The State of Our Schools

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

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Asked to talk about how his role as principal has evolved over the past several years, Storch’s answer reveals much about where our schools were and where they’re going. Madison’s new emphasis on the team-based and data-driven type of school management called Instructional Leadership, he says, is a game-changer. 

“My job has certainly changed in the past couple of years,” says Storch. “The focus on Instructional Leadership has dramatically increased. It used to be that principals were buffers between the classroom and anything outside the classroom, to allow teachers to do their work with kids. Most of the time, that took the form of working with parents, or working with students who were removed from the classroom for disciplinary reasons, and kind of protecting the core of the classroom.”

And now?

“Now, with Instructional Leadership, the principal is right there in the core, in the classroom, observing teaching where the rubber meets the road,” says Storch. “Now the principal’s job is to make sure teachers are using data to understand the needs of the students. It’s no longer, ‘Here’s your key, go to your room and teach.’” Now it’s ‘Let’s unlock that door and work together.’”

As a result, a snapshot of Madison public schools today finds Black Hawk woven into the new heart of the “historic challenges/hopeful future” narrative that educators, administrators, parents, politicians and all those other interested bystanders have been talking about lately.

“Black Hawk is a good representation of what’s going on in Madison schools,” says TJ Mertz, who, with less than a year of service, is the newest member of the elected seven-person Board of Education for the Madison Metropolitan School District. “It’s not just rocketing stuff out, but it’s not teetering on the edge, either. It’s got some challenges, and there are some good people there. So it’s representative of the challenges, the struggles and the good stuff that is happening in our schools.”

NUMERICAL ORDER

Black Hawk is one of a total of eleven public middle schools in Madison. Thirty-two public elementary schools feed into these middle schools, from which students then funnel into five public high schools: East, West, La Follette, Memorial and Shabazz, an alternative to traditional high school. The Madison Metropolitan School District student body for the current school year is comprised of twenty-seven thousand students, from four-year-old kindergarten through the twelfth grade. 

According to data provided by the school district, these students are taught by a total of 2,757 teachers, and their schools are managed by seventy-two principals and assistant principals. Student education is supported by 1,906 teaching assistants, guidance counselors, psychologists, social workers, substitute teachers, bilingual specialists, administrative staff, and cooking, building maintenance, nursing, janitorial, security and other personnel.

In addition, public education in Madison is augmented by more than one-hundred-fifty public-private programs. These programs are variously operated wholly by the district or in conjunction with other educational institutions such as Madison College and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, or they involve partnerships with local businesses or nonprofit organizations.

Other figures include seventy, which is the total number of people who work as administrators to provide supervision, support, and policy and administrative direction to the schools. This includes Jennifer Cheatham, last year the chief of instruction for Chicago Public Schools and this year the superintendent of all schools in the Madison Metropolitan School District.

Then there are the dollar figures. Cheatham’s annual salary is $235,000. The school district’s budget for this school year is $433.6 million, and its per capita spending on students, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2012, was $13,098. Property taxes fund a percentage of the school’s budget, and $2,406 of the property taxes paid on a $200,000 home in Madison this year went to the city’s schools.

The most commonly discussed financial numbers, though, are still teacher salaries. The lowest-paid teacher in the district makes a salary of $33,575, and the highest-paid, a salary of $80,431. The average teacher salary in Madison’s public schools is $52,477, which is lower than the average teacher salaries in nearby Middleton and Verona, and lower than the statewide average reported by the National Center for Educational Statistics of $55,000.

ACCOUNTABILITY KNOCKS

“I was quite naïve when I first started out in education,” says Karen Herrera, who teaches in the Language Arts department at Black Hawk. “I was in college, and I was working with kids who were at risk and [I was] wanting to make a difference in their lives.” After that came a career in teaching that now spans twenty-five years in Madison schools—ten as an elementary school teacher and the last fifteen in the Language Arts programs at Black Hawk.

PHOTO BY SHARON VANORNY

 A twenty-five-year veteran of teaching in Madison schools, Karen Herrera says the toughest part has been too many new programs and too little time to make them work. 

During the past few years, though, the district’s willingness to experiment with new programs in the name of innovation took a toll on her idealism, she says: “Sometimes the district is on the right track, but then they quickly drop the ball and move on to the next thing. We have just kind of kept going, one step forward and two steps back, with new initiatives, new models, new this, new that.”

Herrera recalls bright spots, but … “What was really wonderful was when the district had the time and money to roll out a new program properly, like the elementary-level Cognitive Guide Instruction math program. It worked really well; there was time to collaborate with people who lived and breathed the program, had been practicing it and could assist teachers. It was great. Now we get a new curriculum [and] are told to tweak it but not given any time to do that, because adjusting to new schedules and new staffing also takes time. Now I just go to meetings and get more work.”

School districts are macro in nature. Administrators deal with managing personnel, facilities and services for large numbers of students. Parents, who see a school district through the lens of their child’s educational experience, have a micro view, as do students. And teachers, whose job entails individualizing the macro so that it is accessible to the micro, live in both worlds.

The macro dictates room availability at her school, which means Herrera must switch rooms, teaching a reading intervention class in one and a language arts class in another. The micro says this means loading supplies on a cart, rolling it down the hall, unloading it and repacking it when the class is over. The macro requires her to teach classes of children, the micro means she strives to reach and teach each child, individually, because that is what teaching is. The macro responds to pressure for more student-teacher face time by shaving minutes off time teachers use to plan lessons, and shifting that time to instruction or meetings about instruction. The micro means Herrera bought a new laptop so she could do more planning after-hours; at school from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. or later, she puts in an additional hour or more at home. “It reminds me of my first days of teaching,” she says. 

And then there is Wisconsin Act 10, still reverberating through every school district in the state. The teachers’ losing battle for collective bargaining rights in 2011 made international news. Many Madison teachers say they have moved on at the cost of absorbing a blow to their personal and professional dignity. The pay cut stung, of course. But Wisconsin teachers had offered that money as a concession within hours of Governor Scott Walker’s demand for it. What really hurt, they say, was the loss of respect as a knowledgeable voice for their vocations, their schools and their students.

Well, that and the introduction of the buzzword “accountability” into our public discussion of education.

Peg Coyne greets the word with a sigh. Now in her fortieth year of teaching, Coyne is a special education teacher at Black Hawk. She is also the current president of Madison Teachers Inc., which is the union representing teachers and professional staff in the district.

“Teachers have always been accountable to kids, parents, administrations and, to some extent, taxpayers,” she says, with the patient tone of someone who has explained this so many times that she is now just stripping the explanation down to the fewest possible number of words. “The implication that we have not been accountable is untrue.”

“Accountability” is one of several buzzwords used by advocates of privatizing at least some aspects of public education. “Reform” and “innovation” are others. The reason? To instill fear and manipulate public debate in the name of profit, say opponents of privatization. As in, schools need innovative reform that includes holding teachers accountable for educating students. Which means, say opponents, busting unions so that private-sector companies can contract with school districts and accrue profits by using tax dollars to provide services that union teachers used to provide.

Labor unions and public school proponents have their own buzzwords. School reform proposals, for example, are an “assault” on teachers’ unions, students and public education. While their jargon is also intended to cause alarm and manipulate the public conversation about our schools, proposals to hold teachers accountable do typically involve weakening union bargaining powers. And reforms do often involve proposals that would see taxes channeled to corporations or schools outside the control of elected bodies such as school boards.

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