Superintendent’s March Message

Smart and successful
March, 2007
By Superintendent Art Rainwater
For children growing up today, becoming a successful adult requires much more than mastering reading, writing and arithmetic. The requirements for success are very different in an era when work on a single project may involve several countries, languages and cultures. Success requires much more than “book learning.” Success means having the “basic skills” to interact productively and have positive relationships with people who come from many different backgrounds.
The ability of today’s students to play a vital role in this changing world requires us to think differently about what constitutes a “basic” education. For many years we lived by the credo that students must primarily have the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. No one disputes the essential nature of these skills. There are people who still believe that these are the only essential skills needed for success. In a world that brings together a truly diverse group of people every day in the workplace and society, being successful means much more than the advanced application of reading, writing and arithmetic.

To have all the skills needed for success, we must understand that each of us is different and that being different is not only okay, but valued, important and interesting. Success requires understanding that interacting with other cultures enriches every one and that communicating in any language is a beautiful human gift. Potential success is enhanced by learning in a diverse environment which provides continuing opportunities for children to create a broad and inclusive view of the world.
School is all about creating that successful adult. Sometimes that very simple mission gets lost in the political rhetoric and ideological debates that have come to characterize the discussions around our education system. For children to be successful we have to move back to the simple premise that our fundamental role is to prepare children for their life as adults.
Being successful means having the ability to hold a family supporting and fulfilling career. It means gaining the knowledge and understanding about our society and government to be an active citizen. It means living in and helping to create a society which provides for the next generation to achieve.
The students of the Madison Metropolitan School District have the best learning environment because of the richness of our diverse learning community. We provide a world class education in preparing for success. Our students work and play everyday with children who are different in many ways. They learn about different families and different beliefs. They experience and work with children with a wide range of abilities. They can hear over 60 different languages and learn that truth can be expressed in every one of them. They learn that the way someone looks and talks does not define his or her character or value.
Our diversity is a gift to be valued and used. Our diversity is not a barrier to be overcome, but a great opportunity to help make all of our children successful world citizens.

12 thoughts on “Superintendent’s March Message”

  1. What bothers me in this message is the failure to appreciate that there are different (and independent) types of diversity. A widely diverse classroom in terms of an ethnic and economic diversity need not have a wide range of abilities. Perhaps I am overreacting, but it seems to me that some people interpret any advocacy of ability grouping as an attempt to keep “our” children in classes with students who look just like them and come from the same social background. Implied in that view is the assumption that students from different ethnic or economic backgrounds cannot be as academically talented as students from white middle class backgrounds. This misses the point on so many of our arguments that it drives me crazy. We are never going to close the achievement gap until we start identifying and nurturing academically talented students from diverse and under-represented populations. This is why we need to reach out to educators like Donna Ford and Gilman Whiting. It is also why we need to have an intact and functional TAG staff that can go out into the schools and work with students and teachers, but if the Superintendent’s proposals are adopted that won’t happen anymore.

  2. I’m struck by the irony of all the lip service about diversity when diversity of opinion is not welcomed by the administration and most school board members.
    If a person holds a different view than the prevailing politically correct opinion on what the MMSD might do to raise academic achievement, the person is immediately labeled an any enemy of the state.

  3. I also find the superintendent’s message ironic, since my most recent experience with MMSD’s administration seemed at odds with a true desire to recognize the diversity in the ways children learn.
    I question whether those in charge are really open to diversity in terms of how a learning environment might look and operate, and how teachers and students might interact within that environment. If we maintain that one classroom approach can effectively serve all children, are we truly embracing diversity?
    Yes, I want to see students from a wide range of backgrounds learning together. But I also want to see diversity in the types of learning environments that we offer for children. And I think we have much room for growth in this area.
    It seems to me that the current administration lacks a willingness to explore new ways of doing things that could help to acknowledge the true diversity among our students.

  4. While I agree with Supt Rainwater on the skills needed for success being more than 3R’s, I don’t believe the schools need or should be burdened with the responsibility teach all the skills necessary.
    It is also important to consider if schools are in fact the best place to teach certain skills or give kids certain experiences. Schools should do what they do best, and other institutions and people should take on their responsibilities.
    Schools are guaranteed to fail if they do not focus or, by law, are not allowed to focus, because they simply cannot do everything well, and we shouldn’t demand the impossible from them. Being a “Jack of all trades, master of none” is not a compliment.
    I fundamentally disagree with Rainwater’s statement: “School is all about creating that successful adult. Sometimes that very simple mission gets lost in the political rhetoric and ideological debates….”
    Creating a successful adult should not be the schools’ mission; this belongs, first to the child him(her)self, then to parents, friends, neighbors, etc. The schools mission should be to simply education kids in core areas, to teach them how to think, and offer important core educational opportunities they would not ordinarily have.
    This not to say that teachers, other kids, do not have influence here. Sometimes positive, but also negative.
    Schools are massive institutions, regimented, and rule-based. What to wear, where to go, when to go, ask permission at every turn, don’t wear hats, don’t carry anything that some adult thinks might be used as a weapon, don’t say anything be might possibly offend someone, stand in line, be quiet, raise your hand, only write five paragraph papers, take tests.
    The above are not traits of successful adults. And traits of successful adults cannot be taught in such an environment.
    Diversity is important, but I don’t want to be continuously hit over the head with this — where I must marvel and be so aware of others’ differences. Okay. People, languages, cultures are different, but we’re mostly the same. Where there are differences simply makes for interesting conversations and viewpoints.
    I went to a small rural all-white school. No diversity at all, in the sense mentioned here. A good high school education, that’s all; with that an opportunity to go to college, meet people from other parts of the country, or world, with different language; reading skills, which allowed me be interested in and to read about others, a college education that allowed me to make enough money to travel — to experience diversity of other cultures and people.
    It is the education itself that opens minds and hearts, not the mixing of those of equivalent ignorance.

  5. Larry — I just wanted to say your last few posts have been really well expressed and thought provoking. I think your post here captures a thorny problem at the center of the “diversity” question. By focusing so strenuously on how we are all different, are we losing focus on why we are all together in a school setting in the first place? And are we not labeling ourselves, defining ourselves, are predetermining ourselves to forever be at odds with each other? Is it better to sidestep this kind of idolatry all together? For the mission of our schools, I place value in Thoreau’s admonition, “Simplify, simplify”.

  6. I can echo all the previous posts. This message makes me very uncomfortable!. I get the impression that Mr. Rainwater is trying to make excuses for why our students aren’t getting a “basic” education. I do agree that our world is ever changing and our kids need to understand and respect diversity. However, I don’t think our schools’ main focus should be on that. The simple fact that our classrooms have students from many cultures and backgrounds, gives our students the opportunity to learn about each other. Mr. Rainwater, himself, says that we have the best learning environment because of the richness of our diversity. If he truly believed that, then why do we have to have so much time spent on learning diversity? He says our kids are getting a world class education. Our personal Middle and High School experiences have been focused on learning the basics, thankfully! In my years with this District, the Elementary education keeps diverting further and further away from learning the basics. So much of the time is spent on learning the District’s latest social policy! I realize that there are too many kids who don’t learn these things at home, but it shouldn’t be the schools’ primary focus. World Class Education?? I don’t think so!!

  7. Superintendent Rainwater’s short essay is a simple reminder about the positive quality of ethnic diversity in our schools. The first few posts (“I agree, but…) take Rainwater to task for not addressing other forms of diversity. The last several have migrated from vigorous disagreement to open hostility.
    During the past 25 years, MMSD has experienced notable increases in black, Hmong, Chinese, Indian, Korean and Mexican students. This ethnic evolution has posed a variety of challenges. Ethnic diversity is outside some parents’ comfort zone and causes them to fear for their children’s safety. Others worry that diversity will compromise academic standards. Some just can’t adapt and head for private schools or the suburbs.
    Rainwater’s message is a reminder that the content of basic education has evolved in the modern world. Reading, writing and arithmetic are core skills, but are insufficient to fully equip our kids for adulthood. Modern cross-cultural communication skills are increasingly important, and the diversity of Madison’s schools offers a wonderful platform on which to develop them.
    Most native Wisconsin adults grew up with little exposure to social variety at home or in school. As a result, it is not uncommon for well-educated middle-aged adults to struggle with basic social interaction in mixed settings. Inability to understand accents obstructs basic communication and the fear of giving offense precludes curiosity. And thus does inexperience breed aversion to diversity and reinforce itself. As stewards of our kids’ education, we have a responsibility to assure that they do not develop this social handicap.
    Because our schools offer graded academic classes, we tend to focus on our kids’ performance in those subjects. Rainwater’s essay is a reminder not to lose sight of the importance of developing our kids’ social and cultural skills. When a change is proposed to curriculum or classroom organization, it is important to consider not only its impact on academics, but also how it affects social contact among different groups of kids.
    As my 3 kids progressed through Midvale-Lincoln and West High, I watched their exposure to ethnic diversity (and physical disability) breed curiosity and then friendships. I marveled at how lucky they were to enter college with a well developed thirst for knowledge about the wider world. They lived with black, Hispanic, Native American and Asian roommates, spent vacations at friend’s homes in Venezuela, Haiti, Mexico, Peru, Costa Rica, Brazil and Germany and learned more languages without benefit of formal academic instruction. What I regarded as merely a social skill turned out to be the engine that kept them learning well past their school years and landed them in wonderful jobs. And now I have trouble keeping them in the country…all thanks to Madison’s schools.
    I think that Superintendent Rainwater hit the nail on the head.

  8. Neal, your point is very well taken, and very well expressed. I agree strongly with every word you wrote. That goes for Rainwater’s post as well; it isn’t the post specifically that I’m disagreeing with.
    My own message falls on the more critical side of the spectrum, so how do I explain the contradiction? Simply put, I would like to see our district leadership celebrate academic rigor at a level equal to the celebration of ethnic diversity. It is a subjective perception on my part, but I don’t hear that same level of support.
    I work daily with colleagues from other countries. I majored in Math at U.W. and was typically one of only a few U.S. natives in my classes. I grew up in a family that respected diversity. I attended 3 different high schools due to a combination of family moves as well as a complicated 9th grade year in Los Angeles where court ordered desegregation was both enacted and rolled back in the same school year.
    I’ve had a varied life and schooling experience, I work in an international sphere, and I just turned 40. With what little wisdom I’ve acquired at this point, I’m just saying: dial up the academics a bit. It will help every kid focus their energies today, and it will help kids of every background find their way tomorrow.

  9. Mr. Gleason, your children went through Madison Schools during a different era. I am sure the District wasn’t in the state that it is in now. I also respect diversity and think it is important for my children to learn about respecting and getting to know ALL people regardless of their ethnicity, income bracket, whether they have special needs or are students that excel! Our kids do need more than the core skills, as you stated. However the core skills are being slighted due to the Districts emphasis on social policies! I think that focusing on diversity and reminding kids that they need to respect each other is counterproductive. I think that constantly pointing out that everyone is different is detrimental. I know that the kids start to resent that. There is so little time in an elementary classroom to learn the basics. The week consists of time for Art, Physical Education, Computers and Music. There is time spent on recess and lunch. This leaves barely enough time for other learning. When so much of that precious time is spent on social programs, not much is left to learn the basics. As I said, in my prevous post, our Middle and High School experiences have been better. I have, however, heard Middle School teachers say that they don’t have enough time to teach the cores subjects because of all the social issues they have to incorporate into their schedule. I wish that anyone who dares to complain and question the District’s practices and policies, didn’t have to get labeled as a racist and a person who doesn’t support the education of Special Needs kids! If this trend continues, many of our kids may not know how to balance their checkbook or be able to read and fill out a job application. They can forget about college. It is ironic that our kids will learn about kids from places outside of Madison and HOPEFULLY become friends with them, but not have the skills to find those places on a map or learn anything about those places from a textbook! Oops, I mean a xeroxed sheet. We couldn’t possibly use a textbook or a blackboard, for that matter. You mentioned hostile. I’m not sure if hostile is the correct word. We are fighting for our kids future and ultimately yours. Someone has to!!

  10. Matt,
    I agree wholeheartedly with what you are saying. All the research evidence suggests that when you set higher expectations and give students are more challenging curriculum they are more successful. All students benefit, and you are also correct about the need to celebrate academic success. Just as an example, what sort of message do we send our students when we proudly display our schools’ sports trophies in glass cases where everyone can see them, but relegate trophies for success in academic areas to closets or corners of out of the way classrooms? What are we telling our children about our values?

  11. A former classmate of my daughter related to me his experience in 6th grade drama at Cherokee. They performed the play Jack and the Beanstalk, but the story was superimposed on a modern day social worker’s nightmare. The mother had to leave Jack home nights to work, and then went out gambling after work so Jack didn’t know what had become of her, etc. You get the idea. I thought it was very creative of the teachers to reach out and draw in the low-SES kids with something culturally relevant to them and simultaneously teach more privileged students what real life is like for these kids.
    But… the number of hours in a school day is limited and a finite amount of stuff can be squeezed into those hours. In my daughter’s present school in 6th grade this year they performed parts of Romeo and Juliet in class in preparation for the class trip to see the play at APT. They also ‘performed’ (actually read aloud with assigned parts) a play version of Anne Frank’s diary. They are seriously studying ancient history. I get quizzed on whether I know the modern day name for Constantinople and the names of wives of Roman emperors. I am regaled with tales of what life was like in the crowded city of ancient Rome.
    If I have to choose, I choose Shakespearean drama, knowledge of the Holocaust, and ancient history done thoroughly, as basics. Maybe the Cherokee 6th graders do learn all these things as well. But my suspicion is that for each diversity-themed unit that is added, something else has to be removed or reduced. If not Shakespeare, then something else equally important. How do we decide what the correct balance is, and WHO decides? Also, to what level should the diversity units be targeted? Couldn’t we dump Jack for a comparative study of Romeo/West Side Story to teach how human nature doesn’t change much over time, how storytellers sometimes look to old stories for ideas, and how in fact old stories are still relevant today? That is what we did when I was in school. But then you have to make the leap of faith that if you demand academic excellence, kids will live up to the high expectations. Maybe this has been tried already and failed??

  12. I agree with Neil’s comments about the great benefits that diversity among students can bring to the learning environment. I myself grew up as a minority in a school system that I would say lacked much ethnic/cultural diversity at the time. And only as an adult did I fully appreciate how my family’s background afforded me a different perspective than those of many of my peers.
    My point was not to detract from the benefits of the kind of diversity that Rainwater points out but to say that we can embrace diversity in ways that I think would help families who are struggling with the educational options available to them. Can we acknowledge that some parents are turning to private schools not because they are afraid of the diversity present in our community but because they are looking for different learning environments that are not currently offered within MMSD?
    I also want to see high expectations set for our students. I think academic excellence can be promoted in many different ways. Can we consider that the pursuit of academic excellence may be served by a variety of approaches to teaching and learning?

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