The State of Our Schools

With less drama, better data and a determined new superintendent, Madison schools forge ahead

(page 5 of 5)

And Cheatham has set tightening the focus of this district as a priority. Since taking the job early last year, she has visited every school in the district, issued an initial report on her findings, worked with some sixty educators in a planning group to develop a comprehensive strategic framework for the district, and set the steps and plans contained in the framework into motion. All School Improvement Plans, for example, are done and available on the district’s website where parents can monitor the plans’ progress.

“The Strategic Framework starts with a simple but bold vision: Every school is a thriving school that prepares every student for college, career and community,” reads the introduction to the framework, which is also published on the district’s website. “From now on, MMSD will be incredibly focused on the day-to-day work that will make that vision a reality.”

Even Cheatham’s note introducing the framework is focused on being focused: “Having the courage to stay focused on this work is an important shift for our district,” she writes.

How will we know if this new focus or any of the framework’s self-described “action steps and high-leverage strategies” are working? Data, answers Cheatham. Especially better, more relevant data that more effectively directs the delivery of education to students. In other words, what teachers do in the classroom in every school in Madison will increasingly be the result of data that has proved that this action or that lesson plan really works.

To parents, “data” often translates as “testing,” and they say they and their children have grown weary of testing.

“Kids are spending two weeks learning ‘testing as a genre,’” says second-grade parent Wettersten, who observes that this takes away time from learning subjects such as math. “There is lots of information coming home all the time about how to take care of kids during testing periods. My daughter’s school was communicating with us a lot about how important these tests were, information was coming home by ‘backpack mail’ both from teachers and the principal about not letting kids get too pressured or too scared, while at the same time it was being made very, very clear that the tests were important.”

Testing may be important, but to Lowell parent Zaleski, the benefits remain murky. She reports that her stepdaughter entered school here as an English Language Learner, meaning that English was not her primary language. As a result, the district set out to measure her competency and progress with periodic federal Assessing Comprehension in Communication and English State to State, or ACCESS, tests.

“She had to take twenty hours every year out of class just to take this test, which seemed a bit ridiculous because her ACCESS test scores have gone down,” Zaleski says. “But if you look at any of the classroom tests, even the standardized tests, her scores are going up and are above average in reading and writing.”

Her child’s teacher tried to answer Zaleski’s questions, but created more confusion instead. “I was told that the classroom tests always trump ACCESS tests in terms of how the teachers view the students, but I could never get answers about validity of the tests and how results were going to be used: At the federal level? By teachers to decide curriculum?” she recalls. “Were they saying one test was completely inaccurate? Then how were they saying the other one was better?”

When it comes to testing, Cheatham wants to make one thing clear. “I have not introduced a single new test to our district,” she says. “Any use of data that we’ve been working on as a district since we’ve started the school year has been about better understanding the assessment tools that are available to us.”

Rather, she points out, when parents talk about tests, they’re usually referring to the existing assessments of scholastic achievement such as the Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, tests that have been given three times a year since 2011 to students in third through seventh grades. Or the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening tests, which were implemented last year for the 4K, kindergarten and first grades. Or the Educational Planning and Assessment System screening tests given to students in grades eight through twelve to assess and strengthen preparation for college entrance exams.

How many tests are too many?

Cheatham says she sympathizes. “I share the concerns parents are raising, and I want everyone to know we’re working hard on it,” she says. “What we’re trying to do is streamline and make the assessment system make more sense to people. I have tasked a team with eliminating duplication of assessment and using only the [testing] tool that will support teachers. The data we get should help teachers make sense of the day-to-day, week-to-week work of teaching and learning.”

Enter the Common Core State Standards, which Madison public schools are beginning to roll out. Common Core is a national program that largely standardizes what students should learn with regard to literacy and mathematics and at which grade levels. Thanks, in part, to high-stakes prizes such as waivers from the federal No Child Left Behind requirements and millions in federal Race to the Top funding, Common Core has been adopted by forty-five states, including Wisconsin. (Listen to a few Madison parents share their impressions of the Common Core standards here.)

The change is largely welcomed as a needed upgrade to Wisconsin’s previous standards for grade-level learning. Every parent who has ever wondered what it means to read or do math at a certain grade level can now go to the Common Core website and see an incredibly detailed listing of what his or her child should be learning in school at any given time. Second-grade readers, for example, will be able to “decode regularly spelled two-syllable words with long vowels,” according to the website. Teachers, parents and others have expressed concern about the amount of data needed to demonstrate whether the standards are being taught properly and learned effectively. Almost everyone, though, praises the standards for the consistency—across classrooms, across schools, across states—they promise to bring to public education.

The Madison school board and Cheatham are unfazed, and the district has structured a three-year rollout to adapt to the new standards, starting with the current school year. There is more than enough flexibility built into Common Core, they say, to align the standards with the district’s strategic plan and give schools room to riff on its main theme.

“These standards will be around for, I would suspect, a long time. Just as the last set of standards were,” Cheatham says. “And it will be long-term work for us to continually deepen our understanding of those standards and how to help students access those standards … Our educators will continually get better at delivering high-quality education to our students, and we will be collecting ongoing data so we can adjust our efforts. Delivering education and then using data to continually reflect on what we know about how our students are learning: I think that’s really the heart of this endeavor.”

As Common Core gains traction in the district, teachers like Black Hawk’s Herrera will see their classrooms changed when principals and other administrators spend increasing amounts of time watching them teach. Principals, including Black Hawk’s Storch, will feel the pressure of becoming ever more accountable for providing teachers with the right data, feedback and other information on best practices and student success. And students? They are the high-stakes answer to all of this.

“The schools have changed fairly dramatically,” says school board member Silveira. “We’re pretty much a minority-majority school district now, and all of our incoming kindergarten classes are minority-majority. The percentage of our low-income students has increased dramatically and the number of homeless kids is in the one thousand range. There are so many more needs to address that there weren’t even seven or eight years ago. And there are the achievement gaps, plural. Obviously over the past couple of years our focus has been on African American students, and rightly so. But if you look at our students with disabilities and other student groups, there are gaps there as well.”

Sabrina Madison sees her son and his generation as driving the city’s schools through its current transition and into the next.

“I don’t think it’s going to be, really, us; I think they will be the reason we start to see the change, not us,” she says. “I think because they sit down and talk about race and politics, they’re able to have this discussion. They are accepting, they’re immersed with each other, and they’re able to have this discussion openly and with ease.”

Community involvement will be the key, say Silveira and others, echoing Cheatham’s emphasis on engaging all of Madison in support of all of Madison’s schools. After all, the reasoning goes, it won’t be enough to produce high school graduates ready for college, career and community if those Three Cs aren’t also ready for the students our schools give us.

“Districts like Madison with their financial and all their other intangible resources, have a particular responsibility to show that it can be done,” says school board member Mertz. “Because if we can’t do that here, then the people who attack public education are right. Jen Cheatham, our teachers, this community, we all share a lot about the importance of making it here.”

Mary Erpenbach is a longtime contributor to Madison Magazine. She has written on our schools and communities in the past and has won a press club award for education reporting.

For ongoing coverage of education in Madison, visit

This story was made possible by supp​ort from Madison Gas & Electric, Summit Credit Union, CUNA Mutual Foundation and Aldo Leopold Nature Center.

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