Good goals, flawed reasoning: Administration Goes Full Speed Ahead on English 10 at West High

At January and February school board meetings, Madison Superintendent Art Rainwater reported on the administration’s plan to go ahead with one English course for all tenth graders at West High School starting in 2006-07. The goal of the plan is to increase academic opportunity for students of color. The mechanism is to teach all students the same curriculum, leaving it up to teachers to “differentiate” their approach and give equal challenge to every student. The school board has taken no action on this plan and does not plan to adopt, modify or otherwise vote on the plan before it is implemented.
I support the goal. I am not convinced, however, that the mechanism is based, as claimed, on the best research. The presentations to the Performance and Achievement Committee have raised my level of doubt.
At the January 30 meeting, the board heard from a University of Wisconsin expert. His published research on the subject of differentiated teaching concluded that more research is needed on this subject. Where the expert found successful differentiated teaching in high schools,the circumstances of the schools were far different from the circumstances at West High School. For example, successful “differentiated” classes occurred in schools where administration could match the skills and motivation of the teachers to the classes and where students vied for spots in the classrooms. We have a staff based on seniority and teacher options within the seniority system and must accept all students at tenth grade level into the program.
We were asked to consider the Biology I/ Advanced Biology I program at West High as a basis for making the change in the English program. In that program, approximately 20 students qualify for the advanced course and all others take Biology I. We were told that taking Biology I (rather than the advanced course) had not prevented a high percentage of West students from becoming National Merit Semi-Finalists. Never mind that the tests used for selecting the semi-finalists do not test science skills. At best, this correlation shows that taking Biology I did not harm the high-scoring students skills and aptitudes in non-science areas.
Two of our teachers made more persuasive arguments for caution in moving to “differentiated” courses. One cited research showing that the teacher training for these courses is a five to ten-year process. The other teacher gave us the factual background necessary to analyze the administration’s proposal. That teacher’s testimony follows.

Board of Education: Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you at Monday’s meeting. This is the information that was requested by Ms. Robarts.
I strongly support and applaud the efforts of the East Math Department in revising the Algebra/Trigonometry Course. However, I question whether the revision of this course at East HS is a model that will assure the success of the new English 10 course at West HS. These are the reasons for my concerns:

  • English 10 is a required course designed for 100% of the 10th graders. Alg/Trig is an 11th grade elective that is taken by 38.9% or 169 of the 11th graders. Students not yet ready to take Alg/Trig in 11th grade may take the course in 12th grade as 59 students did this year or if ready, take it earlier as forty-five 10th graders did this year. Essentially the students at East consist of higher 10th graders, middle 11th graders and lower 12th graders. This population does not include the highest or the lowest ability students and thus may make it easier to differentiate than the English 10 class.
  • The English Department at West may resist requests to skip English 10. At East fifty-four 10th graders skipped ahead to Pre-Calculus.
  • English 10 replaced as many 15 courses. Algebra/Trig has combined only 2 courses.
  • There are not other English courses available to 10th graders at West. At East, Advanced Algebra/Analytical Geometry, Integrated Math III, Trigonometry & Topics, & Pre-Calculus are also available as elective courses that cover similar material at differing pace and depth.
  • The East High course somewhat reflects the population of the school except for the populations of EEN & low-income students. The school has 1839 students. 23% are African American, 8% are Hispanic, 11% are Asian, 57% are white, 42% are low income, 13% are English Language Learners and 22% receive Special Education services. The Algebra/Trig class serves 273 students. 20% are African American, 111% are Hispanic, 10% are Asian, 58% are white, 31% are low income, 11% are English Language Learners and 11% receive Special Education Services.

Potential Cost: It has been stated that the District will allow academically capable students to skip English 10 through the In-Step process. It is not known how many students will access this option, but if we use the fifty-four 10th grade East math students as a possible number of 10th grade English students at West, we face a potentially large expense through the Youth Options program. Students that complete 4 years of English in 3 years could opt to take a UW course each semester at MMSD expense. The current credit cost for two 3-credit courses would be $1760 or for two 4-credit courses the cost would be $2346 per student.