A Few Notes on the Superintendent’s Evaluation & Curriculum

Several writers have mentioned the positive news that the Madison Board of Education has reviewed Superintendent Art Rainwater for the first time since 2002. I agree that it is a step in the right direction.
In my view, the first responsibility of the Board and Administration, including the Superintendent is curriculum: Is the Madison School District using the most effective methods to prepare our children for the future?
There seems to be some question about this:

  • Language: The District has strongly embraced whole language (Troy Dassler notes in the comments that he has been trained in balanced literacy). I would certainly be interested in more comments on this (and other) point(s). [Ed Blume mentions that “”Balanced literacy” became the popular new term for whole language when whole language crumbled theoretically and scientifically.”] UW Professor Mark Seidenberg provides background on whole language and raises many useful questions about it. Related: The District has invested heavily in Reading Recovery. Ed Blume summarized 8 years of District reading scores and notes that Madison 3rd graders rank below state wide average for children children in the advanced and proficient categories. (Madison spends about 30% more than the state average per student)
  • Math: The District embraces Connected Math. UW Math Professor Dick Askey has raised a number of questions about this curriculum, not the least of which is whether our textbooks include all of the corrections. A quick look at the size of the Connected Math textbooks demonstrates that reading skills are critical to student achievement.
  • Sherman Middle School’s curriculum changes
  • West High School’s curriculum changes and families leaving
  • Same Service Budget Approach“: I think the District’s annual same service approach reflects a general stagnation.

Many organizations live on the fumes of their past. Is this the case with the Madison School District?
Superintendent Rainwater visited with the Capital Times on the day the Board released the report on the his evaluation. Matt Pommer briefly summarized the discussion and closes by mentioning that state budget controls prevent new programs from being developed. This statement reflects the “same service mantra”. The District could certainly change expensive programs like Reading Recovery and invest in a different approach. The District could also strongly adopt virtual learning tools. Weyauwega-Fremont School Board President Steve Loehrke has spoken and written extensively on these questions. The District could also change the way in which it delivers information (there’s a little movement on this).
Finally, Jason Shepherd’s recent Isthmus article on the Superintendent’s review process is well worth reading:

But the evaluation marks the first step toward charting Rainwater’s leadership of the city’s schools. Leaders of public institutions are best governed by public bodies that set forth clear expectations. The board’s new goals for the superintendent in the coming year are due by Nov 1.

I’ve not seen much, if any discussion of curriculum issues at the Board level, or the Performance and Achievement subcommittee, which has not met since 1/31/2005. I seem to remember (but can’t find the quote) that Board President Carol Carstensen said at a District event, that “we leave the curriculum up to the staff”. I could not disagree more with this approach.
I think it’s time for a serious Board curriculum discussion. Madison is fortunate to have some fabulous resources just down the street at a world class University. Let’s work with them, before they move on.