Comments from East High Parents on Proposed Curriculum Changes

Viewpoints coming to Madison School board members illustrate the need for a thoughtful look at new goals or curriculums for our high schools.
Here are two samples from e-mail to the board on November 22.

Dear Board Members,
I read with dismay this morning about the East High School proposal to do away with TAG programming. I urge you think long and hard about the long term consequences of doing such a thing. I believe you will lose the support of many, many families. The jury is still very much out on hetergeneous groupings for everything, for every subject, all the time.
I believe as a teacher of 29 years and someone who has been a leader in teaching methods and dedicated to improving learning that this is not the way to go. I was the developer and lead teacher of MATC’s Critical Literacy Project for teaching and learning improvement for many years. I taught cooperative learning strategies. To do it well takes expertise and lots of structure and planning–more so than a lecture. Individual accountability needs to be built in. And, I wouldn’t recommend using it all the time. It is my impression that lots of sloppy “collaborative learning” is taking place. It often is a simplistic “put them in groups,” give them something, and then assume they all work equally together like happy little bees. In the real world, it doesn’t work that way.
I will be quite frank here. By the time kids get to 8th grade or earlier most of them HATE group work. You might really want to listen to the kids on this one. It’s not organized well, the bright kids get the answers first, the lower achievers copy. The lower kids feel stupid. The research is done by one or two and the others ride along. In fact, there is almost an institutionalization of cheating and short cuts that is happening. As one young teen said, “If it shows scores going up it’s because some kids are getting the answers from others.”
I could go into some detail about O’Keefe Middle School and what happened there when they went to heterogeneous math classes in 6th and 7th grade. (Hopefully, the Algebra class taught by Hetzel will not also get the axe.) The little secret story many of you don’t know is that after countless meetings with individual teachers and the principle and staff downtown that got us nowhere when parents of over 20 students tried to point out that the groups were not working for the bottom or the top, a group of parents was forced to hire a math teacher and teach a cohort of students outside of school, two days a week. To think that teachers will design great extensions to keep those who need greater challenge is somewhat naive. They are often thrown an extra assignment or two and that is it. And, I don’t blame teachers–you’ve got so many students to deal with, it just becomes hard to reach out to all different levels.
I have two daughters at East High. Some of their classes are TAG and others are not. The first time they ever came to appreciate group work was when they were in their TAG classes. They were challenged. They didn’t have to lie and cover up for other students who weren’t doing their share. They could get down to work with others who were engaged. The TAG Biology class taught by Mr. Duvair is the jewel of the entire Madison School District and envy of every other high school.
Yes, we need to find ways to bring up the bottom and it may have to do with more engaging and inspiring kinds of teaching, and it may have to do with better preparation of basics. It may have to do with reaching down to a focus on 0-5 years of age when the foundation for learning is laid. An approach of just mix everyone for everything seems to me a cheap short cut to a larger challenge. On this note, I would encourage you to talk to Mr. Kelly of East High School . He retired last year, but still teaches the night high school completion program. Mr. Kelly is a brilliant teacher. He taught TAG English and inspired and challenged thousands of students. He teaches English at night school to low-achieving kids. He is brilliant in both contexts, and students thrive and achieve at both ends. If you were to ask him about mixing those two groups, I imagine he would say both would lose out.
I care deeply about low-achieving or simply disadvantaged students who were not tracked for university. I have spent almost three decades teaching them and honing my craft. It takes different things to reach different students sometimes. What they need may differ at times. I myself am for a mixed approach — to have some heterogeneous and some homogeneous groupings. East seems to have done this. My daughters get a mix of experiences.
In conclusion, I would ask that you not follow the seemingly seductively simple solution of hetergeneous groupings. You might want to consider ways to recruit your best and most inspiring teachers to teach at both ends of the spectrum. For example, if you are not in Mr. Duvairs TAG Biology, but his regular biology, you get a great class. Same for Mr. Kelly.
The Board needs to think about the long term and not losing more middle class families from the public schools. You need to meet the needs of all students and you can’t have a viable policy that takes down some to bring others up. We must find ways to bring up without bringing down. I am writing because I am worried about the future of the public schools in Madison . So far we have held our own with a socio-economic mix. That may start to change in a big way and it would be tragic for our district.
To all concerned: As the controversy over the TAG program heats up, I thought I’d share the observations of my son who is a freshman at East. He is not in TAG, nor is he a student in trouble. In other words, he’s one of the large middle whose voices unfortunately are not often heard. (He would also be annoyed with his mother if he knew I was sending this…)
Let me first explain that my son has a vantage point that is at the very least, unusual, if not unique. He has friends in TAG and he has friends who are barely getting by. He is friends with white kids, African-American kids, and Latino kids. He has friends who come from Maple Bluff and friends who have been homeless from time to time. As he put it, “I have a pass to just about all of the groups, except! maybe the jocks.” My son also has an uncanny knack for sizing up a situation, and unsual insight into people, especially when we consider that he is a 14 year old boy.
When I asked him about this controversy, he said that the TAG program as it is currently designed creates what he called an “elite ghetto.” He said the perception among so many is that the “TAG kids” as they are known, “get everything.” He said that right now the school can be divided into three groups “the entitled, the kids who are hurting, and everybody else.” When I asked about “the kids who are hurting” he said he knew of too many kids who are simply passing time until they drop out. He described these kids as overwhelmingly African-American and Latino. He said it was truly sad because “there are kids in that group who are so smart. No, they don’t do well in school, but they have something to say. They know a lot about the world.” When I asked whether there was any interaction between the TAG group and this other group he said, “You’ve got to be kidding. I’m not sure they know that each other exists. They have nothing in common.” Then he said, “something has to change.” I also asked whether there were any kids of color in the TAG group and he said “maybe one or two. Maybe.”
I asked if making honors/advanced/TAG/AP (whatever you want to call them) options accessible to more kids would help at all, he said that many people in the “everybody else” group would certainly benefit, and he knew of many kids of color who would probably be successfully involved. As for the kids in tough shape, he said, “I hope Mr. Harris can come up with something.”
Like I said, my son wouldn’t be thrilled if he knew I were passing this on. Nevertheless, I thought that his perspective was something that needed to be shared.