16 are in the classroom at 8:50 a.m., 15 minutes after the period began.

At no point in the 90-minute period does Perry do any conventional teaching to the class — a lecture or presentation of any material.

“Lecture to this group?” Perry says. “You’d be up here talking to yourself. You might as well go over there and talk to that closet.” He looks toward the students, who are spending most of the time goofing around, and says, “All they want to do is play with the cell phones, eat junk food, listen to CD players.”

What are they supposed to be doing? They have a textbook, “Succeeding in the World of Work.” Perry gave them work sheets that call for them to turn to specific pages in the text that summarize the main points of each of the 25 chapters in a few words. Then they are to fill in those phrases on the work sheet. This is Thursday; they’ve been working on this since Monday. And if they don’t finish by Friday? Perry says he’ll give them some more time. He also says it ought to take two periods to complete.

The class also is spending the entire week learning the two-letter postal abbreviations for each state. Why?

“Number one, it’s knowledge. You don’t turn down knowledge,” Perry says. He calls the lesson a “sponge activity,” because it needs to be repeated a few times before students soak it up.

In an English class, the teacher is working hard to engage students but 13 out of 33 enrolled haven’t shown up for class.

At another high school, a teacher talks of a “culture of failure.”

BTW, in a letter to Jerry Pournelle, a California high school student says her school’s easiest classes are labeled “college preparatory,” fooling students who don’t realize the academic classes are “honors,” “Advanced Placement” and occasionally “GATE” (Gifted and Talented Education).

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  1. That “workability” teacher should be out of a job.

    Maybe this school needs Principal Clark from McClatchy High in Sacramento (scroll a couple posts down, about whiners).

  2. Foobarista says:

    Kids can smell busy-work a mile away, and most will scorn it for the nonsense that it is. Memorizing postal abbreviations? They _are_ better off fiddling with their cellphones…

  3. In my high school, in the mid-60’s, there was a class called “Occupational Planning” that sounds somewhat similar to that described in the article. Luckly, the decided to cancel the class so it was no longer a requirement for students. I got to take one class. It was taught by my counselor, who started us off by having us write an autobiography of two pages. As we wrote, she walked up and down the aisles, chanting her mantra of “You kids are going to have the shock of your lives when you see your report cards this cardmarking. You’re going to wonder where all those D’s and F’s came from. You reap what you sow.”

    We were freshmen, and needless to say, this was in the era before the self-esteem movement kicked in.

  4. Jack Tanner says:

    I wonder if Mr. Perry has any issues with cashing the schools check?

  5. hardlyb says:

    I think that NCLB played into the hands of the goofball professors of education by making the central issue “closing the achievement gap”. The issue should be raising the achievement level of most individual kids, which includes taking kids that are at a high level and getting them still higher, too. I ran into this at my kids private school, where every kid gets 99 on the CAT-5 by the end of 8th grade. There was a chart showing that a few years back the 4th grade scores were really high, and then the next year they were worse. This freaked out some of the parents, but eventually I got them to realize that the blip was caused by 3 really smart kids moving through the grades. The reason that they didn’t show up in later years was that all the kids got high scores, because the test was too easy to tell them apart.

    Now I realize that our society doesn’t, on the whole, care much about the really smart kids, and I agree that they will probably be okay in spite of public education, but lumping everyone together just lets the schools keep playing games instead of actually concentrating on results. If they actually had to look at the trajectories of individual students, and show improvement for each one (really, the majprity of individual students), then we might actually find out what works and stop having to listen to ridiculous social engineering schemes.