The State of Our Schools
With less drama, better data and a determined new superintendent, Madison schools forge ahead
Good stories often start in the middle.
We thought of this when setting out to report on Madison schools. Transitions are interesting because they are nothing if not revealing. And Madison public schools are nowhere if not in transition.
The question is, though, in transition from what … and to what?
If you think you know, any number of people stand ready to disagree with you. Teachers, administrators, think-tank denizens, politicians, principals, policy consultants, students, parents, step-parents, grandparents, union members, technology gurus, nonprofit directors, print and broadcast and online pontificators, software salesmen, corporate executives, city residents, suburban observers, business owners, child development experts, civic and community leaders, and elected and appointed officials in units of government from here to Washington, D.C. … all have weighed in about public education in Madison, and few of them agree with more than a handful of any others.
Intrigued, we step into this high-stakes scrum to ask teachers, parents, school officials and others a seemingly basic question: What is really going on in Madison public schools these days?
DISPATCH FROM BLACK HAWK
Our status update on Madison schools begins at the conveniently named Black Hawk Middle School on Madison’s north side. Like all public middle schools in the city right now, it’s filled with students metamorphosing through adolescence, midway into grades four-year-old kindergarten through twelve, at about the halfway mark of the current school year. Principal Sean Storch ticks off a nearly continuous cycle of change as he answers the “from what” part of our question.
“It’s been a challenge to maintain our focus as we’ve moved through four superintendents in four years,” he says. “In the past four years, too, every year we have built a new system or component or practice into our school, and that’s also very hard work. And we have many new staff on board—a new psychologist, a new dean of students, nineteen staff members overall, who are new within the past three years.”
Out of forty-five. That’s more than a forty-percent turnover in thirty-six months. At the same time, Storch says more students have been entering school with increasingly dire needs that go beyond academic instruction. In addition, an increasing number of students who were doing okay have suffered setbacks of some sort and are now in greater need of both academic and non-academic support. Storch also reports a greater breadth and depth of said needs caused by family stress, homelessness, hunger and other factors.
PHOTO BY SHARON VANORNY
Black Hawk principal Sean Storch says maintaining focus in a time of so much change has been a challenge.
"The needs of our students are increasing,” says Storch. “We have a hunch that the past three to four years of recession have had a pretty tough impact on our families. Food stamps are being reduced, and the sequester has had an impact on our community. We don’t have a specific way of measuring it, but we feel that our kids are coming to us having experienced more home stress than in past years due to the economic recession.”
Madison is still churning out National Merit Scholars and still scoring well when it comes to college admission tests, in a state that leads or almost leads every annual national ACT ranking. It still offers an above-average number of advanced placement courses and a dizzying array of educational enhancement programs. Its teachers are still represented by an effective union, and the district still has a contract with its teachers and other personnel. In these and other respects, much of what the Madison school district has long been known for is still true.
And it is still true that parents are quick to praise their own children’s schools. Here’s a sampling of what we’ve heard from parents of school kids across the district:
“We entered the Madison public school district in 2011,” says Kerry Zaleski, whose son is in a 4K class and stepdaughter in the third grade, both at Lowell Elementary School. “The teachers we have are superb and we love Lowell.”
“My oldest son attended private school from 4K through eighth grade, so his first exposure to public education was as a freshman at Memorial,” says Marv Turner. “He is currently a junior there and we couldn’t be more pleased with how things are going. He has encountered teachers who are caring and responsive, a guidance counselor who has gone above and beyond in reaching out and a safe learning environment. We are truly impressed with Memorial.”
“My youngest is a handful. When he got to the second grade, I told [the principal] he needed the strongest second-grade teacher in the school, which he got,” says Bonnie Scales, who has two sons at Glenn Stephens Elementary School. “I also put him in karate and hired a tutor. And so second grade for him has been great. I had a relationship with his teacher from the beginning, which is important, and I have a relationship with the whole school staff.”
“My daughter is coming home with math work that I have to Google to check; her teachers have been just excellent, and she’s getting a really good education,” says Nancy Wettersten, whose daughter is in the second grade at Olson Elementary School.
“People take for granted what amazing educations kids get in these schools,” says Michele Doolan, who has two older children in the Middleton schools and a son in 4K at Chávez Elementary School. “My stepdaughter graduated from a high school in Las Vegas where they have an overall graduation rate of fifty percent. If anyone thinks the schools are terrible here, I tell them they have no idea what ‘terrible’ really is.”
Nevertheless, some aspects of Madison schools—what they are and what they do—have been changing to adapt to needs that will surprise anyone who hasn’t been in a school lately.
“We have a tremendous number of students with increasing mental health needs,” says Arlene Silveira, the longest-serving member of the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education. “That is not completely the role of the district to deal with—that is also a community role that needs to be addressed—but it adds to the whole array of kids that need different levels of help and support from the schools.”
Other needs can be as basic as a need for food. Back at Black Hawk, for example, the school now provides no-charge dinners, in addition to free or reduced-cost breakfast and lunch, for some students. The kids need the help of after-school academic programs held at their schools, which in turn stretches their days into the evening and triggers the need for an after-school snack and then dinner.
And Black Hawk is not the only school doing this. Bruce Dahmen, principal of Memorial High School, reports that his school served 8,200 dinners, from 5 to 6 p.m., four days a week, to students during the last school year. “As our needs change, I just look at it and say ‘I don’t feel comfortable’ when I see a young person who is involved in an after-school program and may not have a meal until the next morning,” Dahmen says. “I think that’s one more way that we, as schools, are opening our doors so that kids who are staying here and doing homework when they need to do homework, or are taking advantage of doing research in the library media center, get what they need.”
In the meantime, schools throughout the district are adjusting to life under Jennifer Cheatham, the fourth of the four-superintendents-in-four-years that Storch mentioned. Storch says her leadership has brought “remarkable clarity and focus” to the work of the schools. This is even more important than it might otherwise be, he notes, because Black Hawk and all Madison schools are set to undergo the implementation of several new state education initiatives. These include a new Educator Effectiveness System, which is already being run as a pilot program at Black Hawk. Two other major initiatives are the Smarter Balanced Assessment, which will replace the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam, and the Common Core State Standards, a national program that many states, including Wisconsin, have adopted (read more on Common Core in Madison schools here). All three initiatives are mandated to be up and running in Wisconsin schools starting next year.
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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.
What does this mean for Madison schools? More than you might think, because Republican legislators have signaled that they’re just getting started on changing the entire state’s education system from pre-kindergarten to graduate school and beyond. Allowing new entities to create publicly funded schools not bound by traditional public accountability, they say, will clear the way for more parent control and presumably better student services. After all, if every tax dollar isn’t supporting quality education for all students within existing parameters, shouldn’t some of those dollars be freed up to go beyond those parameters in order to better serve the under-served students?
“Certainly there is a push nationally from some powerful quarters to privatize education,” says Ed Hughes, president of the Madison school board. “That push has found a receptive audience with Governor Walker and some members of the Legislature, and has led to proposals to expand charter schools, charter authorizers and vouchers.”
Currently, a charter authorizer is generally a school district that puts control in the hands of the school board elected to set policies and budgets for the district. Madison has two charter schools, both of which were approved by the school board. Under some of the proposals Hughes mentions, though, any person or entity could establish a charter school in a school district without approval of the district’s school board. This would cause districts all over the state to re-jigger their budgets to adjust to the per-pupil general school aid that would leave the district when the students head off to charter schools. In other words, every public school loses state funding every time a public school student becomes a charter school student. Further, variations on these proposals would limit or abolish requirements that a charter school be governed by or accountable to the school board and, by extension, the voters.
So public school administrators, teachers and district personnel across the state and here in Madison are watching warily.
“As school board members, we can make our views on the value of our public schools known to our legislators,” says Hughes. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t have much of an impact, given the current political environment in the Capitol.”
Teachers here say the negative chatter about the effectiveness of public education from Act 10 until today has changed people’s perception of public education and of the role teachers play. Some are starting to feel the ground they have lost will never be recovered and that their careers, not to mention the teaching profession, have been compromised.
And they are not alone. Ninety-five percent of Wisconsin teachers surveyed last fall by public opinion research firm Wood Communications Group reported that they believed the adult public in our state did not understand how the challenges facing education have changed since they were in school. Sixty-three percent of respondents said they didn’t believe the public understood or appreciated the contributions of teachers to education. And a third of teachers responded to a question on the survey by saying that they would “probably not” or “definitely not” choose teaching as a career if they had it to do over again.
Cheatham agrees with the teachers that the tone of the public conversation has been damaging. “In education, and this is true in Wisconsin and across the country, we spend too much time criticizing teachers; the dialogue has been, I think, unhealthy and punitive. We do need to find more opportunities to highlight our progress.”
Still, Madison teachers say they’re a resilient bunch. The context has changed and the environment has changed and the backtalk has changed, they say, but teaching remains the same.
“Through it all, the joy of actually teaching, that never goes away,” says Coyne. “All the moments when you work with students and you see their faces light up when they learn something, when they connect with an idea or develop a new skill, that is what teachers really care about. It is simply who they are and that is something Madison teachers do every day.”
ACCROSS THE GREAT DIVIDE
Teachers aren’t the only ones bemoaning the fallout from Act 10. Kaleem Caire, president of the Urban League of Greater Madison, says the timing of the law harmed the rollout of what he had hoped would become a signature partnership between his organization and the school district: a charter middle school for male students of color called Madison Preparatory Academy.
PHOTO BY SHARON VANORNY
Kaleem Caire is the president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison.
Madison Prep’s very public launch and subsequent crash grabbed the city’s conversation about schools by the throat. Social media sites such as Facebook and the comments sections of newspapers and television stations became free-for-alls whenever talk turned to the achievement gap, the proposed school or Madison teachers. Talk radio pundits and print media columnists weighed in, stirring the pot as emotions rose from simmer to boil.
Caire blasted the schools for the achievement gap and asked why not one teacher in the entire district had been fired because of it. Union supporters charged him with using the achievement gap as furtherance of a right-wing agenda to undermine public education.
Opinion quickly dialed up to hyperbole, which it often does when the subject is education. Schools here were failing or thriving or innovative or stale or too expensive or a bargain at any price. The teachers’ union was interested only in power, or was public education’s last line of defense. The school board was a rubber stamp for the union or the only moderately sane, adult voice in the debate. Parents were either sadly uninvolved or scarily over-involved. Any proposed change was an attack on public education in general, or an encroachment on the bargaining rights of all public workers, or was a magic key that would open the kingdom of education to a sparkling new future.
Thus, at a time when the value of public education was suddenly a point of debate and when national and state political leaders were suddenly implying that teachers were little more than a drain on tax dollars, Madison teachers and their supporters were doubly upset when hometown accusations of racism and intransigence were leveled. They said significant factors such as poverty, employment inequities and family instability were to be blamed for dragging down scholastic achievement, and cited numerous studies to back up their claims.
Today, Caire’s tone has moderated. Somewhat.
“Teachers are not to blame for the problems kids bring into the classroom,” he says. “But teachers have to teach the kids in front of them. And Madison teachers are not prepared to do that. Now we have two choices: Make excuses why these kids can’t make it and just know that they won’t. Or move beyond and see a brighter future for kids.”
Many parents back him up. And many parents of students of color say that their experience with Madison’s public schools—both as students here, themselves, and now as parents—is simply much different and much worse than what they see white students and parents experiencing.
“I just always felt like I was on as a parent, like every time I walked through the door of that school I would have to go to bat for my son,” says Sabrina Madison, mother of a West High graduate who is now a freshman at UW–Milwaukee. “Do you know how many times I was asked if I wanted to apply for this [assistance] program or that program? I would always say, ‘No, we’re good.’ And at the same time, there is not the same ACT prep or things like that for my child. I was never asked ‘Is your son prepared for college?’ I never had that conversation with his guidance counselor.”
Hedi Rudd, whose two daughters graduated from East and son from West, says it has been her experience that the schools are informally segregated by assistance programs and that students of color are more likely to be treated with disrespect by school personnel. “Walk into the cafeteria and you’ll see the kids [of color] getting free food and the white students eating in the hall. I walked into the school office one day,” she recalls. “I look young and the secretary thought I was a student. She yelled, ‘What are you doing here?’ I just looked at her and said, ‘Do you talk to your students like that?’”
Dawn Crim, the mother of a daughter in elementary school and a son in middle school, says lowered expectations for students of color regardless of family income is an ongoing problem. “When we moved to Madison in 1996, we heard that MMSD was a great school district … and for the most part it has been good for our kids and family: strong teachers, good administrators, a supportive learning environment, and we’ve been able to be very involved.”
“Regarding lower expectations for kids of color, not just disadvantaged kids, we, too, have experienced the lower expectations for our kids; overall there is a feeling and a sense of lower expectations,” Crim says. “And that should not come into play. All of our kids should be respected, pushed, have high expectations and should get the best education this district says it gives.”
PHOTO BY SHARON VANORNY
Joey Banks co-directs the Urban League Scholars Academy and is site manager at Sennett Middle School.
In the meantime, the school district has been running programs in partnership with the Urban League of Greater Madison, UW–Madison, United Way of Dane County, the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, and other organizations—all designed to lift scholastic achievement, close the gap, and get more kids graduated and on to college. (Read more about programs in Madison intended to help close the achievement gap here.)
The Advancement Via Individual Determination program known as AVID (or AVID/TOPS, when coordinated with the Teens Of Promise program) is run by the district and the Boys and Girls Club here, and is a standout in a slew of public/private efforts to change the fate of students of color in Madison.
“There are four thousand AVID programs throughout the country and the AVID national organization only designates two percent as ‘demonstration locations,’” says Michael Johnson, CEO and president of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County. “This means that superintendents and teachers from across the country can visit as a learning module and see how these programs should be run. They chose East High School, and we’re really proud of that.”
AVID was founded six years ago at East and has since expanded to all Madison high schools. It served eighty students its first year and now serves eight hundred a year. “Seventy-five percent of them are students of color, eighty percent have traditionally not done well in school and one hundred percent are the first generation in their families to go to college,” says Johnson. “Right now, eighty-six percent of the kids who have graduated from our program are still in college.”
This year, Caire and the Urban League have added their Scholars Academy program to the mix, running it in partnership with the school district and serving students at Toki and Sennett middle schools with plans to expand to additional schools.
“This is to support those kids with the greatest need academically in language arts, reading and math,” says Caire. “We’re engaging parents, we’re immersing students in college- and career-related activities to help them identify what they have to become and how to get there. So they’ll finish eighth grade and go on to high school prepared to succeed.”
And yet student achievement isn’t the only area in need of improvement. In fact, the school district is also under fire for under-staffing teachers and other personnel of color. A complaint filed late last year with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights asks for a federal investigation into hiring, noting that “only 2.2 percent of teachers and 4.9 percent of staff” are African American, according to a Wisconsin State Journal article by Dean Mosiman published in December.
“If you talk to African American and Latino people in this community, they will all tell you that they know someone who applied to teach here and who wasn’t even interviewed,” says Herrera.
Sounds anecdotal, but it’s true, says Rodney Thomas, who was hired at the end of last summer as a special assistant to the superintendent to investigate and improve the district’s hiring practices.
“We have an old system that is currently placed around hiring that probably worked well twenty years ago but doesn’t work well now,” Thomas says. “I’ve talked with a number of people who have had those experiences.”
At the end of the last school year, a total of four hundred forty-two students did not graduate on time from high school in Madison. One hundred nine were white, eighty-six were Hispanic, thirty-three were Asian and one hundred ninety-one were African American. If the graduation rate for African American students had been comparable to the eighty-eight percent graduation rate of white students, one hundred forty more African American students would have graduated from Madison high schools.
But they did not. While it’s true that the district actively searches out students who did not graduate on time, and works with them so that as many as possible do ultimately graduate, the black-and-white dividing line of fifty-five/eighty-eight remains for now the achievement gap’s stark, frightening, final face. What can be said is that many more Madisonians are paying attention to it, and many people in a position to make a difference are doing their level best to do something about it.
At the helm of the current school improvement push is the district’s new superintendent Jen Cheatham.
“I think that pointing to graduation rates is really important; it is the ultimate indicator of our health as a district,” she says. “Our mission and vision is to ensure that every child graduates. Numbers like fifty-three percent [which was the previous year’s African American graduation rate] are alarming. They tell us far too many students aren’t aware of the career opportunities that are available to them today in Madison and Dane County. Far too many do not understand what it takes to get into those career paths. Far too many are not getting exposure to learning that introduces them to those career options. I think those numbers indicate that our students can’t see their futures in the experiences they’re having in high school.”
In addition to hiring Thomas to get to the bottom of diversity in hiring, Cheatham has standardized the process through which businesses and community organizations can partner with the district to provide programs for students, including students of color. It’s a move that the Urban League and other groups have applauded for its potential to deliver services in a more substantive and targeted way.
It’s also a move that would have been considered a significant step in most other administrations, but Cheatham made it look effortless. In fact, her administration has implemented a number of such streamlining initiatives. Storch, the Black Hawk principal says it’s part of how she has pushed the “reset button” district-wide, which Cheatham says was one of her first orders of business.
“One of the reasons we haven’t been as successful as we could be is because we’ve lacked focus and jumped from initiative to initiative,” she says of the Madison schools.
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 madisoncommons.org.
This story was made possible by support from Madison Gas & Electric, Summit Credit Union, CUNA Mutual Foundation and Aldo Leopold Nature Center.