Capital Times: What’s the most important issue facing the Madison Metropolitan School District today?
TJ Mertz: Trust. There’s a lot of distrust in the community on all sides — between community and the school district, within the school district between administration and classroom staff, between the board of education and the administration. If we’re going to have effective initiatives on the achievement gap, it requires trust.
CT: What can be done about that lack of trust?
TM: The district should be honest about what it can and can’t do, what is working and what isn’t working. It needs to be more open in decision-making and should be more transparent, welcoming and inclusive. There’s some collaborative work going on that’s good, but community leaders need to be more honest, too. If you are bringing in John Legend and Howard Fuller and Geoffrey Canada and say they have the answer, you’re lying to the audience. Look at how they are achieving their “success.” It’s being achieved largely through attrition, and even with that the test scores aren’t that good. Let’s talk about state school finance reform. Let’s not talk about firing teachers — every bit of research shows that as a tool for school improvement, it doesn’t work. People should stop looking for miracles. Hard work, incrementalism — it isn’t sexy — but that is what works.
CT: It was the Urban League of Greater Madison that brought Legend, Fuller and Canada to town recently for a fundraiser and education conference. You were strongly opposed to Urban League CEO Kaleem Caire’s Madison Prep proposal for a charter school aimed at students of color. Why?
TM: The proposed programs of that school did not target the kids who are being failed by the district. Ask anyone who knows curriculum if the international baccalaureate is a way to address students who are grades behind, and they’ll laugh. But that was what he was selling — so who was he targeting? Students below proficiency were the ones used in the PR campaign, which made it harder for them and a lot of other people to work with the school district. It was a bait-and-switch.