I had the opportunity to listen to an amazing panel discussion at the monthly Professional Dimensions luncheon yesterday. The goal of the meeting was to present the PD membership with information about the current Milwaukee Public School (MPS) situation in a non-political and collaborative way.
The panelists included Sr. Joel Read, President Emerita of Alverno College, Alan Borsuk, Senior Fellow in Law and Public Policy at Marquette University Law and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist, Mike Gousha Distinguished Fellow in Law and Public Policy and TV journalist, and moderator Michael Spector, Boden Visiting Professor of Law at Marquette University Law School. Sr. Joel Read discussed the systems and programs that were currently in place and told us what was good about MPS. Yes, there ARE good things about MPS. Did you know that MPS has one of the best IT infrastructures anywhere? I had no idea either. But the one thing she said that struck me was that she felt that the biggest problem at MPS is that they don’t communicate.
This sentiment was echoed when Alan Borsuk discussed his perspective on MPS. He shared many shameful and disheartening statistics on the racial gaps present at MPS. Contrary to what might be expected from a reporter who covers mainly negative news about MPS, he actually said he was an optimist about the school and felt that, “The only way we can solve MPS’ problems is we have to own up to them.” He is hoping to help that process by reporting the facts to our community so we will start talking. Once again, communication.
Alan also shared that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that it was time for Milwaukee to, “wake up” and that a study of the district’s human resource function was so brutally honest he called it, “mean.” The study showed no coordination of academics and no sense of urgency to fix the problems. He also told us how the board filed away the report when it was presented with no discussion. Once again, communication.
Mike Gousha talked about the importance of leadership and consistency. He said that to see the revolving door of principals at some schools was, “disheartening,” and that it lead to teachers and students feeling like nobody cared. He also discussed the many reasons why change is difficult, many of which are political. There are many people talking about working together, but he found that when he asked hard questions, nobody was really willing to compromise. Lots of talking, no listening. Once again, communication.
I’m not foolish enough to think that marketing can fix the world, but as someone who helps people communicate their ideas, causes, and services every day, I couldn’t help noticing how communication kept coming up at the heart of this issue. Poor communication has kept the good in MPS a secret. It has also created a culture of complacency. Just like people need clear direction when trying to understand the features and benefits of a product or service, people in the schools need to know how the work that they do is making a difference in the grand scheme of things. Sr. Joel Read compared turning around MPS to turning an ocean liner around. It’s a slow process and sometimes it feels like you are not moving at all. That makes the sharing of information even more important. From a communications standpoint, MPS has many of the same problems business owners have. You can no longer take a mediocre product, hype it up with advertising, and overcome its deficiencies enough to make your sales goals. People have the technology to make their individual voices heard far and wide and businesses can no longer survive unless they live up to their promises. Let’s hope MPS can rise up to their communications challenges. Milwaukee is an amazing city and our children deserve the best.