Accelify Blog

MPS Takes Few Special Ed Steps, Report Says (WI)

July 30, 2010

A new report on Milwaukee Public Schools’ efforts to reform its special education programs and services for all students gives the district the equivalent of a failing grade.

The report, by an independent expert, says the district met only 44% of the 38 action steps it was ordered to complete as part of the first year of the Jamie S. Compliance Plan.

That plan is a major component of a special education lawsuit settlement between the state Department of Public Instruction and Disability Rights Wisconsin that aims to improve results in MPS.

"MPS is off to a disappointing and very troubling start that looks like more of the same rather than a bold, new beginning," writes Alan Coulter, the expert court-ordered to oversee the DPI as it pushes for improvements in MPS.

"While the interaction between the Office of the Independent Expert and DPI has increased to a highly satisfactory level, MPS has remained a resistant party to direct involvement of the Independent Expert and others in that office."

Coulter delivered the news in an unflattering 51-page report that was even more critical of MPS’ efforts to improve education for all students in the district than the four-month review he issued in March.

The district became even more uncooperative with the office of the independent expert after that point, Coulter said in an interview Thursday.

But, he added, he has high hopes the new MPS administration will handle things differently.

Superintendent Greg Thornton took office July 1.

In the first-year of implementation of the Jamie S. plan, MPS is out of compliance with 56% of its required action steps.

Among the major problems, according to the report:

Professional development for teachers: Less than one in seven teachers, on average, took part in professional development in literacy during the school year. The median participation rates for professional development in math was 11%; for learning how to use student data, 18%.

"There has to be some form of mandatory professional development for MPS to make progress," Coulter said in an interview, adding that that was especially true with the new literacy plan.

Analyzing student data: The district collects a variety of data on student performance, but it does not comparatively analyze it, the report says. Coulter wrote that the district needs to set a uniform standard cut-off score for assessments so that teachers can recognize early warning signs and decide which kids may need early intervention services.

The School Board: The Milwaukee board adopted a universal screening measure, called Measures of Academic Progress, in July that was not first submitted to the DPI for approval. Despite being notified that the proposed measure was not approved, the School Board acted, Coulter wrote.

"This blatant repudiation of the compliance plan process does not suggest good working relationships or a realization of the accountability status of the district," he added.

In response, School Board President Michael Bonds said Thursday that he was unaware the board was approving something that hadn’t been OK’d by the DPI. It is the administration’s job, he said, to bring forth recommendations to the board that meet all the appropriate requirements.

Parent involvement:The report states that no plan for parent involvement was submitted for approval and that the district seemed to be telling parents what to do, rather than listening to them and understanding their needs.

"How do families support schools if they are not treated as partners?" Coulter asks in the report.

Roseann St. Aubin, spokeswoman for MPS, said Thursday that the district was still reviewing the report. Special education is among the new administration’s highest priorities, she added.

"We continue to have positive discussions with the Department of Public Instruction staff on compliance issues," she wrote in an e-mail. "We know it will yield good things for children. In the classroom, we anticipate being able to fully serve our special needs students in the 2010-2011 school year."

Coulter said Thursday that he had met with new MPS Superintendent Thornton and believed that strained relations with the district would improve under his leadership.

John Johnson, spokesman for the DPI, said the state had ramped up its efforts to work on improving education for MPS.

It is involved in two major improvement plans for MPS. First is the Jamie S. Compliance Plan, which aims to improve services for all children – not just those with a disability or who receive special education services. This is because a district can’t consistently identify kids for special services unless it adequately can screen all students and supply them with quality instruction, early interventions and appropriate materials.

The DPI also is overseeing what’s known as MPS’ Corrective Action Plan. That plan is in place because the district has failed to make progress for a number of years under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Some of the elements of the Corrective Action Plan incorporate changes also required by the Jamie S. Compliance Plan, Johnson said.

The class-action special education dates to 2001, when Disability Rights Wisconsin brought the case against the DPI and MPS. The group contended that MPS for years had failed to adequately find and serve special education students and that the state had failed in its oversight of the district.

The DPI settled with the group in 2008, and that settlement led to a court order creating Coulter’s position.

MPS did not settle with Disability Rights Wisconsin and is appealing aspects of the case. Oral arguments in that appeal are scheduled for Sept. 7.