Thursday’s Middle School Curriculum Parent Forum

I believe a relevant and challenging curriculum is the #1 priority for any educational organization. There have been a number of questions raised over the years regarding the Madison School District’s curriculum, including Math, English and Fine Arts and the recent controversial changes at Sherman Middle School (more details in Kathy Esposito’s recent Isthmus article).

The District is currently conducting a Middle School Curriculum Review, lead by Assistant Superintendent Pam Nash (Formerly Principal of Memorial High School). Pam lead a Parent Forum Thursday evening, which I attended (one of about 28 participants). (7MB video clip of Pam kicking off the Forum). The goal of this event was to collect feedback from parents regarding these five questions (pdf version):

  1. The school district is continually working to build more rigor into the learning experiences that students have. Rigor is defined as commitment to a core subject matter knowledge, a high demand for thinking, and an active use of knowledge. When you think of a rigorous academic curriculum in the middle school, what would it look like?
  2. What experiences do you want your child to have in middle school to enhance his or her social and emotional growth?
  3. What are your hopes and dreams for your child in middle school?
  4. What are your greatest concerns for your child in middle school?
  5. If you could design Madison middle schools in any way you wanted, what would they be like?

Pam mentioned that the parent comments would be posted on the district’s website, hopefully next week. She also said that the district would post these questions online, in an interactive way so that parents who were unable to attend Thursday’s event might add their comments.

My notes follow:

  • Superintendent Art Rainwater wants the middle school curriculum task force to report back to him by mid December (2005).
  • The task force “design teams” recently broke up into “work teams”.
  • Recommendations will affect middle school allocations.
  • I asked Pam when this process began. She said it started one month ago.
  • Pam mentioned that they hope to pull the parent group together one more time, in December.

I was initially displeased that the group of 28 participants was broken up (I was interested in hearing all of the conversations). However, I thought that the format was rather effective in obtaining comments from all participants (at least those in my group). Kudos to Pam for collecting a good deal of information.

I spoke briefly with Pam when the event concluded. I mentioned that it appears to me, a layman, that it would be challenging to implement major changes via a two month task force. However, incremental changes occuring via the allocations are certainly possible (for better or worse).

I heard many useful suggestions on these questions and will point to them when available on the District’s website.

Learn more about the “Middle Grades Design Team” via this Board presentation (800K PDF file) Email your comments on this initiative to the Madison School Board:

4 thoughts on “Thursday’s Middle School Curriculum Parent Forum”

  1. I attended this parents meeting last week and ended up fairly frustrated. As a parent of a Sherman student it was quickly evident that other people have no idea what is going on there in the name of reform. The Turning Points coach from Sherman was in my group as a “parent” and it was hard to keep Turning Points jargon from overwhelming everyone’s sentiments. (I agree it sounds very good, but “relevant” is not really what you want to see in your child’s curriculum if you want them to learn anything about the outside world)
    We talked at great length about nice ideas but very little about concrete ones– like what electives would you like your child to have and do you want them to be electives or “exploratories”? Which seems to mean that every child takes the same classes, there are no choices and very little chance for mastery.
    The goal of much of the school reform that includes Turning Points is to close the racial and economic gap in the schools. The people who criticize the reform are in turn criticized as being white , middle class, and well-educated. That was unfortunately the only voice presented in the group I was in, I can’t speak for the others. I wish that a conversation could be orchestrated between the 2 groups of parents. I suspect that there would be more agreement than is imagined by the reformers.
    I understand people saying that this is going terribly fast but I also have to say that at Sherman we really need to change NOW. My understanding is that besides all the kids who left before the year there are also quite a few who are planning to leave at the semester break. Every change that might be made is being held up because we need to know what the task force will recommend. I hope that parents in schools that are running smoothly will understand this urgency for the rest of us.

  2. Kate,
    Your comment hurts to read because it does sound as though Sherman needs some instant help.
    That’s where I am so confused….why doesn’t the district help Sherman NOW! I suppose I want the district to make wise and well observed changes at Sherman and perhaps by understanding the Middle Schools as a whole it will help Sherman, but unfortunately those of us that feel our school is running smoothly fear change to something that does not work. We will all be watching and hoping for the best at all the schools.

  3. I missed the Middle School forum because I was at an East High United meeting, but am very interested to read the different reactions to the meeting.
    In my more jaded moments, I can only conclude that the district is not going to help Sherman now because Sherman is the model of the future. If that cynical take is correct, we should all be concerned because the outcome is not likely to be positive for students nor is it likely to bring parents and the community into closer partnership with the district.
    I did hear a presentation on the middle school process at the special board meeting(s) on Monday night. While it may be commendable to try to find some consistency among Madison’s middle schools the model seems to be heading for consistency through removing the programs that make the difference between mediocre and great.
    I also find it disappointing that there is a huge push on to get this in place by next academic year (if I understand correctly) without significant input, engagement, or feedback from parents, students, and in-school teachers and staff. One meeting at the Doyle Building on a Thursday night just doesn’t cut it – especially if the district is sincere about reaching out to the ENTIRE school community. That would be among the best practices in assessment, but this appears to be a foreign concept to the district’s planners.
    What is particularly tragic is that a heated fight is likely to emerge between parents, schools, and district administration. This could be avoided by simply taking the time to have an honest feedback process in which the most say goes to the people who are in the schools on a regular basis: teachers, students, staff, and families.

  4. I agree that it is a nice theory to have the middle schools follow some degree of consistent curriculum and approach – if for no other reason than the apparent mobility in the district, especially among students from lower income families (no matter the color or level of ‘giftedness’, it appears to me). Much of this mobility comes from the relative scarcity of affordable housing, but I suppose I digress…
    Anyway, I support the theory of consistency, but I also have a problem with what Lucy points out as the apparent push for consistency through mediocrity. I have noticed the same thing. It is difficult to establish consistent and strong teaching and learning when staffing levels and student population (and their needs) fluctuate so much from year to year. As the Isthmus points out, one school’s excellent teacher with fantastic results would not be allowed to teach the way he does at another (middle) school, because other schools are headed towards a ‘consistency’ that disallows his teaching methods and investment level in his subject matter. That seems very odd to me. Are people really afraid that this teacher is “too strong” in his subject, and not necessarily willing to teach in an area which he did not concentrate on in higher education himself? That is the impression I get from the article at least. If this is not the planned result of those responsible for implementation, then – with all due respect – it seems they might reconsider how they go about their implementation of best laid plans.

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