The agents of school change face a tough challenge

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:21 pm

The agents of school change face a tough challenge
By David Niles, SBT Editor
Thomas Hicks seems to be a person who can make change happen. He has a plan. He has people supporting him. He has passion and conviction. And what he wants is really important.
He wants every student in the Racine Unified School District to get a great education at the district’s schools.
Hicks, the new new superintendent of the Racine Unified School District, is charged with turning around a district that, like many urban school systems, hasn’t provided the universal education that should be provided – and not because it’s not possible to provide such a great education.
Hicks is not asking for more money for the district, although that may be needed, he says. What he is asking for is change. Wholesale change. Because, he says, the current design of public education does not allow for a great education for other than a few of the students who come through the doors.
He adds that the proper focus has been lost in many schools, stating that schools aren’t about children anymore. Many of the problems being dealt in schools are problems “with older children we call adults,” he told the crowd as the keynote speaker at the 2001 Small Business Person of the Year award breakfast of Racine Area Manufacturers and Commerce. Only by radically changing the institution – which will mean uprooting and removing those layers of bureaucracy that won’t change, will schools excel, he added. (There’s a lot more to his plan, which can be seen online at
As has been seen in Milwaukee when attempts have been made to implement change on widescale levels, it’s a tough row to hoe. Really tough. But one that still needs to be hoed — with as many weeds as possible removed.
Having just attended a reunion of my 1971 grade school graduating class, I found Hicks’ comments to be especially interesting. There were more than 90 of us in that class at St. Robert’s in Shorewood. And most of us turned out pretty well. Members of the class went on to become doctors and lawyers, business owners, leaders in their communities in a variety of ways both great and humble, and great moms and dads.
By today’s standards, none of us should have turned out so well. Why? There were so many of us. There were three rooms for each grade at St. Robert’s back in those days. In 1964, the average classroom size was 43. My sixth-grade classroom had 38 students, and one teacher – Mrs. Mulligan. She and the other teachers obviously couldn’t have given us 30-plus kids the same amount of attention as she could have if there had been 20 or 15 students per room.
Yes, most of us had supportive (and large) families. And that may be the key to our success. Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance recently noted at a luncheon at Heartland Advisors in Milwaukee that there is little correlation between school spending and educational outcome. There is high correlation between family support and education outcome. Unfortunately, in today’s society, the family support is lacking for so many students.
Dynamic superintendents don’t seem to get much support, either. They don’t last long these days in any one district. The change they seek is not welcome. And as Hicks notes, none of them retire happy. Let’s hope he’ll get to enjoy retirement, many years from now.
November 9, 2001 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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