I sent an email to Ed and Marj, both of whom have announced their plans to run for Madison School Board next spring, asking the following:
I’m writing to see what your thoughts are on the mmsd’s high school “reform” initiative, particularly in light of two things:
- The decision to re-apply for the US Dept of Education Grant next month
- The lack of any public (any?) evaluation of the results at West and Memorial in light of their stated SLC goals?
In other words, how do you feel about accountability? 🙂
I am generally supportive of small learning communities and the decision to reapply for a Federal grant. Our high schools continue to provide a rich education for most students — especially the college bound – but there is a significant and maybe growing number of students who are not being engaged. They need our attention. The best evidence is that well implemented small learning communities show promise as part of the solution to increasing the engagement and achievement of those who are not being well served, do no harm and may help others also. My experience as a teacher backs up the research because I found that the caring relationships between staff and students so crucial to reaching those students falling between the cracks on any level of achievement are more likely to develop in smaller settings. Some form of small learning communities are almost a given as part of any reform of our high schools and if we can get financial help from the Federal government with this part of the work, I’m all for it.
I think it is important not to overestimate either the problems or the promise of the proposed solutions. The first step in things like this is to ask what is good that we want to preserve. Our best graduates are competitive with any students anywhere. The majority of our graduates are well prepared for their next academic or vocational endeavors. We need to keep doing the good things we do well. If done successfully, SLCs offer as much for the top achieving students as for any group – individual attention, focus on working with others of their ability, close connection to staff, and consistent evaluation.
You also asked about “accountability” and the evaluations of the existing SLCs. Both evaluations are generally positive, show some progress in important areas and point to places where improvements still need to be made. Neither contains any alarming information that would suggest the SLCs should be abandoned. The data from these limited studies should be looked at with similar research elsewhere that supports SLC as part of the solution to persistent (and in Madison) growing issues.
Like many I applauded when all the Board members asked for a public process for the High Schools of the Future project and like many I have been woefully disappointed with what I’ve seen so far. Because of this and the coming changes in district leadership I’d like to see the redesign time line extended (the final report is due in April) to allow for more input from both the public and the new superintendent.
Thanks for this opportunity
From what I know, I am not opposed to MMSD re-applying for the U.S. Dept. of Education grant next month. From my review of the grant application, it did not seem to lock the high schools into new and significant changes. Perhaps that is a weakness of the application. But if the federal government is willing to provide funds to our high schools to do what they are likely to do anyway, I’m all for it.
Like you, I am troubled with the apparent lack of evaluation of results at West and Memorial attributable to their small learning communities initiatives. This may seem inconsistent with my view on applying for the grant, but I do not think we should proceed further down an SLC path without having a better sense of whether in fact it is working at the two schools that have tried it. It seems to me that this should be a major focus of the high school redesign study, but who knows what is going on with that. I asked recently and was told that the study kind of went dormant for awhile after the grant application was submitted.
My own thoughts about high school are pointing in what may be the opposite direction – bigger learning communities rather than smaller. I am concerned about our high schools being able to provide a sufficiently rich range of courses to prepare our students for post-high school life and to retain our students whose families have educational options. The challenges the schools face in this regard were underscored last spring when East eliminated German classes, and now offers only Spanish and French as world language options.
It seems to me that one way to approach this issue is to move toward thinking of the four comprehensive high schools as separate campuses of a single, unified, city-wide high school in some respects. We need to do a lot more to install sufficient teleconferencing equipment to allow the four schools to be linked – so that a teacher in a classroom at Memorial, say, can be seen on a screen in classrooms in the other three schools. In fact, views of all four linked classrooms should simultaneously be seen on the screen. With this kind of linkage, we could take advantage of economies of scale and have enough student interest to justify offering classes in a rich selection of languages to students in all four high schools. I’m sure there are other types of classes where linked classrooms would also make sense.
This kind of approach raises issues. For example, LaFollette’s four block system would be incompatible with this approach. There would also be a question of whether there would need to be a teacher or educational assistant in every classroom, even if the students in the classroom are receiving instruction over the teleconferencing system from another teacher in another school. I would hope that these are the kinds of issues the high school re-design group would be wrestling with. Perhaps they are, or will, but at this point there seems to be no way to know.
There are some off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts prompted by your question and by Maya Cole’s post about the high school re-design study. Feel free to do what you want with this response.
- Involving the Community (in High School Reform) by Maya Cole
- Madison Small Learning Community Grant Application / US Department of Education Response
- Examining the Madison West High SLC Grant Community Connection Results
- Examining the Madison West High SLC Grant Results
- Examining the Data from Earlier Grants, Part 1 (Memorial High School)
- Where does the MMSD get its numbers from?
Thanks to Ed and Marj for taking the time to share their thoughts on this important matter.