Less Talk, More Action

We need a plan with measurable goals to make progress in fixing our achievement gap

The economist and author of Rise of the Creative Class Richard Florida writes extensively about cities like Madison’s economic promise as a creative city but also warns that creative types don’t always organize well. To make his point he cites a theory in Mancur Olson’s book, The Logic of Collective Action, which maintains that “those who organize around discrete goals with sustained effort have a great advantage over those who have strong interests but are diffuse and disorganized.” I’m afraid that sounds exactly like Madison’s cultural zeitgeist.

Follow the conversation about why so many kids of color aren’t graduating from high school and what you’ll hear is a gazillion explanations from an abundance of well-meaning interest groups.

It’s a problem born from poverty! No, it’s about race, racism and racial equity. We don’t have racial issues; parents just aren’t preparing their children for kindergarten. If we only had more after-school programs, more tutoring, more community gardens. Kids can’t learn if they’re hungry! And they certainly can’t achieve if they’re facing suspension, if they’re coming home to violent households, or if their families are transient. Let’s tackle poor attendance! Let’s reverse the school-to-prison pipeline! Everybody knows it’s the dysfunctional school board’s fault. No, it’s bad teachers, especially teachers who don’t know how to—or don’t care to—teach kids of color. The unions? Don’t get me started.  The governor’s plan to siphon my tax dollars to fund private schools when public schools are struggling? Don’t get me started. No, no, no … here’s the real problem: transplants.

Usually, a healthy debate is a good thing. Unfortunately, Madison’s ongoing diatribe about the achievement gap is not healthy, in part because it’s devolved into a shouting match about who’s to blame. I challenge Madison to do better, to coalesce around the best, highest-impact solutions rather than dwell on the problems that, when couched in harsh rhetoric and unproductive finger pointing, feel intractable.

I don’t believe they’re intractable. In New York City, Geoffrey Canada turned kids around with the Harlem Children’s Zone. If you don’t like the Canada reform model because we have strong unions here, then read How It’s Being Done by Karin Chenoweth about districts across the country that closed the gap in high-poverty, high-minority schools by zeroing in on classroom instruction and a “laser-like focus on what kids need to learn,” according to one of the principals. In this example, some districts were unionized, others were not.

While best practices are helpful with strategic direction, they’re no substitute for building and executing our own grand plan to graduate more kids from high school with the knowledge and the skills to secure jobs and futures and to bolster our economies rather than burden them.

Closing the gap isn’t going to be easy. New Madison superintendent Jen Cheatham said it herself in a forum at Monona Terrace just before she was hired: “It’s not a book you can buy on the shelf.” For her part, Cheatham’s early signals that the gap is a top priority are promising. She’ll need a school board that functions well and support from government, the myriad nonprofits that safety net kids and families, and the private sector, which will employ these achieving kids someday.

In addition to all this, I think the superintendent needs to articulate a goal that’s measurable and crystal clear on what we’re going to do, how much it will cost and when we’ll see results. Like the United Way’s Agenda for Change or the Clean Lakes Alliance’s promise to reduce phosphorous in the Yahara watershed by fifty percent by 2025. Heck, maybe we need to form a new alliance.

The Urban League of Greater Madison is already thinking this way with a strategic plan called “One Madison,” in which it pledges “to actively lead and participate in efforts that increase the African American high school graduation rate from 52 percent for males and 64 percent for females enrolled in the Madison Metropolitan School District in 2009–10 to 85 percent for both genders by 2019–20.” You can read the full plan at ulgm.org. It’s impressive, encouraging but, most of all, doable.

So let’s go do it. Let’s stop fixating on the problem and instead get behind a constructive roadmap. I’d love to see one that’s overarching, that’s backed by all stakeholders and that encompasses the biggest educational bangs for our buck. Let’s do it for the kids. But hey, that’s just one woman’s opinion.

Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine.

Find more of her columns here

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