My Life and Times With the Madison Public Schools

Up close, the author finds that politics obscure key educational issues
Marc Eisen:

Where’s the challenge?
I’m no different. I want my kids pushed, prodded, inspired, and challenged in school. Too often—in the name of equity, or progressive education, or union protectionism, or just plain cheapness—that isn’t happening in the Madison schools.
Advanced classes are being choked off, while one-size-fits-all classes (“heterogeneous groupings”) are created for more and more students. The TAG staff has been slashed nearly in half (one staffer is now assigned to six elementary schools), and even outside groups promoting educational excellence are treated coolly if not with hostility (this is the fate of the most excellent Wisconsin Center For Academically Talented Youth [WCATY]). And arts programs are demeaned and orphaned.
This is not Tom Friedman’s recipe for student success in the 21st century. Sure, many factors can be blamed for this declining state of affairs, notably the howlingly bad way in which K-12 education is financed and structured in Wisconsin. But much of the problem also derives from the district’s own efforts to deal with “the achievement gap.”
That gap is the euphemism used for the uncomfortable fact that, as a group, white students perform better academically than do black and Hispanic students. For example, 46% of Madison’s black students score below grade level on the state’s 3rd grade reading test compared to 9% of white students.
At East, the state’s 10th grade knowledge-and-concepts test show widely disparate results by race. With reading, 81% of white kids are proficient or advanced versus 43% for black students. The achievement gap is even larger in math, science, social studies, and language arts. No wonder TAG classes are disproportionately white.
Reality is that the push for heterogeneous class grouping becomes, among other things, a convenient cover for reducing the number of advanced classes that are too white and unrepresentative of the district’s minority demographics.

9 thoughts on “My Life and Times With the Madison Public Schools”

  1. Perhaps someone could compare how white MMSD students perform at the college level in comparison to their white cohorts from other school districts? Maybe there is an achievement gap there as well?

  2. There may well be such a gap, but studying it would be very hard, for the same reason that it’s so hard to really judge the quality of the MMSD schools.
    The reason? Madison has a large group of highly educated parents who teach their kids themselves and/or enroll them in high-level enrichment programs (online, summers, etc.). Oue could give many specific examples, but the common theme is that many of the kids who push up the MMSD scores on tests like the ACT, SAT, AP, and even international olympiads, have gotten a large part of their education outside the MMSD. This includes large amounts of tutoring by parents, moving to private schools for awhile, and taking summer courses, including Marc Eisen’s daughter if you read his whole article.
    These kids will do well in high school and college no matter how good or bad the public schools are, yet they stay in the schools for various reasons. They also tend to study independently for AP tests in subjects not even offered in their schools, skewing measures of AP test taking.

  3. FWIW, I agree with Marc. But I also wonder how the MMSD can be all things to all students? Folks in town are fond of saying that if you can’t get it done in Madison, you can’t get it done in any public school system. So, are we doing it wrong? Is Equity a flawed theory because the upper & middle class sees it as too threatening to advanced programs? Is it a matter of simply allowing a wider variety of pedagogy into the MMSD? So in the end, those of us who HAVE can afford to supplement our kids’ MMSD experience, while those who HAVE NOT are screwed, kind of like a mirror of daily life?
    I used to tell my neighbors (Edgewood family) that if I kept my kids in MMSD, I had to supplement them academically, and maybe it would be good for my neighbor’s kids if they volunteered in a local shelter or food pantry, so as not to forget what real life was like…I still feel that way. But, honestly, as my kids get older, I’m giving less of a damn about their classmates and, Eisen-esquely, more of a damn about my own- happy with the mix of kids, excited about East next year, but decidedly selfish too. Maybe that’s the bad part about being a progressive Heeb, all that Jewish guilt;)

  4. I don’t know if the question “how can MMSD be all things to all students?” is relevant. The question in most of our minds is “is MMSD good for any students?”.
    I think dissatisfaction is wide-spread.
    Parents, if they can afford it, supplement their kids’ education because they feel the schools are not adequate for their kids. These are both upper, and middle class families.
    Kids from low income families, with important exceptions, are not happy with the progress their kids are making (or are resigned to their lot). Arguments by DI/phonics proponents argue that the schools can do much better for these kids.
    Though the very unanalyzed scores on standardized tests look good overall, I must admit I’m not convinced by such stats. Eisen points out many things many of us have been saying for some time.
    Mirroring David’s comments, my efforts have always been focused on my kid, not on other kids. But I generalize. I figure if my kid is not being served, so are a lot of other kids much like her. So by giving a damn about my kid, I am giving a damn about all the other kids like her. The difference is I have more or less CONTROL over my kids education, while only a very attenuated influence over other kids’ education.
    I don’t think the solution is ALLOWING a wider variety of pedagogy, I think the solution is REQUIRING such, driven by real data about where individual kids are at a particular time in terms of their skill and knowledge level, and the kind of intervention required.
    This is not the same as saying we need 20,000 different curricula, and approaches. It’s not a battle between DI or Discovery (a tiresome argument at best), it’s, given the skill being taught and a kid’s level, what balance among these and other approaches should be offered.

  5. The District does seem to be heading in the direction of “homogenizing” our classrooms.
    It has been stated that there is the need to elimate Honors/Advanced and AP classes. One of the reasons for doing this is the idea that the students who aren’t as high achieving feel badly that they aren’t able to take those classes. Maybe some do, but many don’t. It is shameful that our District would actually not allow its students to achieve their full potential. For a District that is always talking about respecting diversity, this is hypocritical!
    Our elementary schools are practicing “dumbing down” techniques. Kids of that age can’t understand the concepts of borrowing and carrying in math. They learn Arrow Math first until we think they are smart enough to learn how to borrow and carry. This method takes longer and seems to leave the kids with no concept of what the number values are.
    We teach Whole Language and Inventive Spelling. Do schools ever teach the parts of a sentence or how to properly write a sentence, anymore?
    History, Geography and Science are such a small part of the curriculum.
    A Middle School teacher told me that the students come to Middle School so ill-prepared to be there. Not only are we reducing our advanced classes, we seem to be eliminating our core subjects. Gee, and we wonder why other countries are so far ahead of us!!

  6. I’ve not heard of Arrow Math. Does anyone know anything about it? Is it used widely in the MMSD?

  7. Tutoring plays significant role at the elementary level as well as middle and high school. Madison supports a large number of reading tutors simply because the MMSD does not provide appropriate reading instruction for a considerable number of students.
    Reading is a challenge for many students. Typically around 30% do not read at grade level. Poverty is one of those reasons, and as Marc Eisen points out the other reason is the roll of the dice. Some students are born “hard wired” for reading and language; others are not.
    In order for both sets of students to succeed, the instruction must be exact and well thought-out. The instruction must include sufficient practice so that students become facile with the material much like someone playing a symphony or Bo Ryan’s basketball team playing a perfect game. The perfect game does not happen because each individual player constructs the plays as the game proceeds, nor does a superbly performed symphony happen as musicians construct how the symphony should.
    For years the public has been sold a bill of goods about instruction. Children from poverty can and do learn when taught with appropriate instruction. Children who do not come “hard wired” can and do learn to read. . The task is not effortless, but not as difficult as some would like you to believe. If you don’t believe me ask the network of tutors in Madison.
    Children from poverty do not have access to tutoring. Gloria Ladson-Billings, noted author from UW-Madison, refers to those children as “school dependent”. Children from poverty depend on school to learn. It is the schools job to teach them, not make excuses.

  8. Arrow math is not a curriculum. It is a method secondary teachers use to avoid the pesky rules that using equations imposes.
    If you want to perform a set of operations with elementary children, you might want to avoid long equations with lots of parentheses. But if you break this up into a sequence of individual operations, then after each result you need to start a new equation. This is something of a bother, and people often violate mathematical rules by just tagging the next operation onto the right-hand side of equation (result of previous operation.)
    For an example of this, look back at the video that was posted here not long ago by the teacher who was giving her take on the ridiculous nature of discovery-type math. She makes exactly this mistake, a real no-no.
    In any case, this arrow math side-steps learning to deal with equations by using arrows. One writes the beginning quantity, then an arrow which arches to the right. Above the arrow one writes the operation one desires to perform, such as ‘ + 7’ and to the right of this, the answer. Then one can add another arrow with another operation, and so on hopping from lily pad to lily pad and need never see an ‘=’ sign anywhere.
    In fairness, I’ll note that my children’s teachers do separately, in the CGI section of class really work on having kids understand the meaning of the ‘=’ sign.
    Marc Eisen expresses my feelings so exactly. We also pulled our daughter out for middle school and are wondering what to do about our 4th grader. We are watching MMSD’s actions so carefully to see if there is any chance our daughter can come back to West for high school. We figure that if she can spend maybe 3/4 of her day with academically advanced kids, that would be acceptable. The news about adding a section of 9th grade accelerated biology is a remarkable good sign. Also the easing of requirements that determine eligibilty to skip 9th grade heterogeneous English.
    Since she is starting foreign language at an earlier grade than MMSD, she ought to be able to skip a year at least of that. Two years ahead in math means mostly fellow mathematically inclined students in math class. Honor band another hour. Maybe it’s just enough. It’s too bad for social studies to be a throw-away class, but by 11th grade she should be able to get some interesting classes there.
    Truthfully, we had just about given up any hope of reenrolling in MMSD until Laurie Frost’s and others’ hard work resulted in these 2 seemingly small, but very significant changes.
    My daughter’s friends in MMSD middle school complain to her of the utter boredom of the slow pace of the classes which focus on trying to reach the kids who are below grade level. They love their teachers and their friends, but are not happy with the curricula. Really not happy.

  9. Like Celeste, “Marc Eisen expresses my feelings so exactly”, and I think Celeste added a lot to the discussion herself. I address the following remarks at secondary education:
    Any amateur astronomer will tell you that you see a star more clearly with the naked eye when you glance a little bit to the side. If we could shift the focus back to creating a high quality learning experience in the classroom, we might be surprised that we also start closing the achievement gap we are so directly entangled with today.
    If you group kids by ability — and I would strongly advocate regardless of age — you will make a given course so enjoyable for the teacher and kids, that it starts to become a “draw”. Classes like that generate “buzz”.
    Next, give Universities and Industry ownership of our secondary course design in the first place. Now you can tell a student two things: “Here is a class you will love being a part of, and here is an employer or college that is saying ‘We need you, we value you, and we want you to take this class’.” This is true whether the course is “Medical Instrumentation for the Laboratory Technician” or “Intermediate Algebra”.
    Once a child knows that a class will be fun, and that it will clearly lead them toward a career, the child will want to be there. Regardless of their ethnicity or income level. Homogeneity in desire and ability can be a wellspring of heterogeneity in background.
    The aggregate cost of all the kids today who don’t “want to be there” has to be a staggering amount. Free this money up. We will have more resources to help low income kids prepare better, or to help stoke their drive to achieve.
    The cost of this approach? You have to be willing to take radical steps:
    1. Require strict entrance requirements for every secondary academic or vocational course.
    2. Allow course admission to any student who qualifies — regardless of age.
    3. Let Universities and Industry shape the curriculum and the credentialing process. They are abundantly aware of what they need.
    4. Reap efficiencies of scale via national secondary course design. Pipettes and polynomials do not vary much from district to district.
    5. Strive continually to make courses more demanding and rigourous. A high school A.P. course that gets dropped might seem like a necessary sacrifice, until you find out how young kids are when they learn that same material in Japan.

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