Milwaukee schools look for results from ‘Ambitious Instruction’

Will a new approach mean better teaching or more teaching to the test?

Group of young children in a classroom
'School friends' by woodleywonderworks (Creative Commons license 2.0)

For two hours on Wednesday evening, Oct. 16, Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Keith Posley and his staff outlined before the school board their vision of “Ambitious Instruction.” Board members complimented the administration on a well-developed instructional plan to raise academic achievement. But there was also an undercurrent of skepticism from board members that the administration was leading the district astray in pursuit of standardized-test benchmarks in reading, writing and mathematics.  

Ambitious Instruction cannot be easily summed up. It is a basket of practices including collaborative planning by teachers, analyzing test data and using the most up-to-date delivery systems in reading, writing and math skills. Beyond teaching facts and basic skills, the idea is to have students apply what they have learned in productive ways.

Holding Ambitious Instruction is like holding in one’s hand a scoopful of sand from the seashore. No two people hold the exact concept in the same way. “It’s good teaching from bell to bell,” distilled Posley.

But school board member Bob Peterson reacted to the “bell to bell” reference by recalling that a previous superintendent, Gregory Thornton, wanted students to dive into their textbooks almost immediately on the first day of school. Thornton wasn’t happy seeing teachers handing out homemade cookies and playing name games to get to know each other when he toured a school on the first day. Peterson, then president of the teachers’ union, MTEA, went along on that first-day-of-school tour. Peterson was just as interested in the human interaction as he was in academic achievement. Yes, we should make students “College and Career ready,” said Peterson. But he also wanted to add a third “C” – “Civic ready.”

School board member Tony Baez is even more critical.  “We should start giving priority to the arts, to music, to languages, things that engage kids and teachers. The kinds of things that address basic human issues of communication, of people coming together.”

Milwaukee is a microcosm of the nation

What is happening in Milwaukee Public Schools is a microcosm of what is happening throughout Wisconsin and nationally. More than 17 years after the inception of No Child Left Behind, a federal program which focused on basic skills and test scores — a program which often deemphasized art, emotional and creative skills — a backlash has taken place, emphasizing music, art, civics, and human interaction.

The new federal program, Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), has narrowed the use of standardized tests using other measurements to determine the achievement of students and schools.

Milwaukee Public Schools chief academic officer Jeremiah Holiday emphasizes that Ambitious Instruction and other skills, including instruction in music and arts, are not mutually exclusive. One can make the argument that good teaching, which includes the arts and emotional/creative skills, will help raise academic performance.

School board president Larry Miller agrees. Properly understood, Ambitious Instruction includes “a whole variation of approaches that are classroom centered,” says Miller. That includes all aspects of learning, not just diving into basic textbooks in reading, writing and math.

“None of this comes naturally,” Miller points out. With minimal training, many teachers are likely to go to training sessions, nod their heads in agreement, and then go back to their classrooms and teach the way they have always done. 

The measure of success is still standardized test scores

How do we know if Ambitious Instruction is being followed? Holiday admits, “We are looking at the achievement of our students.” And that means looking at standardized tests. 

Some teachers may just cut to the chase and teach to the test. Teachers need extensive training, says Miller, and his conversations with Posley indicate that the superintendent struggles to have all the necessary resources to do that proper training.

Baez says that principals have told him that their tight budgets often do not allow them to send teachers to training sessions after school or on Saturdays, nor to hire substitute teachers to replace classroom teachers for training sessions during school hours.

Miller points to San Antonio, a district which has shown success using a similar program. Miller hopes that Milwaukee can show similar results in its second year of Ambitious Instruction.

“I’m waiting for best practices and data to show how it is working. If it is working in a particular classroom, tell me about it. Bring that teacher in so she can talk about it,” says Miller. “I need to hear those things from Milwaukee.” So far what he has heard from Holiday, he says, is pretty theoretical with few concrete examples.

Holiday admits that, while numerous studies support individual components in Ambitious Instruction, he can’t point to studies that systematically analyze the effectiveness of the basket of components taken together.

Will Ambitious Instruction squeeze out art?

School board member Megan O’Halloran is thrilled that the board passed a resolution that will extend art, music, and other programs principally to inner city schools that have been underserved, but she is worried that, given the district’s limited resources, Ambitious Instruction will squeeze out other programs.

O’Halloran remembers that, as a student in an elementary school in Shorewood, her school had two gym teachers, a librarian, art teacher and music teacher, and she was able to learn the flute. She compares that with her own daughter attending the MPS school Fratney. “My daughter didn’t have half that. She had gym every other week. They had a full-time librarian, and an art teacher, but a patchwork music instruction. And I don’t think that is fair.”

“The system is rigged against us,” says O’Halloran. “If the test scores are not there, that is the opening to privatize or Madison needing to say, ‘Things aren’t going well, so we need to take action.’’’ 

And that may mean further constraints on creativity and flexibility in the classroom.