Reply from West HS Principal Ed Holmes to request for update on English 10

Hi Laurie,
The discussion about 10th grade English and 10th grade core continues. There will be a statement and responses to questions that have been raised by parents, community, and staff online in the form of a link from the West High website early next week. I will also submit information to MMSD School Board member Shwaw Vang as per his request regarding direction of 10th grade English.
I have been working with some of the best eductors in the field to address the concerns that have been raised in order to develop the best plan possible to meet the academic needs of all students at West High. I am excited that we are having this discourse and that everyone’s perspective is being heard. This process challenges everyone to work hard to come up with the best possible plan to meet the academic needs of our students.
I expect to hear a strong voice and challenge from a community and parents that are as informed and concerned as the parents and community of West. I will continue to do my best as Instructional Leader at West to meet the needs of all students, maintain high academic standards, and preserve the reputation of West as a school of academic excellence.
This is indeed challenging and exciting work. Thank you for your continued interest, perspective, and concern.
Ed Holmes, Principal
West High School

29 thoughts on “Reply from West HS Principal Ed Holmes to request for update on English 10”

  1. The administration and some members of the board spout a line like the MMSD has “some of the best eductors (sic) in the field” every time anyone questions the administration.
    I’ve heard that line a hundred times over the years! Whether it’s math instruction, business services, reading curriculum, middle school organization, multi-million dollar grants, education for homeless kids, or any other topic you can pick, we’re told that only MMSD’s “eductors” know what’s right.
    Not even leaders of successful districts, schools, or programs know what’s right in the opinion of MMSD administrators and some board members.
    The MMSD’s line certainly tells students, parents, teachers, and taxpayers that we don’t know “bleep” about education, so we should sit down, shut up, and get out of the way while the administration does what it pleases.
    Arrogance, arrogance, arrogance!
    Ironically, many of the MMSD so-called educational decisons are not about education at all, but about values — values that will be reflected in the programs and structures in our schools.
    Sadly, MMSD’s “eductors” seem to value centralized control of rhetoric-laced feel-good curriculum and structure, instead of academic success, while the district’s citizens of all colors, incomes, ethnicity, and creeds speak with one voice on what we value: Academic excellence for ALL students.

  2. Ed Holmes’ legendary rapport with teens has made him popular among West students and contributed to their broader engagement in both academic and extra-curricular activities. His work is reflected in significant improvement in student behavior. West’s suspension and expulsion rates are notably lower than the other high schools. West has the lowest number (by far) of police calls and arrests.
    Now Mr. Holmes has joined with the faculty to tackle a long unspoken problem – the poor preparation, grades and graduation rates of low-income students. Their modest proposal to strengthen the Small Learning Communities with a unified 10th grade English curriculum, supplemented by remedial support and an honors option, has predictably attracted concern. Mr. Holmes has graciously welcomed all comments.
    Running a modern urban high school is tough work, for which a rhetorical hand grenade like the comment above is simply uncalled for. Whatever one’s animus toward MMSD authority, Ed Holmes’ good work at West deserves better. Mr. Blume owes him an apology.

  3. Neil,
    If the proposal “to strengthen the Small Learning Communities with a unified 10th grade English curriculum, supplemented by remedial support and an honors option” is so modest, as you say it is, why do you suppose it has “predictably attracted concern”? Might it be that there are some who don’t share your loaded assumption that this will “strengthen” education for all children at West? Whatever one thinks of the merits or deficits of the theory of the SLC concept, the real-world experience in English 9 indicates that this unified curriculum is not succeeding; thus, it is perfectly reasonable to challenge the full-steam ahead conversion of English 10, especially considering its attendant impacts on the entire menu of English course offerings and teacher assignments. Furthermore, that challenge includes countering happy-talk assertions that the “experts” are hard at work on this.
    Frankly, I am in complete agreement with Ed Blume. My reading of Mr Holmes’ letter would be even more blunt: “Thank you for your input [insert flattering comments to parents]; we will be implementing the plans nonetheless.” Mr Holmes may be a very nice man and wonderfully adept at improving the safety and general climate at West, but that accomplishment has nothing to do with the wisdom or lack therof of the SLC changes. Some of us have been around long enough to recognize this administration’s methods of “managing” those who don’t drink the kool-aid and will call them on it.
    And last but not least, while you are of course entitled to your opinion, and I am glad to have these exchanges, don’t you think in the interest of full disclosure you might have mentioned that you live with Cindy Gleason who the MMSD website describes as the project director for Gateways in the Teaching and Learning division of the Administration?

  4. Neil,
    Thank you for your post. A spirited discussion always helps clarify issues.
    Ed Holmes deserves our gratitude for his work and success at West. If I offended him, I sincerely apologize to him.
    It’s the administration and some board members who time and again dismiss citizens and claim that only the administration grasps the issues. (I’d guess that someone “downtown” wrote the condescending line.)
    In reality, students, parents, and citizens can make valuable contributions to the academic success of ALL MMSD students – regardless of race, economic status, and skill level. The MMSD administration is not the fount of all educational wisdom in the world.

  5. One point that gets lost in all of this – will the proposed changes actually improve achievement for low income and/or minority students? I’d like to see some verifiable data before the plan is implemented. Particularly from schools in the district and nationally that have tackled issues of engagement and achievement among similar student populations. I’m willing to bet that dumbing down the curriculum was not part of the success pattern.
    All too often, the labels “low income” and “minority” are treated as synonymous with “low ability.” If one actually takes the time to listen to parents of minority and low income students, you will hear the frustration with the notion that the way to engage these students is to lower the standards. In fact, I have been in several meetings where parents are asking for HIGHER standards and easier access to upper level courses.
    There is a legend – perhaps true – about East’s English TAG teacher teaching a class in night school, a population that is high risk and disengaged any way you slice it. No lower standards, and guess what? Students said he was the best teacher they’d had.
    Time to get over the impulse to close the achievement gap by lowering the bar. Ultimately, it is based on questionable assumptions that serve no one, especially the students who supposedly are to benefit. If the issue is the absence of low income and minority students in West’s highest level classes, I would suggest that the lens might better be focused on how to open, not shut, those doors to all students.

  6. Hello to all concerned with West High education!
    This is my first time posting on this particular site.
    As a current student at West (as well as former student of Mr. Holmes’ when I attended Wright Middle School), I feel as though my experience, along with those of other students, should be taken into account when discussing whether or not the school is “up to par.”
    I think that Mr. Holmes is doing a terrific job at West. He has made many positive changes, and I have experienced nothing but satisfactory experiences at West since I began high school in September.
    I cannot believe that anyone would be so disrespectful as to nastily quote someone who accidentally makes a typo in an email! I know that Mr. Blume would not say anything so rude to a person’s face. Typos are common, and I am sure I have made one in this post myself. Why be nitpicky? And how hypocritical, Mr. Blume even spelled “decisions” wrong in his own email! I think that Mr. Gleason is quite right, an apology would be in order.
    All of the complaints and anger that I have witnessed being directed at West High School is doing nothing productive. As a student, I find it extremely unhelpful. Thank you for your
    Sincerely, Amelia Swedeen

  7. You’re right Amelia. It was distracting and inappropriate to dwell on a typo.
    Please keep posting and encourage other students to post.

  8. I do believe we can engage in a debate about educational reforms without either sarcasm or disrespect. All of us are here, I believe, because we deeply care about public education and want the very best public education for both our own and all Madison students.
    To dismiss all efforts by MMSD as “feel good rhetoric” is deeply disrespectful of both the daily efforts of teachers and administrators, as well as the overall work the district is doing, which is closely tied to both UW-Madison’s education college and the best practice literature nationally.
    My daughter has gone through Wright under Mr. Holmes, and is enjoying an incredible West experience as a freshman. I’ve seen first-hand Mr. Holmes’ engagement with hard-to-reach students and his dialogue and commitment to families from across racial and socio-economic lines. Students at Wright had nothing but respect for him, and that says A LOT, because I have the utmost respect for teens’ and preteens’ character judgement.
    For those wanting data and empirical information, I welcome all of you to look closely at the work of the Education Trust, which is charged with elevating achievement among low-income and students of color, and the Council on Exceptional Children, which represents both children with disabilities and children who are gifted and talented. The body of literature is showing: 1. smaller learning communities work in high schools (local example: Wright Middle Schools almost non-existent expulsion/suspension rates); 2. elevating expectations through core, college-prep coursework for all works, with particular supports for struggling students in those higher-level courses, as opposed to a “remedial” or “tracked” program; 3. strong leadership at the principal level is necessary, particularly in recruiting and supporting a high-quality staff. Even in the most challenged urban high schools, these types of approaches work. A brand new report from Education Trust, located at (Gaining Traction, Gaining Ground) underscores these and other principals of reform. Many, you will see, are embedded in the Small Learning Community and West core course options.
    For those who believe Mr Holmes’ response to a concerned parent was simply rhetoric, he contacted me yesterday to get a full copy of this latest research to look further at what is being done across the country. (And I have no ties to the district other than as a parent who is part of some grassroots advocacy efforts). Also, at Monday’s PTSO meeting, an open-ended question format was at each place for people to ask questions about any West topic, in preparation for January’s PTSO meeting on the small learning communities. This form also will be on West’s website next week, which Mr. Holmes mentioned in his email. This doesn’t seem like a brush-off approach to me.
    Perhaps just as important in this whole debate, I don’t know of any empirical research or data (and I have talked to several researchers at UW-Madison and University of Virginia) that point to how elevating standards for all learners through college prep core courses in any way diminishes either test scores or post-secondary options for the highest-achieving segment of that school or school district’s population.

  9. The issue is MMSD’s “corporate culture,” and how it values the opinions of administrators vs. the rest of us.

  10. West High freshman Amelia Swedeen (above) has aptly characterized the original post (and the gasoline that Ms. Knoebel poured on the fire): “All of the complaints and anger that I have witnessed being directed at West High School is doing nothing productive. As a student, I find it extremely unhelpful.” Amen.
    Heedless of Ms. Swedeen’s wisdom, Ms. Mathiak implies that West’s proposed English 10 course amounts to “dumbing down the curriculum” and goes on to make a pitch for “HIGHER standards.” She seems to be uninformed about a central aspect of the issue: “Based on the interviews, it is clear that something needed to be done with the existing system for 10th grade English. The overarching concern for these teachers was that the elective course structure, while extremely positive in many respects, was a contributing factor to vastly unequal educational opportunities across different student groups.” (Bruce King’s Nov. 2 evaluation of the SLC Project and the 10th grade English course)
    For those who hadn’t read that report, Mr. Holmes carefully explained at the November 7 PTO meeting that English 10 would be more comprehensive and rigorous than the “easy” (my word) electives that some students choose to satisfy the sophomore English requirement. One of his explicit goals for English 10 was to raise the minimum English standard at West.
    Ms. Mathiak’s use of the epithet “dumbing down” maligns Mr. Holmes’ leadership and the work of West’s English faculty. It is inconsistent for her to demand “verifiable data” for the proposed curriculum change and then follow with this unsupported accusation. My 3 children thoroughly enjoyed the West faculty members who designed English 10. I seriously doubt that these same teachers would “dumb down” the curriculum.
    I am left wondering: what is wrong with an English course that integrates literature, writing and grammar around the central themes of American culture? Many critics of West High profess their support for the “academic success of ALL MMSD students,” just so long as certain students don’t sit next to their children in English 10.

  11. Neil, I think you need to go back and re-read my post. Carefully. I’m afraid that you are mistaken if you choose to read my comments as specific to West and/or Ed Holmes.
    My comments are observations on shifts in thinking that need to happen within MMSD in general to get us into 2006 and beyond. They are based on what parents have said in several meetings that I have participated in for many years, but with particular urgency in the past 2-3 years.
    My comments on HIGHER standards reflect the dismay and frustration that parents feel when they encounter educators, administrators, or course content that assumes that their children are less capable or interested in academic achievement because of their ethnic heritage or socioeconomic status.
    It may be that this plan is the best thing since sliced bread. However, if the early evidence calls into question its efficacy at the 9th grade level, it is both appropriate and necessary to ask for more public review and discussion of the available information on this program and why it is preferable to other models for achieving the same goals.

  12. I come at the discussions of English 10 from somewhat of a different perspective. I went to the Nov. 7th PTSO meeting to learn about the curriculum plans and got a copy of the syllabus. Book titles were familiar and reminded me of my high school days.
    I agreed with the idea of tying together the literature and writing. I didn’t know/understand why this would not have been done to date. Like many parents in attendance, I was uncomfortable with the “extra” class time and work required for those students who either needed additional help or wanted an honors designation.
    My concern is that before committing to the proposed changes the administration takes time to review and to understand the issues/questions raised in Dr. King’s process evaluation of Grade 9 English as a first step before making further changes. What has the administration and teachers learned from the Grade 9 core English approach and how have they included what has been learned in the design of Grade 10 English? What is working, not working for students’ learning and achievement in Grade 9? What can test scores tell us about student achievement using a core curriculum? What do the teachers have to tell us about their teaching experiences AND what do the students have to tell us about their learning experiences. What did the students learn, what did they like, what worked and did not work for them, what challenged them. I don’t know how much time the administration has spent assessing Grade 9 core English, but I hope they have done, or will do, a thorough assessment of this curriculum and its delivery, because I think what is learned from an assessment of Grade 9 core English will have direct bearing on the success of Grade 10 English. I would recommend that results from any assessment be presented to parents in an open meeting.
    My daughter is an 8th grade student at Velma Hamilton Middle School. She is looking forward to attending West High School next year, although, naturally, she has lots of different emotions/feelings about what that will be like.
    As her mom, I’ve also got lots of mixed emotions about her next step as a high school student. I’m looking forward to watching and to being a part of her next journey. Of course, I’ve got some trepidations about what’s to come, but then I’m her Mom. I’m concerned about her emotional, social and academic environment. In high school she’ll be even more independent, and I’ll adjust hopefully graciously, but more likely in fits and starts as I learn as well.
    But, also, my daughter is lucky (she doesn’t always think so:) Both her parents will continue to be involved in her education and will continue to provide the support she needs and asks for throughout high school. We’re able to figure out curricula, but I expect this is not the same experience for all students. That’s why I believe it’s important to assess the Grade 9 core English class as a key step in the change process and to present what is learned in a public forum so parents, students and teachers can raise questions and provide feedback.

  13. Ms. Mathiak,
    West High is working to fix some problems with its elective English curriculum (see Nov. 14 thread “Evaluation of the SLC Project at West High School”). The English 10 course proposed for next year is a modest change, but has attracted an avalanche of free advice from people outside the West High community.
    Earlier in this thread, I objected that your reference to “dumbing down the curriculum” impugned the motives of Principal Holmes and the English teachers who are designing English 10. You replied (Dec. 9) that your comment was not “specific to West and/or Ed Holmes.” Unfortunately, the plain meaning of your words (and their posting to this particular thread) indicates otherwise:
    “One point that gets lost in all of this – will the proposed changes actually improve achievement for low income and/or minority students? I’d like to see some verifiable data before the plan is implemented. Particularly from schools in the district and nationally that have tackled issues of engagement and achievement among similar student populations. I’m willing to bet that dumbing down the curriculum was not part of the success pattern.” (Mathiak, Dec. 8)
    Semantics is not my strong suit, but the loaded phrase “dumbing down the curriculum” is not just meandering through the paragraph; it plainly characterizes “the proposed changes”. [For example, change your sentence to: “I’m willing to bet that Intelligent Design in the curriculum was not part of the success pattern” and one would infer that “the proposed changes” include Intelligent Design.]
    My 3 kids really enjoyed the English teachers at West (1992-2004) and headed to college nicely literate. A son had Mr. Holmes as an assistant principal and I currently spend 5 hours per week at West. That limited experience leads me to think that he works tirelessly for our kids and is very popular among West students.
    Does anyone really believe that West’s English faculty intends “to close the achievement gap by lowering the bar” or that Ed Homes is an “…administrator…that assumes that their children are less capable or interested in academic achievement because of their ethnic heritage or socioeconomic status”?
    Please consider how condescending and offensive your “non-specific” comments are in this context and take them to a different thread. West deserves better.

  14. I couldn’t disagree more with those who call the overhaul of English 10 a “modest proposal”. Extending into 9th and 10th grades the failed blended classroom paradigm of K-8, out of which nearly 20% cannot read at grade level, makes little sense in theory; but it is even more ridiculous when the amended English 9 curriculum is not yielding its intended results. Moreover, this little “tweak” to English 10 has considerable impacts on the remainder of English course offerings for juniors and seniors.
    I’m really tired of folks suggesting that my concerns stem from not wanting my child sitting next to someone else’s. How dare you. Those of us concerned with TAG programming do so out of a desire to improve the educational success of “differently”-abled children on the other end of the continuum. Apparently it is perfectly legitimate to advocate for special ed students, but no one else. If my child were poor and a minority, would that make my concerns more legitimate in your eyes? Do you honestly believe that a TAG student will learn as much Shakespeare sitting next to a student who can barely read at the 3rd grade level? He won’t.
    I’m also tired of the argument that schools should homogenize classes because that’s what society will look like in the future. Look around any law office or medical practice. Forget about ethnicity–the common thread is that folks with strong skills worked hard to get there. I doubt very much that even in the future you’ll see professionals who couldn’t read at grade level in the 10th grade occupying those seats.
    Correcting the deficits caused by racism and poverty doesn’t require diluting our curricula. I believe that is Lucy Mathiak’s point—keep the bar high for all students, expect more, not less.
    Furthermore, it should matter to many families whether curriculum changes leave their children better or worse prepared for college. I am not convinced that the SLC changes as proposed will benefit the majority of students, and likely not the higher functioning students. I’m also not convinced these “modest” changes are going to help those who cannot read at grade level in the 10th grade. It is folly to argue that all children’s needs can be met in one classroom.
    When my son interviewed at the University of Chicago a few years back, we met the dean of admissions. When he learned where my son went to high school, he turned to his colleague and said, “West High turns out great writers.” I’m wondering if the same will be said after what made West’s English department great, the amazing menu of course offerings with its emphasis on writing, is dismantled.
    Finally, those of us with a great deal of experience interacting with the administration with which Mr Gleason’s spouse is affiliated recognize the tactics that permeated nice Mr Holmes’ letter. I’m not attacking him personally–as I said, he may be doing wonderful things for the general climate at West. But his personal skills have nothing to do with the merits of the English 10 proposal. As for the post that pointed out Mr Holmes’ spelling or typographic mistake, I usually don’t remark on such errors, making plenty myself. However, when I send out a formal letter, especially one likely to circulate publicly, I do a spell check. It goes to professionalism. If I were an educator, I’d be pretty sensitive to that. There are an awful lot of parents out there who pay attention to such details. If we expect our children to perform to standards, it’s not too much to ask the same of our teachers and administrators.

  15. Dear Neil,
    This is an open forum in which people are allowed to participate – hopefully with civility and good manners – regardless of their opinion. This system has operated on an open-ended basis since it was started, and this is the first time that I can remember anyone trying to tell a participant that they don’t have the right to an opinion or to post to a thread.
    I’m sorry that you feel this way and hope that you will take a moment to embrace the concept of critical inquiry and free expression that is an essential part of this blog. There are plenty of spirited debates on this site, which is its strength. You are free to believe what you will, and to pursue whatever agenda you choose, but you’re a bit off in telling me (or any other person who cares enough to write) to “Please consider how condescending and offensive your “non-specific” comments are in this context and take them to a different thread.”
    I hope that your comments will not deter others from stating their ideas for fear of a bellicose response. That just isn’t the spirit of this community of inquiry.

  16. Dear Neil,
    I know that your wife is a Gateways Instructor who deals with children who are struggling to read. We need people like her in the district who have patience and can guide children to learn to read.
    As a former educator and a parent of a high schooler and middle school student, I would say that MMSD has lowered the bar for the top to close the gap. She was one who taught herself to read at 3. It wasn’t until P/T conferences in Nov. did the kindergarten teacher know she could read when I asked if she could check out books in the library that were not picture books. She had the school Gateways Teacher test her and found that she was reading above the 5th grade, but didn’t know how far because at the time, they didn’t have anything above that level to test her. Only in 1st grade did she get an INSTEP done, and this was to have her attend 3rd grade part of the day, which was approved by the principal. They didn’t test her in math, so no one knew what she knew. The principal left that summer and no one followed through with the INSTEP. We were constantly told, her needs will be challenged. I ended up homeschooling her for math during 4th grade by pulling her out on a daily basis. She was going into a depression because in her words, “no one believed that she was smart” because they weren’t challenging her. She stopped participating in school, because she felt the questions where not challenging and other kids could answer the basic questions. We had an IQ test and out of grade level testing done (Explore and ACT through Northwestern University). We thought, maybe we don’t really know what our daughter really needed. We meet with a 3rd party psychologist who deals with MMSD and gifted children, and was told to get this child out of the district they can’t meet her needs. After talking to the middle school learning coordinator and guidance counselor, we were convinced that MMSD wasn’t going to meet her needs. They all said, she would have to go through grade level language arts/math even though she had been receiving regional and national awards in both of these areas.
    Granted, for most kids, MMSD meets the needs. But there are those kids who are out of sink that the district doesn’t know what to do with. If the child is vocal, the school may give the child some attention. And yes, for a slight few, teachers have recognized these children, and given them the challenge that they need. But for many others, if parents listen to the district, yes, they will hold these kids back from what they really want to do, which is learn. Maybe you haven’t met the child who is like this. As a parent, it isn’t something that I would have wished for, but I need to deal with, which includes advocate for.
    If you think about it, if one looks at an IQ test, these kids are as far away form the norm as the low kids. They may have social/emotional issues, just like some kids on the lower end do but that shouldn’t hold them back. They will fit in/or not as much as someone on the other end of the IQ chart does. My child’s IQ is as far from the norm as a child who is profoundly retarded is. Our society has very low expectations that the child on the lower end will fit in, why does one think my child can or will fit in? This is why parents have to advocate for those kids on the upper end. Some parents don’t understand what their children really need and maybe they are pushing for more than what their children need. But there are some, who are ready for college level work in high school. And isn’t it okay for kids to want to be challenged and be able to try something that is hard?

  17. Dear Neil,
    You stated that “The English 10 course proposed for next year is a modest change, but has attracted an avalanche of free advice from people outside the West High community.”
    Two comments: (1) Clearly many people don’t agree that this is a “modest” change. Many students (including my daughter, now a sophomore in college), have benefited enormously by being able to choose Honors English courses starting in 10th grade, and this option will be eliminated. As others have stated here or elsewhere, doing extra work during lunch time is NOT equivalent to being in a class which is entirely taught at a higher level.
    (2) The vast majority of the comments here are indeed from West High parents, current, former, or future.

  18. Hello, again!
    I apologize that I haven’t responded sooner, my week has been incredibly busy!
    First, I would like to thank Mr. Gleason and Mr. Blume for responding to my first post. I appreciate it.
    In response to Ms. Knoebel, who stated that a child who reads at a third-grade level could not possibly enjoy Shakespeare to the same degree as a TAG student, I must say I was rather taken aback. Ironically, I was just last night watching (though not for the first time) an episode of “My So-Called Life.” The sophomore English teacher was reciting a sonnet by Shakespeare, and two students immediately recognized what he was trying to convey: Brian, the smartest student at the high school, and Jordan, who we later discover can barely read. Sure, this is an example off a TV show, but anyone who has seen it cannot deny that it is painfully honest (honest enough for clips to be shown at the December PTSO meeting). It may also interest you to know that Shakespeare wrote his works for the enjoyment of the public of his era; the vast majority of which were illiterate. Why do you think he wrote plays? It was so that the people he would be writing for, the ones who could barely read at a third-grade level, would be able to enjoy his brilliance, too. My point is that simply because a student – or anyone, for that matter – has a low reading capacity does not make them any less able to fully appreciate the works of Shakespeare, or any great author.
    In response to ‘Edukation4u,’ I must say that I was rather offended by final paragraph. “Retarded” has become a term that is used to deragatorily is our society that I shudder to hear it, no matter what the context. A more appropriate way to put it would be “a child with a significant disability.” It is far more respectful, especially in this day and age. In addition, the following comparison: “My child’s IQ is as far from the norm as a child who is profoundly retarded is,” is simply not an accurate example. I understand that you are trying to put the whole thing on a scale, with “the norm” at the center, but it just does not work that way. In some schools (not necessarily the MMSD), a parent of a child with a significant disability will very likely have to work themselves to the breaking point for their child to get even the slightest bit of respect and an acceptable education. The comparison between your experience and that of such parents just cannot be made.
    I would love to discuss this more in-depth, so please reply with any thoughts.
    Thank you all for your time!

  19. I share this article with the recent comments of Edukation4u and QuietlyMocking in mind, though certainly others may be interested to read it. It’s a December, 2000, article from the American Psychological Association publication The American Psychologist entitled “Two Tails of the Normal Curve: Similarities and Differences in the Study of Mental Retardation and Giftedness,” written by three leaders in the field.

  20. Ms. Knoebel,
    I continue to ask that West Principal Ed Holmes and the English faculty be treated with respect. This thread began as ridicule, for which the author very graciously apologized. But from the hands of others came vitriol and condescension, despite the plea of a West freshman Amelia Swedeen, “All of the complaints and anger that I have witnessed being directed at West High School is doing nothing productive. As a student, I find it extremely unhelpful.”
    Sadly, your mockery of struggling students speaks for itself:
    “…Apparently it is perfectly legitimate to advocate for special ed students, but no one else. If my child were poor and a minority, would that make my concerns more legitimate in your eyes? Do you honestly believe that a TAG student will learn as much Shakespeare sitting next to a student who can barely read at the 3rd grade level? He won’t.”
    Your words bring Shakespeare to mind: “In time we hate that which we often fear.” (Antony and Cleopatra)
    West deserves better.

  21. Ah, a most familiar tactic: When you can’t win the argument on the merits, go ad hominem, or ad feminem, as the case may be.
    Ms Sweedem misquotes me, sloppily or deliberately, I cannot tell–I said that the TAG student wouldn’t learn as much Shakeseare in a class with a student reading at the third-grade level. I have no idea what that lower functioning student might experience under those circumstances but I can guess they might feel overwhelmed. Based on my kids’ middle and elementary school experiences, that is what often happened in those blended classes, especially when there was a “group” project.
    Mr Gleason does much the same—it is no mockery to suggest that cookie cutter curricula like the “modest” one he supports at West fail most students, especially those at the extremes of the continuum.

  22. Neil,
    You tend not to deal with the substance of the issues at West, so if you would, please address just one simple issue:
    How will non-readers be taught to read in English 10? If you say that they’ll get extra time with a teacher during lunch, what curriculum will the teacher use to teach these non-readers to read? Everything tried until this time with those students apparently has not helped them learn to read. What will a teacher at lunch do differently? Does any research support whatever the English 10 planners intend for the teacher to do at lunch?

  23. Hello, everyone!
    In response to Ms. Knoebel, I would like to apologize for misquoting. However, if you really meant that TAG students could not progress as quickly, I must say that I am contrary to that belief as well.
    As a student, I think that I would have a better overall experience in a diverse classroom, not a segregated one. A student can learn so many life lessons that are unavailable in separated classrooms. I have received a wonderful education over the years, but I found it far more rewarding to be with peers who had come from different backgrounds than I had, rather than ensuring that my English class was just slightly better. I feel as though I would rather the school would continue with its chosen English 10 course than divide everything up. How can one say that we should not go through with this if it is the student that is asking for it?
    Thank you for your time.
    Sincerely, Amelia Swedeen

  24. Ed,
    You are right that I hesitate to pronounce certain judgment about English 10. I am not a teacher, have never designed a curriculum and have only modest exposure to English literature. I am not familiar with the reading levels of West students. DPI reports that 9% tested minimal, 10% basic, 15% proficient and 65% advanced. Exactly how each of these broad groups would fare in English 10 is not something I understand. On this subject, I try to heed the words of Abraham Lincoln: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”
    My kids had a pretty good run with West’s English teachers and I have known Ed Holmes casually for 20 years. As a result, I am inclined to respect their judgment on this. As proud alumni of Midvale-Lincoln, my kids benefited from academic and social contact with kids of many abilities and backgrounds, so I do not fear heterogeneous classes.
    I am a bit old-fashioned about education and rely on my kids’ experience at West to understand the whole business of high school. Although many parents compete to load their kids with AP courses to burnish a college résumé, I restrained my kids from going too fast. I pushed LUG (language, usage and grammar) and the intermediate and advanced writing courses…and my oldest ended up studying advanced literature for a year at Catholic University in Santiago, Chile. I steered them away from pre-calc to assure that they acquired a strong foundation in algebra and trig…and all 3 chose to continue calculus in college. [None of them used their 20+ ersatz AP and retro language credits to graduate early; to have done so would have forgone part of their education.]
    West did its job of giving my kids a solid foundation that led each of them to choose a broad curriculum and multiple, disparate areas of specialty in college. Although 2 ended up in Economics and the youngest probably in education, all 3 chose to continue math, lab sciences, and Spanish and English literature in college. They used their West High Spanish to travel and study in Central and South America and the Caribbean and returned fluent in Spanish (and Portuguese). In adulthood, my older two found nice jobs in technical fields, due in part to their extensive international experience and language skills. Based on a couple of years of living in Paris and working on 6 continents, my oldest talked his way into a fancy grad school.
    Not a day goes by that I don’t appreciate the fact that my kids’ economic and social prospects as young adults were crucially enriched by their years of study with kids who didn’t always score proficient or advanced (and sometimes didn’t speak English). I have a fundamentally different concept of education than many of the experts who post here. And I remain mystified that they would try to insulate their kids in an AP-saturated west-side cocoon…such a handicap in the modern world.
    I would guess that it will take a few years of experience for West English teachers to fully refine the English 10 curriculum and master the art of engaging a greater variety of student skills. The ultimate benefit, to subject the literary topic of “justice” to more thorough consideration in an ethnically diverse classroom, is a worthy one.

  25. Neil,
    Though you’re not an expert in education, you are the customer of the district. You are a voter and a taxpayer. What do you want from the district as customer, voter, and taxpayer?
    Do you want the MMSD to challenge each and every student to achieve the most that they can possibly achieve academically?
    Do you want each and every MMSD graduate (and drop out) to be able to read at a level that allows them to be successful in life?

  26. I believe that many of us are influenced by our experiences with the schools and how they affected our children and children that we know.
    I believe that many of us who are not West parents are watching to see what happens precisely because we are concerned about whether the model will work. Beyond that, many of us are concerned that the model will be applied across the district without serious assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. (After the whole language, connected math, and other debates, this is not unreasonable.)
    In my case, I am one of the many parents in the district who have a child who is off the charts academically and a child who struggled because of reading deficits. While some may laud the virtues of ‘heterogeneous grouping,’ it has been my experience (echoed by other parents in similar straits) that many teachers either don’t have the skills, time, or inclination to differentiate the curriculum to reach all students at their level. And when students are not reached, they tend to tune out, whether the material is too challenging or not challenging enough.
    The devil is in the detail, and Ed asks a key question: what will be done differently to help these students to read at the level required to access the material? Without this piece of information, I would be concerned that the access will come through audio tapes or significantly watered down materials based on our past experience. While such an approach may work for some students, it doesn’t do much to provide either confidence or proficiency for students who are reading signficantly below grade level.
    I may not understand the proposal, but I’m also surprised at the suggestion that lunch periods would be used to work with accelerated and/or reading challenged students. How does this work with student schedules? How does this work with teacher allocations and contracts? How does this work with the district’s traditional reluctance to have “pull out” direct instruction?
    Finally, can someone explain why it would be necessary to eliminate the advanced courses in order to change the 10th grade English curriculum? I’m not sure that I understand why advanced classes would be incompatible with a core 10th grade curriculum, so would be interested to hear the perspective on this piece.

  27. Lucy,
    I will try to answer your question.
    Currently, beginning in 10th grade, West students choose (i.e., self-selection, though freshman English teachers offer guidance) from a long list of English electives that range in content and difficulty level (including some that are designated “honors,” which sophomores can take if their freshman English teacher O.K.’s it). If English 10 is implemented, the plan is to eliminate the 5 or 6 more popular electives chosen by sophomores. (Of course, some students have historically taken these electives in their junior and senior years, which means that students living through the transition period will be out of luck.) The reasons for eliminating these electives include the need for teachers to teach English 10 and not wanting to have redundancy in the course offerings (the English 10 core curriculum includes much of the material from those more popular electives).
    It’s not so much that advanced courses will be eliminated, just that some of the electives will be eliminated. Perhaps most importantly, the mechanism of self-selection — and the sorting by interest, ability and motivation that it brings — will be delayed a year, replaced by yet another year of forced heterogeneity of classroom composition and all that it brings.

  28. In response to Laurie’s post of December 13, am I correct in concluding that you feel that the most important problem with the proposed English 10 curriculum is the “forced heterogeneity of classroom composition and all it brings” rather than the content of the curriculum? What range and level of heterogeneity would you like to see in a classroom, in terms of the how many kids and what range (profoundly gifted, above grade level, average, below grade level, special education, ESL)?

  29. I may be projecting here, but I’m wondering if the objection is not to the heterogeneity but to the assumption that heterogeneity cannot be achieved among students of like ability levels by changing the model and process through which students get access to advanced classes.
    There are many models for offering classes at a range of abilities. One model says that students may take the classes only after rigorous academic competition, recommendations from teachers, etc. This model proposes a finite number of seats in classes taught at this level.
    Another model acknowledges that the selection or self-selection process for upper level courses can be flawed in ways that exclude students who are capable of doing the work. This model proposes as many seats as necessary to accommodate all of the students who are able and interested in taking the advanced level class. (Sort of an “if they want to try, let them” approach.)
    For example, some middle schools restrict the number of spaces available for students who want to take algebra. In reality, the number of students who want to take algebra and who could succeed often exceeds the number of spaces available, pitting parent against parent, student against student, for a scarce resource.
    Other middle schools (or at least one that I know of) tested ALL of the students to see who was ready for algebra and adjusted the number of sections accordingly. Personally, I sorta like this model. It levels the playing field to the extent that it opens the process. At the same time, it keeps advanced courses in the school.
    This ramble may be way off base for the English and heterogeneity discussion, but I though it might provide some food for thought.

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