State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s top education official since 2009, describes the state’s racial achievement gap as “extraordinarily horrible.” Haley Henschel / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
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How would you characterize the achievement gap in the state of Wisconsin?

Tony Evers: It’s extraordinarily horrible. There’s no other way to describe it. When a white kid from an impoverished family can likely achieve at a higher level than a black kid from an affluent family, there’s something wrong with the system, absolutely.

There’s all sorts of things that have been tried. Frankly, in recent years mostly governance-type things, and that’s where I have a real level of frustration. We spend all our time talking about which is better: regular public schools, voucher schools, charter schools, and you can look at the data for the most part, it doesn’t make any difference. And we’re spending all sorts of time and money focusing on that. That’s why I did this Promoting Excellence for All task force to kind of set that aside for at least a bit and talk about what’s going on in the classroom. And I thought they came up with some great recommendations. It’s not going to change overnight, and I think some of the things they propose will make a difference. But it’s going to be tough sledding. Wisconsin has a history of not being able to solve this issue and, frankly, not being able to lift people of color out of poverty in any significant way.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s top education official since 2009, describes the state’s racial achievement gap as “extraordinarily horrible.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s top education official since 2009, describes the state’s racial achievement gap as “extraordinarily horrible.” Haley Henschel / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

I’ve been around long enough that I saw the change where, especially in the African-American community in Milwaukee, the heavy manufacturing was king. People could get good family-supporting jobs for their entire life and those jobs, many of those were held by African-Americans in the Milwaukee area and in other urban areas. They disappeared virtually overnight. I know it wasn’t … here today and gone tomorrow, but they (jobs) have never recovered. They’ve replaced family-supporting jobs with no jobs or lowest-wage jobs possible, so that’s part of the ethos that we’re facing.

… Can we do more in our schools? Yes, and we should do more but the fact of the matter is we need the entire state to kind of rally around people of poverty or this will never be solved in a satisfactory way.

What is your opinion on recent policy changes to Chapter 220 and SAGE?

Evers: And those are important programs. Frankly, the 220 program was going to run out of schools sooner or later anyway because once the suburban schools reach a certain level of minority population … they would no longer be part of the program anyway.

I’ll use Brown Deer as an example. It is usually considered, in the past, an almost all-white suburban school district, pretty high-achieving, and now they’re almost 50-50. In fact, I think they’re a minority-white majority school. And that’s happening all around, so even if the Legislature hadn’t gotten rid of the 220 program this last go-around, it was steadily shrinking to a point where it really wasn’t having an immediate effect that it originally had.

SAGE is a different story. I think for the most part the literature supports smaller class sizes, especially with kids that come from difficult backgrounds and don’t have the rich experience that middle class kids have. But the fact of the matter is in Milwaukee, the class sizes still continue to have inched up, and I would say in many cases they’re well beyond what they should be for the SAGE program.

If you even look at their 3-year-old kindergarten where it’s not covered by SAGE, 40, 50 kids in the classroom, and those are the most complex kids that we really need to reach earlier. So there’s some, really some significant things working against Milwaukee and in all urban districts.

I would say, in turn, I am relatively pleased with the work of the school district in the last couple of years. They have an outstanding superintendent (Darienne Driver). She’s focusing on the right things. She’s not promising to change things overnight and focusing on teaching and learning and the kind of stuff that are important to succeed in Milwaukee.

So I think we’re headed in the right direction, but it is at a snail’s pace at best and that’s just not satisfactory.

What are some of the other causes you would say that are driving this achievement gap?

Evers: Let me back up and say what we need to do to change it. Because I think a lot of it was economics to begin with. But the other fact of the matter is, in Wisconsin, most educators look like me and come from small towns. The first time I had an interaction with someone of color was when I worked at a canning factory in high school and a couple of Hispanic guys were working next to me. And it’s just extraordinarily difficult for people that don’t have a rich, diverse background of experience to, I mean, I couldn’t walk into Milwaukee South High School and be an adequate teacher, I can tell you that. And I think a really good teacher in Pewaukee, say, wouldn’t necessarily be a top-notch teacher at South Milwaukee Division High School. There’s just some experiences that come from life or come from having exposure to more diverse cultures that really puts us at a disadvantage. I don’t know the percentage of African-American teachers in Milwaukee, but it’s very small percentage. I’m not saying white teachers can’t be successful, but they will have a more difficult time because of their background.

A state task force called Promoting Excellence for All made up of educators from across the state compiled strategies that are working to narrow racial achievement gaps. Click to read the group’s findings.

(The Promoting Excellence for All) strategies came down on the issue of making sure all teachers, no matter what their color or background, are culturally competent and understand diverse communities, (and) are willing to feel comfort in situations where they may be the only person of a different color in a setting like a classroom. That takes extraordinary planning and preparation and changing our norms.

The problem is, if we rely on us attracting more African-Americans or any people of color to the profession, I’ll be six feet under by the time that happens. It’s just, it’s not going to happen soon. Many kids of color have not had a great experience … in their schooling, and maybe the last thing they want to be is a teacher, frankly. And also — and this is a small issue, but it’s one I will continually harp on even for those students that do well in the Milwaukee area — for kids of color, a lot of times they leave the state and never come back. And I think we’re losing a significant resource.

It’s a K-through-20 issue. It’s an economic issue. But I also think we can do some things now. I think helping our teachers have good class sizes, make sure that they are culturally competent, is of huge importance. Another one that I’m hopefully going to work on with people this year … is there’s a real low-hanging fruit in Milwaukee — it could be in other urban areas of Wisconsin — the number of children that go to summer school is paltry … I think having a concerted effort at summer school will help help. We have this slide that happens every summer and we can help prevent that in a real easy way, we just have to get people in Milwaukee County energized around this. Hopefully, I’m going to be working on that and getting it going. And it’s also, as I talk to people in Milwaukee, not only is it preparing kids more academically, but we have a lot of kids getting killed here in the summer in Milwaukee. It’s an issue of safety too … If we keep them involved in school for a more lengthy period of time during the day, during the summer, we keep them safer, slow down the slide and make some progress. So that’s another thing we’re working on.

It is extraordinarily difficult when the economics of the neighborhoods are so difficult.

From the data, it looks like Wisconsin can’t educate its black students. Why is this not changing, and why can’t we as a state improve?

Evers: The fact of the matter is in some of the more recent testing we made some gains in the Hispanic community that have not been realized in the African-American community. And I think it’s more of an issue of the longevity of the economic distress that they’ve been under. And you know, they were slaves 150 years ago, and the economic reality of their lives has not changed whereas other kids of color, families of color are more recent to Wisconsin. You can use the Hmong as an example. There’s still a gap, but they score above African-Americans. And I believe I think it’s a length of time they’ve been under such extraordinarily difficult economic circumstances. There’s a huge difference in time.

We’ve had … at one point in time if you’re a second grader, African-American, in Milwaukee, you’re likely to be moving into four different schools over a year. And that’s a recipe for disaster. And some of that is the, frankly, the neighborhood school concept really doesn’t exist in Milwaukee anymore. They went to more of an interspaced specialty schools where kids are traveling all over the city. There’s high mobility, and then you have issues of poverty, you’re living with Mom for partial time or maybe Grandma or Dad, and you’re moving all the time. One of our goals, and we’ve reached it for the most part, is to work with MPS to standardize curriculum in every school so that even if you are moving you aren’t changing, starting over from scratch.

The other thing … is there is a movement in Milwaukee around the issue of community schools, and I think that has some innate merit to it. I don’t think there is a lot of good research around it, but there is common sense around it where they have all the wraparound services right there in the school, whether it’s dental or mental health, whether it’s social services, it’s all within a school and the schools actually have outreach workers that work in the community to kind of bring the people together. But the weird thing about that is you’re always going to have a hard time getting off the ground in Milwaukee because they really don’t have that many neighborhood schools anymore, so kind of rallying the parents, the community members around nurturing young kids in their neighborhood, is going to be much more difficult when those kids go 10 miles that way to school or 20 miles that way to school.

I remember I was … interviewing … a young woman from South Division High School. She was an African-American. In order for her to access all the services she needed at South Division, she had to get up at like 4 in the morning and made sure she got on the bus in time. She played sports, so she did that after school. So her day was like 4 in the morning until 10 at night and then start all over again. And that isn’t walking across the street to go home … so here’s someone who had extraordinary willingness and enthusiasm to go the extra mile and get the extra tutoring she needed, but in order to do that there was a 20-hour day, 15-hour day. It just takes so much for the individuals to do it. So kind of localizing those services a little better might be helpful. But it’s going to take more than just the school district to make this happen.

Do solutions to the achievement gap need to be broader than schools?

Evers: Absolutely. And Milwaukee has a good philanthropy community, and the other urban areas too, that really help the schools out, but it’s really hard to coordinate all those different interest groups. We’ve for years attempted, with some success, to get the early-childhood philanthropy group to act as somewhat unified, even though they’re different pots of money and that’s worked out, but it’s been very difficult other than that. The one thing I’d like that Dr. Driver has done is she’s focused on the high schools. Clearly high school in Milwaukee and our urban areas are really difficult, but I think it’s an area where there’s some unanimity in the Milwaukee community, especially about how high schools can be changed in a more positive direction — more technical career education, frankly, more music, art and (physical education), all the things we recognize when we went to school were all important that have been kind of left out of a lot of schooling at the high school level. And the other good thing about her focus there is that it won’t devolve into that argument about which types of schools are better, vouchers or charters, because MPS kind of owns that world because very few vouchers go to high school kids and very few, percentage, wise, go to an independent charter, so we can just kind of set that governing aside and focus on making high schools a more productive environment for kids.

In turn, I will say they’ve increased their graduation rates over time, and it hasn’t been to historic heights, but they’re approaching 70 percent.

John Johnson: Statewide, we have too.

Evers: We keep moving that up. Statewide, African-Americans, all kids of color, we’re moving that up. But it’s slow going.

Johnson: If you go back 20 years, MPS was graduating at like 40 percent black kids.

Tom McCarthy: The other thing they’re doing a good job of is the five- and six-year (graduation rate). They’re focusing on the fact that just because they didn’t get them at 18 as a traditional graduate, there’s still an opportunity for them to do a job and finish the work.

Johnson: I’ll give a pitch for the five- and six-year graduation rate is important. And not all reporters cover it I think as much as they should. A, our constitution in Wisconsin says you have a right to a public education until you’re 20 years old; and B, especially in districts with high percentage of kids with special needs, with an IEP (individualized education plan), they can go to school until they’re 21. And so Milwaukee is certainly a place with 23 percent of their students having IEPs that you really should look at the five- and six-year graduation rates.

Department of Public Instruction spokesman Tom McCarthy, right, and John Johnson, left, the agency’s director of education information services, note in a meeting with Tony Evers and Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reporters that five- and six-year graduation rates in Wisconsin have improved in recent years, although a racial gap remains.
Department of Public Instruction spokesman Tom McCarthy, right, and John Johnson, left, the agency’s director of education information services, note in a meeting with Tony Evers and Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reporters that five- and six-year graduation rates in Wisconsin have improved in recent years, although a racial gap remains. Haley Henschel / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Do you think real effort on the achievement gap can be made through local solutions rather than political ones?

Evers: Yes. Absolutely yes. Especially in this day and age, if the solutions are coming from Madison, they’re going to suck. And having them being done locally is far preferable.

And a small example: Every teacher in the state will have some professional development obligations that we’re going to make it extraordinarily easy to have them access the professional development stuff in the Promoting Excellence for All website and so A, they’re going to have some licensing requirements, professional development requirements. They can feed right into that stuff. Additionally, as you know in the state, … we are not in a world where the evaluation of educators is somewhat consistent across the state in expectations and teachers need to put together plans that are reflective of their evaluations. Again, they can use this information, so it’s going to be set up perfectly for that.

But to answer your question, absolutely. And I guess I was too harsh on Madison. Our goal is to get the local community involved with this. There is not going to be a program that is going to save this that is going to come from Madison.

McCarthy: I think that concept applies to more than just schools. It applies to anything you do. If you can get someone’s buy-in and their best practices, and they think it’s a good idea, they’re more likely to be successful in completing it than just telling someone you have to just go and check this box. They’re going to be lackadaisical about how they’re going to check that box, whereas if you tell them, “this is something you’re going to see the fruit of and here’s why,” and they’re bought in.

Evers: A small example of using Madison as a place where maybe we shouldn’t be expecting a lot from, except for the Department (of Public Instruction), in the last budget they passed that piece of legislation that can carve out a piece of Milwaukee Public Schools that are underperforming, and then the County Executive (Chris Abele) is somehow going to be taking over and somehow that magic governance change is going to make African-Americans achieve at some higher levels. That’s just baloney. There’s no data to support that.

Do you look to other states with positive examples of closing race-based achievement gaps?

Evers: No. There are none. I would say Florida has done some interesting things in closing the gap, but they started from a different place … I think they’ve done a good job with African-American kids, but they’ve also invested a hell of a lot of money in schooling and making sure their systems accommodate the difficulties that those kids have. I’d say (the gap) hasn’t changed at all.

Johnson: (The progress in closing the achievement gap is) sort of flattening out.

So no other states are making improvement?

Evers: In my opinion, no. I occasionally get together with those folks that are colleagues of mine, and I haven’t seen a particular state that has done differently. There’s other states that don’t have much of an achievement gap, but they don’t have many kids of color.

So in that case, Wisconsin is not unique in these stubborn trends.

Evers: No.

Johnson: You look nationally and every state has achievement gaps. Nobody has solved or has eliminated achievement gaps between (majority and minority students), especially African-American students.

Evers: And if you look at some of the states that have high percentage comparatively (of) American Indian kids that many live in just destitute … I was actually with President (Barack) Obama about a year ago now with a small group of people, and he was speaking passionately about the reservations he’s visited across this country. He said, “I’ve seen poverty in my world, but I’ve never seen anything like that.” You look at some of those states that have high percentages of Indian kids but also their achievement gaps are extraordinarily large, too.

It just has to begin with their ability to have a home life that gives them a great start.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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Becker joined the Center in June 2015 after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a journalism degree focused on reporting and a certificate in digital studies.