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Behind Grass-Roots School Advocacy, Bill Gates

Sam Dillon, via a kind reader's email:

A handful of outspoken teachers helped persuade state lawmakers this spring to eliminate seniority-based layoff policies. They testified before the legislature, wrote briefing papers and published an op-ed article in The Indianapolis Star. They described themselves simply as local teachers who favored school reform -- one sympathetic state representative, Mary Ann Sullivan, said, "They seemed like genuine, real people versus the teachers' union lobbyists." They were, but they were also recruits in a national organization, Teach Plus, financed significantly by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. For years, Bill Gates focused his education philanthropy on overhauling large schools and opening small ones. His new strategy is more ambitious: overhauling the nation's education policies. To that end, the foundation is financing educators to pose alternatives to union orthodoxies on issues like the seniority system and the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers.
The Gates Foundation has funded many initiatives, including the controversial "small learning community" program.

The Process for Discussing Madison School District High School Alignment

Superintendent Dan Nerad:

This is to provide clarity, transparency and direction in improving our high school curriculum and instruction, with ongoing communication. (As presented to the MMSD Board of Education on January 6, 2011) The following guiding principles were discussed:
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'Embedded honors' program has issues

Mary Bridget Lee:

The controversy at West High School continues about the Madison School District's new talented and gifted program. Students, parents and teachers decry the plan, pointing to the likelihood of a "tracking" system and increasingly segregated classes. While I am in agreement with them here, I must differ when they mistakenly point to the current "embedded honors" system as a preferable method for dealing with TAG students. The idea itself should immediately raise red flags. Teaching two classes at the same time is impossible to do well, if at all. Forcing teachers to create twice the amount of curriculum and attempt to teach both within a single context is unrealistic and stressful for the educators. The system creates problems for students as well. There is very little regulation in the execution of these "embedded honors" classes, creating widely varying experiences among students. By trying to teach to two different levels within one classroom, "embedded honors" divides teachers' attention and ultimately impairs the educational experiences of both groups of students. While the concerns raised about Superintendent Dan Nerad's plan are legitimate, "embedded honors" as a solution is not.
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A rebellion at Madison West High School over new curriculum

Lynn Welch

When Paul Radspinner's 15-year-old son Mitchell wanted to participate in a student sit-in last October outside West High School, he called his dad to ask permission. "He said he was going to protest, and wanted to make sure I had no problem with it. I thought, 'It's not the '60s anymore,'" recalls Radspinner. The students, he learned, were upset about planned curriculum changes, which they fear will eliminate elective class choices, a big part of the West culture. "It was a real issue at the school," notes Radspinner. "The kids found out about it, but the parents didn't." This lack of communication is a main reason Radspinner and 60 other parents recently formed a group called West Cares. Calling itself the "silent majority," the group this month opposed the new English and social studies honors classes the district is adding next fall at West, as well as Memorial. (East and La Follette High Schools already offer these classes for freshmen and sophomores.) The parents fear separating smarter kids from others at the ninth-grade level will deepen the achievement gap by pushing some college-bound students into advanced-level coursework sooner. They also believe it will eviscerate West's culture, where all freshmen and sophomores learn main subjects in core classes together regardless of achievement level. "It's a big cultural paradigm shift," says parent Jan O'Neil. "That's what we're struggling with in the West community."
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Unlike Madison, Evanston is cutting honors classes

Chris Rickert:

Twenty-three years ago I walked the halls of Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Ill., with a diverse mix of white-, black- and brown-skinned fellow students. Then I would walk into an honors class and be confronted with a near-blanket of white. Not much has changed at my alma mater, and as a result the school district has been embroiled in a contentious curriculum debate that touches on race, academics and the meaning of public education itself. Sound familiar? Evanston and Madison are both affluent, well-educated and liberal. And both have high schools where racial achievement gaps are the norm. Their school districts differ, though, in their approach to that gap today: Evanston is cutting honors classes; Madison is adding them. Unlike Madison, Evanston has long had a sizable minority population and began desegregating its elementary and middle schools in the 1960s -- with some positive academic results. Seniors at ETHS, the city's only public high school, last year had an average ACT score of 23.5, or 2.5 points higher than the national average. This in one of only five states that requires its students to take the test and in a high school whose student population, about 2,900, is 43 percent white, 32 percent black and 17 percent Latino.

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More here.

Response to Madison West High Parents' Open Letter

Madison School Board Member Ed Hughes:

As to the first point, I wish people were a bit less concerned about what will inconvenience or irritate our teachers and a bit more concerned about what's best for our students. I think it is absolutely correct that the alignment plan will reduce the autonomy of teachers. Classes will have to be designed and taught against an overriding structure of curricular standards that will need to be addressed. I think that is a good thing. We'd all like the freedom and autonomy to be able to define our own job responsibilities so that we could spend our time exclusively on the parts of our jobs that we particularly like and are good at, but that is certainly not the way that effective organizations work. I believe that teachers need to be held accountable for covering a specific, consistent, coherent and rigorous curriculum, because that is what's best for their students. I don't see how holding teachers to curriculum standards should inhibit their skills, creativity or engagement in the classroom. The second point concerns 9th and 10th grade accelerated class options and the accusation that this will result in "segregation." This line of argument has consistently bothered me. We don't hear much from African-American parents who are upset about the possibility of accelerated classes because, as the open letter puts it, they will result in "more segregation." On the contrary, we on the Board have heard a number of times from middle class African-American parents who are dissatisfied, sometimes to the point of pulling their kids from our schools, because their kids regularly experience situations where well-meaning teachers and staff assume that because the kids are African-American, they'll need special help or won't be able to keep up with advanced class work. I think that frustration with this essentially patronizing attitude has contributed to community support for the Madison Prep proposal. It seems to me that the open letter suggests the same attitude.
It will be interesting to see how the course options play out. I suspect this will be a marathon, as it has been since the grant driven small learning community initiative and the launch of English 10 some years ago. I very much appreciate Ed's comments, including this "a bit more concerned about what's best for our students". Lots of related links: More here.

Madison Schools will press ahead with High School honors classes despite protests

Matthew DeFour:

Despite lingering concerns from some parents, students and teachers, the Madison School District will introduce 9th and 10th grade honors classes next fall at West High School -- changes that prompted a student protest last fall. Superintendent Dan Nerad said he discussed with staff over the weekend the possibility of not introducing the honors classes after school board members and parents raised questions at a meeting Thursday night. Nerad said the decision comes down to following the district's talented-and-gifted plan, which called for offering honors classes at all high schools starting in this current school year. "This has already been put off a year," Nerad said in an interview Monday. "We have an obligation to move forward with what's been identified in the TAG plan." On Friday, 18 West parents sent a letter to the district asking that the honors classes be delayed.
Lots of related links: More here.

An Update on Madison's High School Reforms

TJ Mertz:

The issues are the failure of the MMSD Administration to follow basic practices of open inclusive governance and the implementation of segregative policies. Below (and here) [70K PDF] is an open letter drafted and signed by 18 West High parents on Friday 1/7/2010. Understanding the letter requires some background and context. The background -- along with the latest news and some final thoughts -follows.

Lots of related links:

More here.

Too dumb? Too fat? Too bad

Mark Brunswick:

It's been well-documented that many high school grads are now too fat to meet the U.S. military's physical requirements. Now it turns out that many of those same kids may be too dumb. The nonprofit Education Trust released a first-ever report this week showing that more than one in five young people don't meet the minimum standard required for Army enlistment. Among minority candidates the ineligibility rates are higher: 29 percent. In Minnesota, the disparity for black applicants was even more startling: 40 percent were found to be ineligible. Among Hispanics in Minnesota the rate was 20 percent, but among whites, it was 14.1 percent. This is more a distressing indictment of the U.S. education system than it is a testament to today's Cheeto-eating, Xbox-playing youth, say the authors of the report. It strips away that illusion that the military can be an easy landing ground for those not bound for college, and it suggests that national security is at stake.

More on Madison's Response to DPI Complaint

Great Madison Schools.org

In its response to the Department of Public Instruction's request for information on its talented and gifted services, the Madison School District points out that the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) has recently updated its standards for TAG programming. Now, the District argues, the NAGC standards "actually serve as validation of the District's current practices," including West High School's claim that it meets the needs of talented and gifted students through differentiation within regular classrooms. We disagree. The NAGC issued its revised standards in September, around the same time West High School area parents filed a complaint against the Madison School District for allowing West High to deny appropriate programming to academically gifted students. West has refused for years to provide alternatives to its regular core curriculum for 9th and 10th graders who demonstrate high performance capabilities in language arts and social studies. The District writes:
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Madison School District Responds to DPI

Great Madison Schools

On November 29, 2010, the Madison School District responded to a request for information from the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) about Madison's services for talented and gifted students. The DPI initiated an audit of Madison's talented and gifted programming after West High School area parents filed a complaint on September 20, 2010, arguing that West refuses to provide appropriate programs for ninth and tenth grade students gifted in language arts and social studies. West requires all freshmen and sophomores to take regular core English and history courses, regardless of learning level. (All three of Madison's other comprehensive high schools-East, LaFollette, and Memorial-provide advanced sections of core subjects before 11th grade. East and LaFollette offer advanced and/or honors sections starting in ninth grade, while Memorial offers English 10 honors and AP World History for tenth graders.) As part of a Small Learning Community Initiative phased in over the past decade, West implemented a one-size-for-all English and social studies program to stop different groups of students from following different courses of study. Some groups had typically self-selected into rigorous, advanced levels while others seemed stuck in more basic or remedial levels. Administrators wanted to improve the quality of classroom experience and instruction for "all students" by mixing wide ranges of ability together in heterogeneous classrooms.

All Together Now? Educating high and low achievers in the same classroom

Michael Petrilli, via a kind reader's email:

The greatest challenge facing America's schools today isn't the budget crisis, or standardized testing, or "teacher quality." It's the enormous variation in the academic level of students coming into any given classroom. How we as a country handle this challenge says a lot about our values and priorities, for good and ill. Unfortunately, the issue has become enmeshed in polarizing arguments about race, class, excellence, and equity. What's needed instead is some honest, frank discussion about the trade-offs associated with any possible solution. U.S. students are all over the map in terms of achievement (see Figure 1). By the 4th grade, public-school children who score among the top 10 percent of students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are reading at least six grade levels above those in the bottom 10 percent. For a teacher with both types of students in her classroom, that means trying to challenge kids ready for middle-school work while at the same time helping others to decode. Even differences between students at the 25th and at the 75th percentiles are huge--at least three grade levels. So if you're a teacher, how the heck do you deal with that?
Lots of related links:

The Six Major Components of the MMSD High School Plan

Madison School Board Member Ed Hughes

In an earlier post, I provided my understanding of the background of the protest at West High about the proposal for changes in the District's high school curriculum. I explained how the proposal was an outgrowth of the work that has gone on at the high schools for the last few years under the auspices of a federal grant, known as the REaL grant (for Relationships, Engagement and Learning). That proposal, which will affect all four of the District's comprehensive high schools and is now known as the High School Career and College Readiness Plan, has since evolved somewhat, partially in response to the feedback that has been received and partially as a consequence of thinking the proposals through a bit more. Here is where things currently stand. The high school proposal should start a conversation that could last for a few years regarding a long-term, systematic review of our curriculum and the way it is delivered to serve the interests of all learners. What's currently on the table is more limited in scope, though it is intended to serve as the foundation for later work. The principal problem the proposal is meant to address is that we currently don't have any district-defined academic standards at the high school level. There is no established set of expectations for what skills students should be learning in each subject area each year. Since we don't have any basic expectations, we also don't have any specific and consistent goals for accelerated learning. A corollary of this is that we really don't have many ways to hold a teacher accountable for the level of learning that goes on in his or her classroom. Also, we lack a system of assessments that would let us know how our students are progressing through high school.
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Segregating the smart from the not-as-smart helps nobody

Chris Rickert

I've never been accused of having any talent worth nurturing in an Advanced Placement class, although I'm sure there are some who would say I have a gift for irritating people. (Unfortunately, they don't give out Rhodes Scholarships for that.) So feel free to take what I'm about to say with a grain of salt, or a healthy dose of sour grapes on my part, but I question the utility of the way we challenge the young brainiacs among us. Diving deeply into physics or fine arts might make for good rocket scientists and concert pianists, but it would also seem inevitably to exclude a certain less intense, yet broader range of experiences and the people they include. My new Facebook friends and perhaps the most courteous political insurgents ever, Madison West seniors Joaquin Selva and Jacob Fiksel, admitted to something along those lines when I ran into them Wednesday at the school district's Community Conversation on Education.
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Madison grapples with how to serve 'Talented and Gifted'

Gayle Worland, via a kind reader's email:

Three times a week, Van Hise Elementary fifth-grader Eve Sidikman and two fellow students from her school board a bus bound for GEMS, the Madison school district's "Growing Elementary Math Students" program for students whose math abilities are so high they aren't challenged in a standard classroom. Eve's bus also makes the rounds to Randall and Thoreau before pulling up to the curb at Shorewood Elementary, where Eve and her GEMS classmates have a two-hour math session taught by a member of the district's Talented and Gifted staff. "She teaches it in a creative and fun way," Eve, who was placed in GEMS after her mother sought out and paid for a national test that proved Eve was capable of acing eighth-grade math, said of her teacher. "I think she's preparing us for our middle school years well." The Madison School district is grappling with how best to serve students deemed "Talented and Gifted," or TAG in district shorthand -- partly to stem a talent drain through open enrollment, partly to satisfy a vocal group of dissatisfied parents, and partly to find more Eves who don't necessarily have a family with the financial means, determination and know-how to capitalize on their student's untapped talents. District critics say change is happening too slowly -- something Superintendent Dan Nerad admits -- and programs like GEMS are few and far between. Advocates also acknowledge, however, there is skepticism of gifted services among both the public and educators at a time when so many students fail to meet even minimal standards.
Lots of related links: Watch, listen or read an interview with UW-Madison Education Professor Adam Gamoran. Gamoran was interviewed in Gayle Worland's article.

Madison Schools delay changes to High School curriculum after backlash

Matthew DeFour

But for West High School teachers and students the "dual pathways" label sounded like the tracking model the school abandoned 15 years ago that created a lot of "low-level, non-rigorous classes with a lot of segregation by socio-economic status, which is pretty much racially," science department chairman Steve Pike said. "If they had this document beforehand" Pike said of the document unveiled Friday, "it would have at least shown that there's a lot of questions and a lot of work that needed to be done." West teachers aren't the only ones with concerns. Peggy Ellerkamp, a librarian at LaFollette High School, said teachers there wonder how students in regular classes will be able to move into advanced classes, especially if regular courses become "more like a one-room schoolhouse" with embedded honors, regular, special education and English language learner students. "I have a lot of questions about a lot of the details," Ellerkamp said. "I'm very pleased that there's more time for this to be worked through." Jessica Hotz, a social studies teacher at East High School, is concerned that gearing classes to the Advanced Placement test could result in a "dumbing down of the curriculum." One proposed change in social studies would cram U.S. history into one year instead of the two years that East offers now, Hotz said.
Many links:

Madison School District: High School Career and College Readiness Plan

via a kind reader's email:

We have received a significant volume of questions and feedback regarding the plan for High School College and Career Readiness. We are in the process of reviewing and reflecting upon questions and feedback submitted to date. We are using this information to revise our original timeline. We will provide additional information as we move forward. We will have an electronic format for gathering additional feedback in the near future. Summary High School Career And College Readiness Plan is a comprehensive plan outlining curricular reform for MMSD comprehensive high schools and a district-wide process that will end in significant curriculum reform. The rationale for developing this plan is based on five points:
  1. Need for greater consistency across our comprehensive high schools.
  2. Need to align our work to the ACT career and college readiness standards and common core standards.
  3. Need to address our achievement gaps and to do so with a focus on rigor and acceleration of instruction.
  4. Need to address loss of students through open enrollment.
  5. Need to respond to issues regarding unequal access to accelerated courses in grades 9 and 10.
The plan is based on the following theory of action:
Lots of related links:

The Backstory on the Madison West High Protest

Madison School Board Member Ed Hughes:

IV. The Rollout of the Plan: The Plotlines Converge I first heard indirectly about this new high school plan in the works sometime around the start of the school year in September. While the work on the development of the plan continued, the District's responses to the various sides interested in the issue of accelerated classes for 9th and 10th grade students at West was pretty much put on hold. This was frustrating for everyone. The West parents decided they had waited long enough for a definitive response from the District and filed a complaint with DPI, charging that the lack of 9th and 10th grade accelerated classes at West violated state educational standards. I imagine the teachers at West most interested in this issue were frustrated as well. An additional complication was that West's Small Learning Communities grant coordinator, Heather Lott, moved from West to an administrative position in the Doyle building, which couldn't have helped communication with the West teachers. The administration finally decided they had developed the Dual Pathways plan sufficiently that they could share it publicly. (Individual School Board members were provided an opportunity to meet individually with Dan Nerad and Pam Nash for a preview of the plan before it was publicly announced, and most of us took advantage of the opportunity.) Last Wednesday, October 13, the administration presented the plan at a meeting of high school department chairs, and described it later in the day at a meeting of the TAG Advisory Committee. On the administration side, the sense was that those meetings went pretty well. Then came Thursday, and the issue blew up at West. I don't know how it happened, but some number of teachers were very upset about what they heard about the plan, and somehow or another they started telling students about how awful it was. I would like to learn of a reason why I shouldn't think that this was appallingly unprofessional behavior on the part of whatever West teachers took it upon themselves to stir up their students on the basis of erroneous and inflammatory information, but I haven't found such a reason yet.
Lots of related links:

School Board member Marj Passmon on the Proposed Madison High School Changes

via email:

It was the intention of the Administration to first introduce the plan to HS staff and administrators and get some input from them. If you read the Plan then you know that it never discusses anything relating to current electives or student options and, I, personally, would never vote for any plan that does. Although I admire the students for their leadership and support of their school, both they and their teachers seem to have leaped to certain conclusions. I am not saying that this is a perfect plan and yes, there are elements that may need to be worked on but to immediately jump on it without asking any questions or presenting suggestions for improvement does not speak well of those who helped to spread rumors. It is now up to MMSD Administrators to explain to the staff and students what this Plan is actually about and, perhaps then, the West Staff can have a more objective discussion with their classes. Marj ----------------------------------- Marjorie Passman Madison Board of Education mpassman@madison.k12.wi.us
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Notes and Links on the Madison West High School Student Sit-in

Gayle Worland:

Sitting cross-legged on the ground or perched high on stone sculptures outside the school, about a quarter of West High's 2,086 students staged a silent 37-minute sit-in Friday morning outside their building to protest a district proposal to revamp curriculum at the city's high schools. The plan, unveiled to Madison School District teachers and parents this week, would offer students in each high school the chance to pick from advanced or regular classes in the core subjects of math, science, English and social studies. Students in the regular classes could also do additional work for honors credit. Designed to help the district comply with new national academic standards, the proposal comes in the wake of a complaint filed against the district by parents in the West attendance area arguing the district fails to offer adequate programs for "talented and gifted" ninth and 10th grade students at West. The complaint has prompted an audit by the state Department of Public Instruction.
Susan Troller:
Okay, everyone, remember to breathe, and don't forget to read. A draft copy of possible high school curriculum changes got what could be gently characterized as a turbulent response from staff and students at West High School. Within hours of the release of a proposal that would offer more advanced placement options in core level courses at local high schools, there was a furious reaction from staff and students at West, with rumors flying, petitions signed and social media organizing for a protest. All in all, the coordination and passion was pretty amazing and would have done a well-financed political campaign proud. Wednesday and Thursday there was talk of a protest walk-out at West that generated interest from over 600 students. By Friday morning, the march had morphed into a silent sitdown on the school steps with what looked like 200 to 300 students at about 10:50 a.m. when I attended. There were also adult supporters on the street, a media presence and quite a few police cars, although the demonstration was quiet and respectful. (Somehow, I don't think the students I saw walking towards the Regent Market or sitting, smoking, on a stone wall several blocks from school, were part of the protest).
TJ Mertz has more as does Lucy Mathiak. Lots of related links:

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