12 thoughts on “Madison School Board High School Redesign Discussion”

  1. I hope that when the Board discusses high school redesign, they take into consideration what I learned last night at East High’s meeting: heterogeneous classes at the middle school level (at least on the east side) have failed terribly.
    In the eyes of parents (albeit the educated parents with higher achieving kids that attended last night), this has been a total wash. VERY FEW teachers are actually capable of successful differentiation in their classroom. Even teachers admit this.
    I understand that the “achievement gap” is an important contemporary barometer for school districts. Is it possible that it’s taken on a life of it’s own? I’m beginning to think that closing this gap as measured by standardized testing scores is bunch of crap. There is the gap as measured by tests, and there is the gap as seen in the classroom via ability to study, quickly process new information, speak on one’s feet, etc.
    Maybe these differences get magnified as kids gets older and, since my kids are just finishing middle school, I’m seeing this more intensely. But I would like the Board to address this whole idea of heterogeneity and differentiation and how so far, it is failing at the middle school level in the eyes of many parents. Art can say it is working. Principals can say it is working. But “just cause they say it don’t mean that it’s so”. Teachers tell me it’s failing, and I’d trust the ground troops over the generals and the observers any day.

  2. From MMSD BOE Policies and Procedures ‘Philosophy of Education’ :
    4. We believe it is a responsibility of the MMSD to prepare students for participation in a heterogeneous community of people where individual differences are understood, accepted, and valued. Toward this end, we believe that each school comunity should be a heterogeneous community of students and staff.
    7c. Since a function of education is to enable a pupil to realize her/his potential, the curriculum should consider the talents and abilities of students.
    7d. The scope and sequence of learning experiences of what is to be taught and how it is to be taught should take into account the present knowledge, skills, and interests of pupils.
    A reasonable person might first question how #4 is to be interpreted. Heterogeneous at the macro level? Given the direction in which MMSD has been moving, it is clear that their interpretation is heterogeneous at the micro level. Put it through a sieve and let no lumps remain.
    Now #4 is in direct conflict with #7c and d under this interpretation. The only way to resolve this dilemna is to impose differentiated instruction. Ah, but reality intrudes. As you say, it just doesn’t work. What to do? Mr. Stay-the-Course Rainwater clearly intends to proceed apace with the sieving. What next? I say, out with West High Honor Band. Grouping sudents by ability in music?? Can’t have that. That’s a lump if I ever saw one.
    So what else was discussed at this meeting? Those of us who couldn’t attend are dying to know.

  3. I am hoping that an East parent who was there last night will post a fuller description of the plan that Mr. Harris rolled out last night. I am willing to briefly describe what I see as the heart of it.
    In a nutshell, 9th and 10th grade English, Social Studies and Science will all become “core curriculum” courses. In addition, there will be special support for students who are not at grade level (Harris called it a “pre-learning” academic support class – I think it will be taken as an elective); embedded honors options in some courses (and a full time TAG coordinator to go with ’em); and some opportunities for very advanced 9th graders to go into 10th grade classes and very advanced 10th graders to go into AP classes.
    Of note, a few TAG students spoke, each of them quite eloquent about what the TAG classes have meant to them, how crucial it has been for them to have the opportunity to learn with other kids “just like them.” It is important to note, I think, that embedded honors options hardly guarantee that opportunity. (FYI: The new embedded honors options at West are being implemented with truly impressive variability/inconsistency across teachers and classes. It’s a “shondah”, as we say in the old country.)
    Anyway, here are a few specific questions and points that I’ve been wondering about.
    1) Will Paul DuVair’s TAG Biology class go away?
    (The answer is “yes.” I asked the teachers I was standing with in the back and that’s what they told me. There is a very slim chance that it could become a “TAG elective.”)
    2) Where will the money come from for the full time TAG coordinator for East HS? Likewise, where will the money come from for the professional development needed to train teachers to teach AP classes?
    (I wonder if it will come from the MMSD’s share of the $200,000 grant from the DPI and the National Governors Association to expand AP and minority participation in AP? The MMSD portion is $40,000. I forget for how many years. Two, I think. But does that mean East will get the MMSD’s full amount? And what will happen when the grant runs out?)
    3) I trust everyone realizes that the “TAG electives” for 9th graders will be taken as a “Oth” or “8th” period class (that is, either before or after school) or instead of some other elective (music, art foreign language, etc.)
    4) What specific criteria will be used to determine whether any given 9th grader will go into a 10th grade class? whether any given 10th grader will go into an AP class?
    (At West, the criteria for allowing 10th graders to skip over English 10 and go straight into upper level electives were so stringent (not to mention stratistically meaningless) that only 5 students (out of a class of 500-plus) got to do it.)
    5) How many 9th and 10th grade students would the administration like to see “bump ahead”?
    (Obviously, the criteria I ask about in #4 can be established with the numeric outcome in mind.)
    5) How many new AP courses will be offered?
    (East now offers 10; West offers 8; Memorial offers 17 or something like that.)
    6) How widespread is faculty support for this plan? faculty opposition? (Actually, since most of the faculty just found out this week, perhaps the better question is how many East teachers were fully involved in the development of this plan and how were they chosen?)
    (The truth, please, in response to #6. After all, Art told me once in an email that the English 10 initiative was “teacher driven” at West, and yet we all know from Bruce King’s report and conversations with West English faculty that the change almost destroyed the department.)
    I could go on, but will stop there for the moment. Gosh, I do hope others who were there will chime in.

  4. Thanks, Laurie.
    How very sad for the East High community. My heart goes out to them. How can the board just stand by and watch as our schools are dismantled one by one and bit by bit? Do a majority of them actually approve of this madness? I feel like I’m watching a slow motion extremely bloody murder. My vote for the referendum was most decidedly NOT a vote for this policy. I am sure that is true of many many other people as well.

  5. I see that I failed to make clear the explicit intention of increasing the number of AP courses in the East HS plan. My apologies. I also apologize for inadvertently leaving out details or background others who attended might have wanted to see included. I really just wanted to share the essentials of the plan and get the discussion ball rolling.
    I also realized that there is an error in the West course catalogue. West now has 9 AP courses, not 8. AP American Government was added this year (and apparently AP Music Theory was not dropped, as I had heard it would be.) I have double checked and — indeed — Memorial has 17 and LaFollette has 12.
    Finally, I appreciate that there may differences of opinion regarding the extent to which this is a “done deal.” Jeff and I heard Mr. Harris saying that it is, in essence; that he is interesting in talking more about how to do this better and how to get all parties on board, but not in talking about whether or not to do it at all.
    As a West parent who’s been very involved with these issues for a few years now, I really feel for all of the East parents and students. In many ways, your loss has been greater, more traumatic than ours because it’s all happening in one fell swoop. We, in contrast, have been nibbled to death by guppies, enduring small changes over the course of several years.
    With all due respect to Mr. Harris (who seems to think his plan is fundamentally different from what’s been going on at West), I think now is the time to put aside our silly east/west rivalries and form the strongest Districtwide coalition in the name of true academic excellence — and the true honoring of diversity — this District has ever seen!

  6. There seems to be some confusion in this thread about what will be/was discussed when.
    On the 16th, East High United met to hear a presentation of the principal’s new curricular plan.
    On the 27th, the Board of Education will discuss “high school redesign” in general and as it affects specific schools. There hasn’t been an opportunity to hear what has or has not happened, what is in progress, the logic/strategy, etc. As a result, I asked that high school redesign be placed on a board agenda in the near future since we are getting questions from parents at 3 of the 4 major high schools.
    The discussion on the 16th and the 27th are related but not synonymous.

  7. Lucy, I really don’t think you have to worry. I think people understand that the BOE discussion on the 27th will be about District-wide philosophy, policy and plans, while the discussion this past Thursday night (to be followed up in two weeks) is specifically about East. The thing is, many of the fundamental issues, questions, concerns and details are the same, whether you’re talking about any one high school or all of them together.
    Another point —
    I’d add to Laurie’s list of questions one about what tests and assessment tools will be used to determine whether or not any given 9th or 10th grader will be allowed to accelerate? I’d like to see the results of tests offered through the Midwest Academic Talent Search used as one piece of information. When a middle schooler does well on the ACT or the SAT, that says something useful and important about their academic abilities and educational needs. The more families who ask to have MATS test scores used for placement purposes, the more likely they are to be used in that way.
    By the way, it’s still not too late to register your middle school student for the MATS on-line. Go to the Center for Talent Development’s website:

  8. As an East parent who was at the meeting, I’d like to add a different perspective. As has been reported, Alan Harris described the outline of a plan for pretty significant changes to the curriculum. The details were sketchy, which was frustrating for many of us at the meeting. But there clearly seems to be a lot to like about the plan. For example, one component is to change study halls, which are currently a wasteland, into opportunities for more focused work on learning skills. There has been a teacher group working on literacy at East and I believe another part of the plan is to embed more literacy components in all classes. If this means requiring more writing assignments and taking them more seriously, that’s a good thing.
    The audience at the meeting was more interested in hearing about the rumored demise of the TAG classes, and that’s part of the plan too. It seems that the idea is to replace TAG classes in part with additional AP offerings at East, and also to move toward the core heterogeneous class offerings for most English, social science and science classes. Mr. Harris seemed to identify Memorial as a better comparison to what he has in mind than West, although neither I nor most people present at the meeting really appreciated the distinction.
    Immediately after the meeting, I was skeptical. But after several conversations with folks connected to East (though not with Mr. Harris), I am starting to see the potential for some benefits from what I understand to be the proposal. I think that the impetus for overhauling the current TAG system isn’t to get rid of the most challenging classes and push everyone toward the middle. Instead, though no one comes out and says this, I think that there is a perception that, on the whole, the TAG classes at East are not accomplishing their purpose and are not serving well the most high-achieving students. The concern here isn’t that the TAG classes are too rigorous, it’s that they’re not rigorous enough. I’m not sure if I agree, but I think it’s plausible to assert that, particularly for freshmen, the benefit of the spotty TAG classes currently offered is not worth the social stratification that the classes engender right out of the box.
    Substituting AP classes for TAG classes may not solve the problem of insufficient academic rigor for high-achieving freshmen and sophomores, but it potentially offers benefits for juniors and seniors. Not the least of the benefits is that AP classes have to cover a great deal of subject matter. I may well have this wrong, but I think that AP classes have a more standardized curriculum, driven by the content of the AP test. The scope of the material covered provides some benchmarks and so makes it possible to hold teachers more accountable for their classroom performances. And, of course, if the students who take a particular AP class bomb the exam, that suggests that the class was not well taught and that improvements are in order.
    The devil is obviously in the details. We don’t know the details yet. Also, the success of this or any plan depends in large part on the extent to which teachers and parents buy into it, and that’s certainly up in the air. But I think it’s clear that Alan Harris has very ambitious plans for East. Contrary to some of the suggestions posted here and elsewhere, I think his goals include increasing academic rigor for all students and increasing accountability for teachers. It’s hard to argue with that agenda.
    So at this point, I’d suggest that it may be premature to bemoan the loss of academic rigor at East. It’s possible that this might work out.

  9. I have finally calmed down enough after Thursday night’s East High meeting to put down some thoughts about the redesign. Though there are some kernels of hope in Mr. Harris’s plan, there is too much at risk to simply take the “leap of faith” for which he is asking.
    After being told for nine years that my daughter would finally get the TAG instruction she deserves when she enters East next fall, Mr. Harris has shattered any faith in the district that we’ve been holding on to.
    First, anyone who knows anything about TAG students and TAG curriculum knows that AP classes are not an acceptable substitute for TAG instruction; their purposes and missions are not the same. Also, offering a TAG elective before or after school discriminates against this segment of the student body.
    Remember the band debacle at Sherman Middle School a year and a half ago? With DPI’s help, some parents stopped Sherman Middle School from forcing students to take band after school. We were successful because band is a required class that must be offered during the regular school day. We won’t be able to stop Mr. Harris’s plan to offer TAG classes outside regular school hours because he is calling them electives. His plan works around DPI mandates for TAG instruction by “embedding” TAG curriculum in regular classrooms.
    Yet, the vast majority of teachers admit — at least privately — that it is impossible for them to successfully differentiate curriculum in heterogeneous classrooms. One East High teacher told me that only a couple of teachers in the department claim to be able to differentiate with universal success. The rest of the teachers don’t believe it is possible to address the needs of the highest and lowest students in a heterogeneous class.
    Because the ability of the teachers to deliver differentiated curriculum is at the center of Mr. Harris’s plan, it makes sense that the teachers should be trained in differentiation and prove their ability to differentiate the curriculum BEFORE the wholesale changes are made. There certainly is enough opportunity for greater differentiation in the current classroom structure.
    Although Mr. Harris claims that the redesign is because TAG students have been “coasting,” many staff members tell me the real reason is the lack of diversity in the TAG program. Remember: The main reason that Ann Yehle tried to make band an after-school program at Sherman Middle School was because there wasn’t enough diversity in the band. By forcing all of the students to take general music during the day, she was then able to say that her music classes were diverse. Now Harris is doing the same thing at East High. If the electives outside the school day don’t look diverse, who cares? However, by forcing every student to sit in the same English class during the regular school day, he can claim to have successfully achieved classroom diversity.
    An East High teacher recently made an argument I’ve been making for years: Rather than scrapping TAG (Band, whatever program is deemed too homogenous), we should be working harder in the elementary and middle schools to ensure that minorities are prepared for these programs and can be among the highest performing students. Most TAG families wish that the TAG classes would be more diverse. The fact that they are not is a failure of the schools, not the TAG students whom have worked so hard their entire academic lives.
    This redesign process should be stopped until solid evidence is produced to support its merits for all students. If you agree, you’d better make some noise now. Parents on Thursday night were told they could only ask “clarifying questions,” a clear signal that Harris considers this a done deal.
    East High teachers also were told that they could only ask “clarifying questions,” according to several teachers. These questions supposedly will be answered by administration this week.
    Meanwhile, the school board will be taking up the issue of high school redesign at the end of the month. This could be one of your last opportunities to be heard on this issue.
    One final observation: If this is all part of the Vision 2012 process, why can’t we take our time to do it right, so that when 2012 rolls around we won’t have to scratch our heads and say, “2012? Hmm … You sure we didn’t mean 2020?”

  10. “An East High teacher recently made an argument I’ve been making for years: Rather than scrapping TAG (Band, whatever program is deemed too homogenous), we should be working harder in the elementary and middle schools to ensure that minorities are prepared for these programs and can be among the highest performing students. Most TAG families wish that the TAG classes would be more diverse. The fact that they are not is a failure of the schools, not the TAG students whom have worked so hard their entire academic lives.”
    I think the point – we should be working harder in the elementary and middle schools to ensure that minorities are prepared for courses requiring higher skill levels and can be among the highest performing students – is critical in every subject area. If we’re moving to make courses the same for everyone in high school, we’re not helping our students grow, achieve and move in new, challenging directions.
    When I tutored 5th graders and other elementary students in math, I would say – “before you get to middle school, you must know addition, subtraction, multiplication, division (short and long), basic fractions, decimals – basic math information. Too many children don’t have these basic tools in math or other subject areas such as science, and I would like to see the School Board put some of these basic goals in place and check on progress. By the time kids get to 6th grade and beyond, the amount of knowledge imparted increases as do the number of different classes.
    I’ve found the same shortcoming to be true in the administration’s discussions about music education, including elementary strings. Recently, and again, the administration trots out a 19-slide presentation on elementary string participation at the second meeting of a design team focused on general music, saying that enrollment declines over time, and we lose low income, minority, special education, ELL children by grade 12. Can the administration provide information on what they have done to increase the opportunities to not only select but have the skill to participate in more challenging courses – no!
    For five years, they have suggested cutting this course (and money is not the main issue). They fail to mention that 600 + low-income children had the opportunity to study and learn how to play an instrument (no where else is that possible for these children), is a foundation course for the instrumental portion of the music education curriculum and that for some, having had the opportunity to study an instrument gives them the confidence and ability to play in band in 6th grade. Also, years have been squandered where small group lessons and other support could have been put in place. Some, outside MMSD administration, are working on that this year.
    I will post more on this slide presentation in a separate post, since the topic here is on high school redesign. However, I don’t believe you can talk standards and best practices in one meeting and then put into practice something that falls short, especially with foundation courses. Lastly, I don’t think we need to repeat elementary and middle school in 9th and 10th grades. That can’t be a best practice for anyone.

  11. The administration must also adopt a better curriculum and attitude on reading in the elementary grades.
    The administration cannot keep saying Reading Recovery is great because it supposedly helps 60% of the students who enroll.
    The 40% who don’t learn to read can’t do math, science, social studies, or anything else that requires reading at any point in school.
    If the community wants improvements in high school performance, it must demand effective reading instruction in grades 1 and 2.

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