The State of Public Schools in Milwaukee

A fight over governance. Speedy hire of a new Superintendent. A model school chastised for success. A business community on the sidelines. Failing students. Entrenched dysfunction.

We see these things happening in Milwaukee and feel outraged, ashamed, and sometimes incredulous, but largely paralyzed to do anything about it. What’s going on?

I had the privilege of helping to build a Leadership Academy in New York City when Mayor Bloomberg took over the public school system in 2003. As in all change initiatives, our work was difficult, uneven, and stimulating. Thanks to tremendous engagement, dedication, and perseverance, we made things better for kids.

Earlier this month, I was once again privileged to help launch a new Leadership Academy for a charter school system in Dallas, Texas. Forty school leaders overcame their anxiety about leaving school for five days and their skepticism that any leadership experience could have a meaningful impact on their lives or their work to participate in the beginning of a six-month leadership development journey. They received encouragement from a New York City principal who sent the following (excerpted) message:

“It is a great honor for me to send a message of encouragement your way. Seven years ago I was in your shoes, anxious, nervous but committed to becoming an exemplary school leader. The weight of the world seemed to be on my shoulders, and now that I look back, I can safely say, that it was. My saving grace was that I was in the company of those who could advise me, direct me, encourage me, and teach me what true leadership means. To say that their influence was great in my bringing a failing school to the peak of success is an understatement. Their expertise, manner, and emotional support helped me develop into a confident leader with a vision for my school’s development and ultimate rebirth. Remember, that the work we do in schools will change the lives of children, our country, and society itself.”

We will launch another Leadership Academy in south Texas in July. In March, we will do the same in Brunei, a tiny country surrounded by Malaysia, with 250 schools determined to give their children a truly world-class education.

I don’t know anything about Brunei’s schools. What I know about the country comes from a Google search. It is Islam and oil rich. Its governance is dictatorial. This information gives me pause, yet the prospect of working with people who are willing to step out of their comfort zone (a fundamental premise of our work) to help children learn, grow, and embrace a future of opportunity energizes me tremendously.

Why does MPS resist change so vehemently? Why are the excuses for failure so carefully protected? Why are schools that excel in educating kids and creating new opportunity—The Ronald Reagan Wilson College Preparatory High School led by Julia D’Amato—looked upon with suspicion and even disdain?

There is something wrong in the stories being told. The question that thunders through my mind as I read and watch and listen is: “How dare you destroy the future for these kids?”

Of course nobody thinks in those terms. We are all good people, after all, looking after the interests of our young people. But, in the words of a Dallas educator who shared this “ah-ha” realization with me this week, “We are enabling people to be disabled.”

For the sake of our kids and their futures, let’s cut that out.

Categories: Culture

About Susan Marshall

founder susan marshall

Susan A. Marshall is author, speaker and founder, whose mission is to create a stronger, more confident future, one person or team at a time.  Through personal experience and hands-on work with executives from diverse industries at all levels, Susan has had the privilege of helping thousands of people do the difficult and exhilarating work of growth.