Mathiak’s “concerns” about small learning communities

In response to my open records request to Lucy Mathiak for her records about small learning communities, I received a copy of the following e-mail which she sent to Jim Zellmer on July 6, 2007. I asked Lucy whether she wanted to post it or whether she’d prefer that I post it. Since she didn’t respond, here’s the memo:

Hi Jim,
This is provided as background only. I am not ready to go public with my concerns – yet. FWIW, tho, this is what I said to administration and the P&A committee:
Thank you for all of the hard work and time that has gone into developing the SLC grant proposal. I understand that this is an important opportunity to bring resources into the district to help focus on high school transitions and achievement.
While I am, in principle, supportive of the idea of SLC’s, I confess that I am baffled and disappointed by the proposal that I received for the reasons outlined below. I apologize in advance for what has turned out to be a lengthy iteration of what I view as significant problems in the proposal and in the programs if they are enacted.

In particular, I am deeply concerned that, in the case of East, the proposed plan of action will lead to more confrontation along the lines seen last year over advanced academic programming; I also believe that taken with last year’s confrontation and the gross inadequacy of the response to concerns about foreign language programming, this proposal will drive larger number of parents away from East because it underscores the perception that East is no longer a college prep environment. If I had an incoming 9th grade student, I would be among those leaving precisely because of the limp model that is presented in this proposal.
Perhaps that is what you intend. In any case, I see this as a tragic turn that can only erode the strong base of support that has traditionally fostered educational excellence in a diverse environment.
In general, I am concerned that:
The proposal involves ALL students, but is programmatically focused on the marginal and at risk population. While this may be a noble gesture, it leaves high achieving students with nothing to look forward to; it gives parents and students great incentive to turn toward home schooling, private schools, or other means to satisfy hungry minds.
While the proposal documents the serious issues of students at risk, it fails to provide evidence that the SLC’s that are being designed will actually change the equation, or that they are even appropriate to the respective schools (with the exception of Memorial).
I wrote much earlier in the high school redesign process, partly in response to concerns raised at East, regarding the lack of ANY interface between the project – redesign OR SLC – and significant stakeholders in post high school success. That includes people involved in gen ed curriculum and admissions in the UW System and MATC, employers, and recent graduates. This is unacceptable.
It is not enough to claim UW-Madison partnership because the School of Ed has signed on. There is a Grand Canyon of difference between what the School of Ed brings to the table (and its ambiguous duality of research agenda and source of information) and what admissions, academic advisors, and faculty/staff/TAs see, if only because School of Ed does not get students until they have completed two years of college with high GPAs. Similarly, where is MATC in the mix? Or Edgewood, or local employers? How can we talk about success after high school if we have no connection to the people best positioned to inform us about what our
graduates need as they enter the post-K12 world?
I am aware that you put great stock in Dr. Gamoran and his research, which appears to be reflected in this model. However, I recall board members asking two years ago (I also asked) that he return and provide guidance on how his model might work in an urban public school system. He has declined to share such insights either publicly or privately, which leads me to believe that he is unable to answer that question.
It is hard to see the difference between the models proposed and glorified extended-period homerooms focused on remedial academics and behavior modification. Is this the best that we can expect for our students?
Finally, I have raised concerns publicly and privately regarding the impostion of the Memorial model on the other four schools. It is easy to tout success when the majority of students enter high school with proficient to advanced skills, and when we don’t look too closely at the students who are at risk. We have not seen data-driven evidence that the SLC program works at West, nor have we heard a compelling rationale for its structure. If we are going to apply these models elsewhere, I would like to see more evidence that it is appropriate to do so.

4 thoughts on “Mathiak’s “concerns” about small learning communities”

  1. For everyone’s information, the SLC grant was not funded. Here is an email I received from Superintendent Rainwater last Friday:
    Laurie
    We did receive notification earlier in the week that only Milwaukee received a grant. We have not received the critique from the review panel yet. We expect to receive it within the the next two weeks. That should tell us what we can improve for the next round of grants.
    Art
    In a follow-up email, Art told me that “we will be glad to share [the critique] with anyone who is interested.”
    I trust members of the press will ask for a copy.

  2. Laurie,
    I suggest you consider writing a letter to the editor about the SLC grant and it’s critique. I think you know more than most people about this topic and your strong veiws might be better communicated in a letter to the editor. The press may not pick up this topic from your comments on this blog.

  3. I just sent notes to both Marc Eisen and Dave Zweifel, alerting them to this story in case they hadn’t heard. It’s not a letter to the editor, but they can pick up the story if they are interested. I also mentioned that the grant application associated with the math evaluation did not get funded.

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