I was glad to see the Capital Times’ endorsement of Lucy Mathiak for the Madison School Board. Mathiak will tackle the problems facing our school district with vigor and clarity, and she will demand accountability from administrators. Mathiak’s advocacy in our schools represents a wide range of needs and interests; she wants to ensure the best academic opportunities for all students.
Unfortunately, parents from Madison Partners for Inclusive Schools have mischaracterized Mathiak, as well as candidate Maya Cole, as wanting to limit students’ access to educational opportunity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mathiak and Cole are skeptical of the District’s push toward compulsory heterogeneous classrooms precisely because this practice hobbles many students’ opportunities to learn. Administrators of our middle and high schools have eliminated course options in core subjects, reduced the choice of instructional levels, and prohibited motivated students from advancing with appropriate curriculum and learning peers.
Administrators have argued that advanced academic programs segregate students unfairly, since the advanced classes have been populated mainly by white, middle-class children. They think to address this injustice by doing away with the programs. This tactic reveals a prejudice of low expectations on their part: they apparently do not expect that low-income, minority students will ever qualify for advanced placement.
In fact, depriving gifted children of support and opportunity at school most hurts those gifted students from low-income families and traditionally marginalized groups. Families with money and connections can get educational enrichment for their children outside of school; families struggling to make ends meet cannot. The District’s own report on high school dropouts identifies 27% of them as having shown high ability as younger children; a large portion of these were minority students. Nurturing these students by identifying them early on, grouping them with learning peers, and pulling them into advanced, accelerated classes might have kept them engaged in school and fostered their potential.
Proponents of “equalizing” educational opportunity believe that filling classrooms with children of widely ranging abilities will help motivate students at risk. But, they have not evaluated the data to see if this is actually so. Administrators are moving ahead to expand the standard course/heterogeneous classroom initiative without studying whether or not it has helped struggling students to succeed. In contrast, supporters of Mathiak in the Madison TAG Parents group have compiled a long list of studies on the issue of heterogeneous classrooms vs. ability grouping. Jeff Henriques, a leader of the TAG Parents group, provided not only a summary of this research with citations and abstracts from some 60 articles, but also hard copies of approximately 40 papers to the School Board earlier this year. I myself have sent similar information, in smaller doses, to various school officials. Anyone looking for these sources can easily find them on the TAG Parents’ website.
Lucy Mathiak and Maya Cole will not endorse curriculum policy without taking a hard look at the data and carefully considering the complex issues involved. Our diverse student body has diverse learning needs. We need equal opportunity for every child, not the same education for all.