Lessons in Change

Madison, indeed Wisconsin, is proud of its PK–12 school system. Unjustifiably proud, I’d argue.

Joe Carlsmith, the son of two UW academics, was one of Madison West High School’s top 2008 graduates. In his 4th grade, I observed Joe's gifted mind as his Parent Teach Day teacher.

Using current school performance metrics, the more students like Joe in a school, the higher its rank. So West beats East, and students whose performances fall short of Joe’s are deemed less smart or less motivated.

These metrics divert attention from the real issue: our schools are designed for self-learners like Joe who’d succeed anywhere, not for growing each student’s knowledge and learning capacity.

Look past the performance of Wisconsin’s predominantly white student bodies and you’ll see that, on a state level, Wisconsin’s black students ranked dead last in the 2007 National Assessment of Education Progress and that Wisconsin has the largest black-white scoring gap.

In Madison, black high school graduation rates are 25 percentage points lower than the 90-percent-plus white graduation rates. By tenth grade, only 26 percent of blacks are proficient or advanced in math compared to 83 percent for non-Hispanic whites; in reading the comparison is 30 percent versus 76 percent.

The issue is not solely one of race. A compelling study of Milwaukee student cohorts found that the average low-income white male stands a year or more behind the average middle-income white male in both reading and math. This gap appears in early grades and worsens through high school, as do gaps between races and sexes.

Our schools fail many gifted students who never achieve their potential because of pervasive “listen and read” teaching methods. Why? One third of gifted children learn best through active experience.

Another failure is measured by growing remedial math in UW System campuses because K–12 math is not sufficiently rigorous. Yet Libby Burmaster, State Superintendent of Schools, does not support a stronger high school math requirement, an improvement happening in many states. We also aren’t giving disadvantaged students extra time in school or offering pre-kindergarten education—two proven best practices.

What we Wisconsin residents have to realize is that dramatic improvement could occur with stronger district and state leadership and much higher expectations on our part.

One of Madison’s most troubled K–5 schools provides an example. Back in the 1990s, it had seven principals in two years and one of the highest concentrations of low-income students, about 70 percent. But after a few years its test scores beat district averages as well as those of many other schools with more affluent student bodies. Learning achievement remains high today.

The eighth principal succeeded by replacing one classroom–one teacher fiefdoms with team teaching. Teachers coach teachers and teach the way students best learn. Demanding outcome goals were set for students, with regular assessments providing rich data that spotlighted successes and needed changes, thereby building momentum at the student, parent, teacher and school levels.

This example shows that performance gaps can be closed when leaders are willing to change the system and adopt best practices. What’s been possible in one school should become the norm in our district and state.

MMSD’s new administrator, Dan Nerad, wants to initiate a school funding referendum. Let’s tell him, yes, we will support the referendum. But only if you:

  • Set individual and demographic group learning outcome goals reflective of a best-in-nation school system.
  • Report annually against these goals to students’ parents and the community.
  • Because more money alone won’t achieve these goals, adopt new approaches to achieving performance goals such as mandatory pre-K courses and teacher assessments—incentives using criteria that teachers help develop.

Madison and Wisconsin need more high school graduates motivated and prepared to excel in college classes, especially math and science. As taxpayers we should expect nothing less from our leaders than “Quality education for all students, no excuses.”

Kay Plantes is an MIT-trained economist and corporate strategy consultant. She can be reached at plantes@execpc.com.

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