Friday, December 17, 2010

My Response to the ACLU on Single Sex Charter Schools

Thank you for writing.

Please be advised that there is a companion proposal for a single sex school for girls that will complement the proposal for a single sex school for boys.

While your points are well argued, I respectfully point out that the families
whose children are not being served by Madison schools, don't have the luxury of theoretical arguments about the finer points of law. They need schools where there (sic) children can succeed and be encouraged to produce academic excellence. They needed such schools yesterday and have not succeeded in achieving such schools within the Madison public school system.

For that reason, I will support the Madison Prep proposal as long as district
fiscal liability is limited in the final contract.

At this time, there is no formal or final proposal. Only a preliminary document
and a request for the opportunity to apply to DPI for a planning grant. I will
support the application for a planning grant for the purpose of working out the details and developing a financial plan for the school.

I will do so because the children who the Urban League proposes to serve are real and need real opportunities. The Urban League and its community propose to address those needs. I intend to support such efforts.

Lucy Mathiak

Sunday, October 17, 2010

What I Might Hope To See in High School Reform

Right now I am struggling to get my head around what the proposed high school reforms are or are not, what problems they are intended to address (TAG? achievement gap? readiness for life after high school? other?), the many interpretations of what is proposed, and whether the proposed reforms would be effective in achieving any of the stated purposes.

In an interesting twist, this process has brought me back to my own personal wish list of what I would like to see in comprehensive high school reform. I believe that any one of the items on the list would make a real difference and in ways that are compatible with DPI requirements and national standards.

My thinking is informed by sources that are predictable and others that may not be obvious but are equally important: personal observation, years of listening at parent meetings and testimony to the school board, numerous national studies and commentaries, and what I have learned from my highly skilled colleagues who work with undergraduate programs at UW-Madison.

In some ways, the debates over the proposed two-strand system, the fate of electives (which I want to keep), consistency across the four high schools, college preparation, national standards, etc., are less important to me than the basic expectations and requirements for the students who enter and graduate from our schools. Without changing those things, I believe that we will be confined to tinkering around the edges without touching some of the fundamental expectations that students will confront after graduation.

I believe that we could make a serious dent in the achievement gap, address long standing dissatisfaction with academic opportunities and challenges, and move toward rebuilding Madison's reputation for schools that draw people to invest in homes in our metro area and neighborhoods by truly making the changes - vs. planning to study and eventually implement changes -  to address the items that are on this list:

1.  Increase opportunities for advanced study at all grade levels, whether it is part of an AP curriculum or other courses developed and taught at a higher level with or without special labels. Then remove the unmovable obstacles that keep students from participating.

This is not rocket science. We have advanced classes with waiting lists every year. It makes no sense to me that the students are on waiting lists to take advanced courses when there are enough students to fill a section. They will be taking an English, or math, or science, or social studies class. There is no extra pay for teaching advanced courses, so why not have the class taught at the highest level when there is demand? What is lost by meeting student need and interest?

Does a label matter? In my experience as a Purgolder parent, there were classes that were not listed as advanced classes but were taught by faculty who delivered advanced content, challenge, and expectation that rivaled and in some cases surpassed classes labeled TAG. There were classes labeled as TAG that delivered an advanced experience (Mr. DuVair's TAG biology was definitely college level work), and others that delivered extra homework at a basic high school level. East's Calculus AB and BC classes do not carry a TAG or Honors designation. But students who complete those courses successfully are well prepared to pass the AP exams and to succeed at the college level.

The point is that it isn't the designation as AP, TAG, IB, or Honors that makes a course advanced. It is the content, expectations, and work of skilled teachers who have a passion for challenging and preparing their students for future work.

2. Restore West's 9th and 10th grade honors courses. 

This is pretty self-explanatory. Embedded honors do not cut it for a sufficient number of students to make it worthwhile to restore courses that were in place until just recently. It just seems a lot easier and less expensive to return to a system that worked rather than spending time and energy researching and then implementing something new.

2. Conform MMSD policy and practice to meet or exceed DPI standards at all grade levels, and particularly in regard to graduation requirements.

Toward the end of Art Rainwater's term as superintendent, I met with a group of social science teachers at East who had a number of curricular concerns. The one that blew my mind was the (correct) observation that board policy and district practice on high school graduation requirements do not meet State Statute 118.33, DPI standards or WI Administrative Code (which are pretty minimal to begin with).

Particularly problematic is the following escape clause in current policy:
"Failure of a required course by a student can be made up through the selection of another course within the same academic discipline."

Although WI Administrative Code specifies the curriculum required to receive a high school degree  and does not provide for substitutions, failure to pass one or more of the minimum academic requirements listed below is no barrier to receiving a degree for MMSD students.

Section PI 18.03, Wis. Admin. Code

PI 18.03 High school graduation standards. (1) COURSE REQUIREMENTS. Beginning September 1, 1988, a board may not grant a high school diploma to any pupil unless the pupil has:

(a) Earned a minimum of 12.5 credits in grades 9 to 12 as follows:
  1. Four credits of English which incorporate instruction in written communication, oral communication, grammar and usage of the English language, and literature.
  2. Three credits of social studies which incorporate instruction in state and local government.
  3. Two credits of mathematics which incorporate instruction in the properties, processes, and symbols of arithmetic and elements of algebra, geometry, and statistics.
  4. Two credits of science which incorporate instruction in the biological sciences and physical sciences.
  5. 1.5 credits of physical education which incorporate instruction in the effects of exercise on the human body,health-related physical fitness, and activities for lifetime use.
(b) Earned, in grades 7 to 12, at least 0.5 credit of health education which incorporates instruction in personal, family, community, and environmental health.
I raised the issue with district administration at that time, the superintendent and assistant superintendent agreed that there is a problem, and assured me that the policies and practices would be reviewed and brought into alignment with state requirements. That has not happened. I have asked for follow up each year since then, without success.  Until that is fixed, students can graduate from our high schools without the basic skill sets envisioned in state policy.

4. Guaranty that ALL middle school math teachers are proficient in algebraic reasoning and other skills necessary to prepare students to master the high school math and science curriculum.

In June 2008, the Board of Education received the report of a Task Force convened to evaluate the math curriculum in MMSD schools. The report recommended several steps to strengthen math education. Of these, Finding 1 came through as mission critical:

Finding 1: The single most important step that the MMSD Board of Education can take in support of improved student achievement in mathematics is to align district goals, policies, and resources in ways that result in a mathematics teacher workforce well prepared in the content of mathematics and in the techniques of teaching mathematics. This issue is especially critical in grades 5 to 8.
The report further states:
The section on Instruction and Teacher Preparation discusses the need for additional mathematics content-based pre-service instruction and in-service professional development for MMSD mathematics teachers. (emphasis added)
The adequacy of teacher preparation is a significant problem that cannot be solved without a substantial investment in mathematics content-based professional development and a change in hiring priorities at the district level.
Supporting and enforcing efforts to implement this recommendation would make a significant difference to all students. Although financial resources have been devoted toward this end, much of the work has been redirected to focus on how to teach rather than addressing the content proficiency called for in the report. As a result, a small number of teachers are participating in the courses developed to address content readiness, but this is far from the committed district engagement required to provide students with the math skills that are foundational to success in high school math and science courses.

5. Teach students to write using complete sentences, correct spelling and standard grammatical conventions.
 There is a lot of variation in the amount of writing required in the array of high school courses available to students. My personal observation includes everything from a teacher who gave assignments designed to help students who would one day take an SAT writing test, to an English composition teacher who showed a lot of movies in class and gave no writing assignments.

Having helped young people work on personal statements for job or college applications, and working in an environment where writing is an underpinning of success, I feel safe in saying that it is impossible to over emphasize writing. With all due respect, the picture drawing and crafts projects will not help someone who must articulate their ideas and their aspirations if they cannot put sentence to paper in clear English.

Indeed, the students who need to learn to read for comprehension and then write coherently about their responses are the students most in need of being encouraged to read a book (rather than offered a book on tape) and then being taught to write. Really write. Not invented writing. Really write. Not spoken word. Words on paper that anyone can understand.

6. Make a compelling case for consistency and then truly implement consistency across the board if that is going to be a rationale for homogenizing the curriculum in our high schools.

The value added by making high schools consistent (read uniform) still hasn't been explained in a compelling manner, so I may be missing something. I note that the district equity policy states that all schools should be equally desirable, not all schools should be identical. If there are issues of consistent standards and quality, then yes, let's address that. But creating the Stepford School District just seems odd in a city as stubbornly individualistic as Madison.

I confess that I am fascinated to learn whether MMSD truly means consistency when it would mean that all high schools would have a planetarium and biotechnology program OR Memorial would lose those special programs. When it means that LaFollette would lose its four block system in order to be consistent with the other schools. And so forth.

The area where I would like to see consistency is in opportunity. A few years back, when East's new principal cut the foreign language program from 3 to 2 languages, I looked into what other schools offer. There is no comparison. The issue was not demand or class size -- the eliminated German program had enrollments comparable to the other high schools. And it is odd that the three other high schools have several languages, including American Sign Language, Latin, Mandarin, and Japanese, while East has Spanish and French.

For families concerned about highly competitive college applications, the lack of opportunity may well be a factor that would make East less desirable than others.

Friday, October 15, 2010

High School Reform

Although I will be posting on other aspects of the high school reform debate, I want to share an e-mail from administration to teachers that has been posted elsewhere on the internet.  Two aspects of the message are striking and require some thought on my part, particularly since I only recently saw the e-mail:

1) The tone seems to contradict the messages delivered in the administration's reorganization plan and elsewhere re. a new emphasis on decision-making processes that include significant input from front-line (e.g. work with students) staff.

2) Nowhere does the message discuss approval by the Board of Education, yet a significant curricular change cannot be implemented (at least openly) without discussion and approval by the board. While some may have forgotten that the board is a legally elected governance body, I fear that I am just that pain in the neck board member who sees that truth as fundamental to the governance process.

So, with those two observations, this is what teachers received in their e-mails:

October 12, 2010
Dear High School Staff:

We are writing to you today to ask you to take a moment to read about something that we think is of vital importance to the district, to meeting the needs of all of our students, and to closing the achievement gap swiftly and surely.

When we embarked on our journey with the Smaller Learning Communities (SLC) grant we knew that we do a great job with many students and we struggle with many others. The achievement gap remains in stark contrast to all of the things that we do so well.

We are saying that now is the time to think anew and differently about these issues. It is crucial that we come to grips with the fact that this gap means so much more than a yearly data comparison. What the continuing gap means, unless directly addressed, is that we will remain party to raising a segment of our population who will not have the skills to pursue adult lives that are self determined.

We currently have an opportunity to effect change that we cannot squander. The $5.2 million dollars given to MMSD through the SLC grant by the U.S. Department of Education has opened the doors to a real discussion about today’s students and tomorrow’s needs. We have taken full advantage of the last two years to talk, learn how to collaborate, and have dipped our toes in the waters of change.
But, we should no longer be lulled by our past successes. We should be made restless and uneasy by our graduation rates, our disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates, and by our state’s first place status nationally in incarceration rates of African American males.

So we are writing to you to inform you that we will undertake a systemic shift in the way we address learning opportunities at the secondary level. (emphasis added) We are asking you to digest a plan that responds to both the accelerated students and those who struggle. We ask that you suspend cynicism of past endeavors that forecast, in your mind, failure, and our tendency to remain static.

We sincerely suggest that this could be everyone’s finest hour.

We have long believed, and still do, that Madison has the capacity needed to eliminate the achievement gap and serve our accelerated students well. We will be sharing details of this idea with you soon, but we wanted to foreshadow that there is a true urgency attached to this conversation.

Your past work as teacher leaders, as innovation team members, and as critical consumers of professional development, will hold you in good stead as we ask you to move into this discussion.

There will be plenty of room for your voice as we move forward, but the parameters will be clear. Educational research clearly shows that true change needs to be systemic and implemented with fidelity. Research also shows that defining student outcomes is the science of teaching. The art of teaching still rests with you, the individual

Dan Nerad Pam Nash
Superintendent Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Schools

Thursday, October 14, 2010

West - Two Issues in a Perfect Storm

The parent complaint to DPI over MMSD's failure to comply with WI laws on Talented and Gifted education have combined with administration's recent proposal to create more consistency across the four major high schools, to create a perfect storm of controversy at Madison West. Within the past 24 hours, allegations that the proposal eliminates all electives have spawned a number of calls and e-mails to the Board of Education, a FB page (Walk-out Against MMSD School Reform) promoting a student walk out on Friday, and a YouTube video created to protest the elimination of electives.

As a board member, I have a somewhat different take largely because I know that allegations that the proposal to standardize core high school curriculum is not a product of the DPI complaint. Anyone who has watched MMSD operate, would probably agree that nothing is put together that quickly (the complaint is less than a month old), especially when it involves a proposal. 

I also just received the proposal a day or so ago. In full disclosure, I did not take advantage of the briefings conducted for board members who met with the superintendent and assistant superintendent individually or in pairs. I'm a certifiable pain in the neck and thought that any presentations should be made to the board as a whole in an open board or committee meeting, but that is just my issue.) I am just beginning to read and think through what is being proposed, so have no firm opinion yet.

This is what I have said to people who have written. Perhaps it will be of interest to you, too:

Thank you for taking the time to write. I hope that what I am about to say is helpful to your understanding of the proposal and the process as I understand them at this time.

First, the proposed curricular changes are not related to the DPI complaint re. failure to comply with state law on TAG programming.

Earlier this week, I received a copy of a proposal (attached) to establish more consistency in curriculum offerings across the four major high schools. At this time it is only a proposal. It is my understanding that administration would like the board to approve the proposal in November. At this time, board members are asking questions about the document, and specific details regarding what implementation would mean. I have not yet asked my questions, but expect to do so in the next week.

Earlier today, administration indicated that the proposal does not, or is not intended to, alter, standardize, or eliminate electives in any of the high schools.

As I read the proposal, I will be looking closely at that issue. I am the mother of East graduates with very different academic strengths and experiences. Both sons took excellent electives - at times the same classes taught by the same teachers. Both had wonderful experiences and learned a lot. Many of these electives were developed by specific teachers, and taught with particular expertise by those teachers. My personal belief is that our high schools would lose a great deal were those classes to be eliminated.

Again, it is my understanding that electives are to continue and that other parts of the curriculum are the focus of any changes. As I prepare for board decision-making on high school curriculum, I will continue to look at this issue.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Two Edgewater TIF votes in One Week? Oy.

On Monday, the MMSD school board will cast the votes that will direct my vote on the Joint Review Board. On Wedneday evening, the Joint Review Board will vote on whether to accept or reject the proposal to expand TID #32 in order to loan $16 million to the proposed Edgewater project.

What IS This Obscure Little Committee?

Called an 'obscure committee' by the Wisconsin State Journal, The Joint Review Board is in fact a legislatively mandated committee that gives all affected taxing authorities a vote on whether to forego property tax revenues in order to invest in TIF projects. (For those of you who want to know more, the Department of Revenue has an on-line manual that is very helpful in explaining everything you would need or want to know about the TIF process.)

The Joint Reveiw Board is composed of: Gary Poulson, former alder and citizen member, chair; David Worzala, Dane County Treasurer representing Dane County, Roger Price, representing MATC, Dean Brasser, City of Madison Comptroller representing the City of Madison, and me, representing Madison Metropolitan School District.

Will the TIF Pass?

TIFs and TIF expansions have typically moved forward with a unanimous vote in support. This time around, anything could happen. While there is intense political pressure to approve the TIF, in a slam dunk process, the proposal has generated mounds of analyses by all sorts of groups, and in the end has created more twists, turns, and spin cycles than Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.

This past week, MMSD administration Administration recommended that the Board direct my JRB vote against the TIF Proposal and it is reasonable to expect that the board will vote in this way. Ed Hughes has written about his reasons for casting a reluctant vote to reject the proposal, and my thoughts that the TIF would be a bad deal for Madison's public schools have been on record for some time. There are five other opinions and votes among board members, but it is very possible that the group will come together to direct me "just say no" to expanding TID #32 when the JRB meets on Wednesday.

But the MMSD vote is just one among the five votes cast by members of the Joint Review Board. Whether the other review board members believe that the propsal is a good deal from the perspective of their taxing authorities and constituents will be known on Wednesday.

Why Reject the Proposed Amendment to TID #32? 
Or, the Giant Sucking Sound Coming From the Shores of Lake Mendota

There are many reasons to take a pass on this investment opportunity. The most obvious have to do with the financial impact of deferring tax revenue from the existing and highly successful properties in the district. Adopting the amendment means that the district will stay open longer, and that the taxes on the rising values in those properties will be used to pay off the $16 million loan to the Edgewater project. (The Edgewater project will not generate the revenue to pay back the loan on its own. That is why it cannot be a separate project or an anchor for a project.)

On the eve of the vote, the biggest issue for me relates to proponents claims of increased property values, jobs created, and revenue that will be generated by loaning $16 million to Edgewater.

I believe that credible information has come forward in recent weeks that casts serious doubt on the revenue projections claimed in the developer's documents. That information creates two key problems, that are, for me, consistent with the criteria for deciding the TID and, for me, cast the expansion as a very risky public finance move if it goes forward.

1)Will hotel revenues and property taxes come in at the levels projected in the proposal? Setting aside the questions raised by Edgewater developers' use of projections that are out of whack with any Madison area hotels, Milwaukee's Pfister Hotel, or Kohler's prestigious American Club, we have the cautionary experience of the gap between projections and actual revenues generated through the proposal that helped to finance the Monona Terrace Hilton. According to a recent Cap Times article using research conducted by local resident John Jacobs:
The resolution from 1998 projected tax revenue from the hotel of $536,422 in 2002, increasing to $682,479 in 2009. In reality, the Hilton paid $434,237 in 2002 and $421,899 in 2009, and most recently saw its assessed value drop from $20.4 million in 2009 to $18.8 million for 2010.
In the absence of either numbers that align with the local (or regional premiere) hotel market, or arguments and data that support a case for much higher returns than might be expected locally or nationally, it is hard to believe that the project will yield anything close to the returns that are being promised in the proposal.

2) My second red flag has to do with hotel, occupancy rates, and the impact of occupancy rates on hotel room tax collections and property values for hotels. Simply put, I suspect that adding more hotel rooms to a market that is rumored to be at less than 60% occupancy, could do more harm than good. 

I apologize in advance if I am getting my understandings scrambled. But. To the extent that hotel property values are linked to occupancy rates, lower occupancy creates translate into lower property values. It seems to me, then, that adding hotel rooms in a market that already has more rooms than guests, adds to -- rather than alleviates -- problems of lower occupancy rates.

In my thinking, then, the risk is that adding the hotel rooms creates two related risks: 1) that the Edgewater will have an occupancy rate that is low enough to keep its property values below the levels projected by developers, and, 2) that the refurbished Edgewater will exacerbate low occupancy rates at other hotels, to the extent that it draws guests away from other hotels that already are struggling with low occupancy.

The "If you build it they will come" Phenomenon Is Unlikely to Work Here

I'm still trying to get my head around the argument that we have a critical need for more hotel rooms, especially for the conference and convention market. I know what the recession has done for business travel; as a state employee, I am aware of how budget cuts have gutted travel for government employees. Indeed, there have been times when state employees were prohibited from traveling even when using gift or grant dollars.

So the arguments that we needed a big big luxury hotel to attract conventions didn't quite align with what I've seen, experienced, and heard from friends in the private sector. A recent column by Mike Ivey, also Cap Times, reassured me that I wasn't just a naysayer. Titled, Recession Taking a Toll on Alliant Center, Monona Terrace, the article begins:
Madison's two major convention venues are feeling the pinch of the recession.
Both the Dane County-owned Alliant Energy Center and the city-owned Monona Terrace have seen revenues fall sharply over the past year, forcing officials to juggle their budgets and hold the line on staffing.
 And it gets gloomier from there.

So, What are the Odds...?

In full disclosure, I need to say that I am fiscally cautious. I am not opposed to TIF, and believe it can be and has been a very positive tool for local economic development.

But I also feel the responsibility of choosing wisely on this one. Choosing poorly is more than a little "uh oh" and then you move on. Choosing poorly raises the specter of living with an investment that yields poor returns, takes longer than expected to recover investment costs, and, in this case, possibly yielding unanticipated negative consequences for the local economy.

That doesn't feel very good.

There may be circumstances where such a high risk proposal would look appealing. But this isn't one of them. Maybe one of the people who keeps writing to me about the money that I can help them to recover would like to invest in this one?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Can Marketing Fix What Is Wrong in Our Schools?

Could the talents of AMC's 'MadMen'
keep families satisfied with our schools?

It is important to note at the beginning that there are many excellent teachers, principals, and staff in Madison's public schools. These people put in long, often unpaid hours, produce results under difficult conditions, and are too often told that they are overpaid laggards rather than thanked for their dedication and service. These people are central to family loyalty to Madison schools.

That they exist, however, doesn't mean that we don't have problems or that we are helped by denying that we need to change. There are times when it is at least as important to respond to the reasons that people leave as it is to know what will make them feel good about staying. I would argue that, for the Madison Metropolitan School district, responding to discontent is far more important than trying to convince people that all is well.

This will return to Madison's schools... I promise...
But First, a Word on Marketing and Communications

I’ve been around conversations about ‘marketing’ for longer than I care to admit (it’s more than one digit, and the first number is a 2) because of my day job at UW-Madison.

I’ve seen logo mania, branding bizarreness, and now social networking and e-branding all embraced and implemented, some with strong results, others not so much. I’ve been in study groups that read and presented our way through classics, such as “Building Strong Brands,” and I’ve read pithy titles like “Emotional Marketing,” “Rocking the Ages,” and “Bobos in Paradise.”

Through it all, I’ve noticed a few constants. These are personal observations, not scientifically tested theories. Full disclaimer delivered.

1)      An amazing number of people believe that knowing how to read and write and exposure to marketing products makes them expert in strong marketing strategies. Not so much, say I.
2)      Too many decisions to do ‘strategic marketing’ are searches for a quick fix to a PR problem rather than a commitment to the hard work needed to do a realistic assessment of why that problem (or problems) occurred and what it would take to fix the problem before tackling the image.
3)      Trendy strategies and ‘edgy’ logos are not substitutes for the attention to quality product, personal relationships, and customer service that build the strongest brands over time.
4)      You are not communicating or ‘messaging’ if you haven’t considered your audience and what they value, and care enough to connect with them at all levels of the process. Talking at people is just that. It is not relationship building, communicating, or marketing.

How does this relate to Madison’s public schools?

A recent Wisconsin State Journal editorial took MMSD to task for its’ diminished reputation and admonished the district to ‘tout its successes.’ For the past few years, the Board of Education has pushed for a ‘marketing plan’ or a ‘communications plan’ that will help to convince parents to stay in the district’s schools rather than leaving for private schools or using open enrollment to transfer to neighboring districts. Mayor Dave, too, has weighed in with concerns about the impact of school reputation on decisions to buy homes in the Madison Metro School District or specific neighborhoods within the district.

And recent proposed changes to Board of Education policy and Code of Conduct (rejected by the board majority) would have prohibited elected members of the Board of Education from saying or doing anything that would create image problems for the district with transgressions and sanctions to be determined and applied by the board president. I had visions of myself, like Bart Simpson in the opening credits, spending long hours in Room 103 writing on a blackboard, “I will only praise our schools.”  had the revised codes been approved and implemented.

Never mind the calls for transparency and disclosure that I heard when I first ran for the school board 4 years ago, and heard again when the community weighed in during the search for a new superintendent.

We have the information on why people leave. But do we have the will to use that information in a responsive way?

To his credit, Superintendent Nerad conducted a survey of people who chose to leave the district and shared the results with the board around a year ago through a report (link) and, upon board request, a document with the detailed feedback provided by respondents.

The recent WI State Journal article on recent proposals to limit the percentage of students who can leave a district through open enrollment and/or help stop the loss of funds that goes along with the students (estimated at $2.5 million for MMSD in 2009-10), has generated quite a debate. Most of it aligns with the findings from the 2008-09 survey. (That article drew 89 responses, most from people who posted only once.)

There is a lot to work with if the district truly wants to turn around the out-migration that has been taking place through open enrollment, transfers to private schools, and home schooling choices. Parents have cited a number of issues in their decisions to leave: lack of programming for talented and gifted students, bullying, quality of curriculum, and discipline issues, stand out among the factors mentioned.

At issue is whether we listen to what families are saying to us and treat their concerns as valid? Or do we wrie their experiences off as “perceptions.”

Marketing is of Limited Value if We Don’t Fix the Problems
To be clear, this post is not an argument against marketing or communications. Even organizations at the top of their form use marketing and communication strategies to improve and stay at the top. Rather, this post is meant to serve as a reminder that marketing is not a panacea. It does not solve problems, nor does it make problems go away where they exist. (Think of the ads for air fresheners that claim to ‘get rid’ of fish or litter box smells.)

I would guess other board members have an idea of changes that we believe would help to keep families in the district and perhaps even convince others to return or move into the district for the first time. After all, if we have been able to  develop highly recognized and sought after programs to serve the needs of students on the autism spectrum, shouldn’t we be able to develop programs that fully include for academically talented and gifted students? Shouldn’t we be able to develop an inclusive approach to students of color at all levels including TAG? If we did these things, wouldn't the district reputation change, and wouldn't it be easier to attract and retain those students?

It is clear that doing the same things over and over while claiming that we can expect different results clearly is not working.

My personal change wish list includes:

Get serious about TAG. I say this as someone who said pretty much the same thing over 15 years ago. Since then, TAG positions and programs have been diminished, not enhanced, through MMSD policy and (in)action.

Two years ago, the district received a report and recommendations to bring TAG programming into compliance with Wisconsin’s minimal laws requiring accommodation for TAG students. Within a month, district staff tried to sneak through a rewrite of the recommendations, to remove language providing for ability grouping of up to five or six students at the elementary class level. Authors of the report viewed this step as critical for helping teachers and students without creating separate classes. At the board’s insistence, the wording was returned to the original language. But the foot dragging continues.

The board also passed a motion requiring newly-hired TAG staff to have discernible experience, credentials, and coursework in TAG education. (When the report was approved, only one TAG Resource Teacher had a degree in the field; a few others had certification. At least one had a special education background, which is a very different model and understanding of ‘special needs’ education.)

Existing staff have done a lot of work to improve their knowledge and skill base since then. But the search for a new TAG coordinator foundered for reasons that could be debated depending on one’s vantage point, so there is again an interim coordinator who does not have a TAG background. Two additional TAG Resource Teacher positions are vacant, for a total of 3 positions that lack the staff to help carry forward the testing, problem solving, and programming called for by state law and the district’s plan.

This cannot continue.

Get serious about services for kids with serious mental health issues.

By this I mean the growing body of students, some with serious mental health needs before they begin Kindergarten, who create a good portion of the disruptive atmosphere that we hear about from parents, staff, and students.

I am referring to children who are not simply "naughty" or "wild" or "unsocialized." Students in those groups can and are served by the districts positive behavior coaches and support structures. Demanding that they "behave," or "buckle down" is pointless. They cannot.

Here, I am referring to students who -- through no fault of their own -- come to our schools with serious mental health problems including PTSD, attachment disorders, fetal alcohol syndrome, and a range of other serious problems. Some have been in and out of institutions, often failed by a system that releases them back to the conditions that created the mental health problems in the first place. With no back up or support plan.

These are children who can be violent, disruptive, aggressive, or self-destructive. They live their lives in ways that make it impossible to participate in or benefit from the behavior interventions that work with other children. It is not their fault. Many want desperately to be "good," but are not helped by our failure to admit that they exist and need services.

Last year, the board pressed administration on the dire need for services for children with serious mental health issues. We eventually received data that confirmed what we have heard from exhausted principals, social workers, health workers, teachers, and aides for years: the number of slots available to help children with the most extreme levels of mental illness, does not come close to serving the number of children who would be referred and served if room were available.

Until we commit to truly addressing, not glossing over, addressing, the needs of students who have identified, serious, mental health issues, the reports of bad behavior, aggression, disruption, and other problems will continue to mar the district's reputation. We can put out all of the glossy brochures and press releases that we want, but one parent witnessing a rough episode with a mentally distressed student and describing it to another parent, is a much more powerful force in creating perceptions of our district.

Enforce Bullying Policy. MMSD has had a bullying policy for as long as I can remember. But policy means little if it is not clear, coherent, and enforced among our students. Some teachers, principals, and staff, are good at establishing a firm 'no bullying' environment. Others, not so much. And there in lies the problem.

The board has heard for years about problems of bullying and aggression among all age groups. Three years ago, our expulsion hearing examiners spoke out and asked the board to address issues of bullying because of the numbers of victims who had been ignored by school staff, and ended up in the expulsion process because they took matters into their own hands. This aligns with concerns that have emerged for individual board members whether through family experience or education by school staff.

Last year, the district took steps to improve its bullying policy. But that is not the end, it is only the first step. It is up to central administration, school staff, and the Board of Education to ensure that the policy is operational and enforced if it is to stand as more than just words on paper. Until that happens, families will leave the district if it means the difference between feeling that their child is safe and their child is being victimized on a regular basis.


These are just some of the issues that I believe can and must be addressed, not by more study, not by review, not by task forces, but by changes in our daily practice as a district. There are other areas that need similar focus, too. The above issues are used to illustrate the seriousness and depth of the issues that cannot be explained away as simple differences of perception. These issues, and the others like them, require thought, a desire to change, and a willingness to get over our dwindling reputation as a strong district to get to the work that must take place if we are to guarantee our strength into the future.

And a nice press release or glossy brochure cannot take the place of what must be done. The people who question staying in the district will decide to stay (or come back) if and when they believe that someone is listening to their concerns and willing to change the problems that they are experiencing.

We can do it. But only if we have the will to be honest and to act.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A $30 Million Puzzle 'Solution'? What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate

Like many citizens, journalists, and some of my fellow board members, I have been struggling to make sense of the projected $30 million budget or tax gap. Like others who have tried to understand how we got to the number "$30," I have tried several approaches to see if I could come to the same conclusion. Some of them focused on an unexpected major rise in spending, or, an unexpected or unexplained loss of revenue beyond the $17 million in state cuts. (See Susan Troller's Madison School's 'Budget Gap' is Really a Tax Gap, for example.)

The answers for the portion of the gap that I could not understand or explain kept coming back to the tax levy. District staff were patient and helpful in trying to answer my questions, but we still didn't understand each other. The shortest version of the tax levy explanation comes from the district's Budget Questions and Answers handout.

To recap, the MMSD $30 million budget gap has been explained thusly by
administration. There are two parts to the gap, $1.2 million in expenses that cannot be met, and $28.6 million shortfall from a combination of state funding cuts and tax levy. 

This (first) gap is $28.6 million. This total is composed of three parts: 
  • $9.2 million cut in state aid the MMSD sustained this year;
  • $7.8 million cut in state aid the district will sustain next year;
  • $11.6 million of increased costs that come with levying authority - broken out in two parts:
-- $7.6 million of increased costs in order to deliver the same services next year that the MMSD is delivering this year, and which the state funding formula allows; 
-- $4.0 million of increased costs and with levying authority from the approved 2008 referendum)
$28.6 million Tax Shortfall Total
For me, and for others, the sticking point has been the idea that additional levying authority through the referendum and the state funding formula, would add to the shortfall in funds to run our schools. That is, how could more funds turn into a funding loss? Or, put in mathematical terms, how could -17 + 11.6 become -28.6?  My math is rusty, and I don't understand connected math, but it did seem to me that it was unlikely that a negative number would get larger after adding a positive number to it.

We came closer to figuring out the understanding gap early this week, after a friend suggested that the only way the components could add up to a $30 million shortfall is IF the board decided to not use its levying authority under the 2008 referendum ($4 million) and the escalators built into the revenue caps ($7.6 million).


Since many board members expressed reluctance to raise taxes BEYOND the increases approved through the referendum, it is likely that the $30 million is as much a miscommunication as anything. The message that there is reluctance to raise property taxes beyond what voters did for us in 2008 got translated into a very literal "no tax increase, including the approved referendum funds." How that happened matters less than the fact that no one on the board said that they would not raise taxes by the $4 million approved through the recurring referendum, nor did they say that they would reject the increases that are part of the annual funding formula adjustments.

So what does this mean? Well, assuming that the board will use its levying authority under the referendum and the state funding formula, the gap is smaller than the reported (and internalized) $30 million. It is probably more like the $17 million in state aid cuts plus the $1.2 million in budget items for which there is no funding source. Or, by higher math, c. $18.2 million BEFORE the board makes its budget adjustments and amendments. (This process will take place between now and the final vote on May 4, and will likely involve a combination of cuts recommended by administration and cuts proposed by the board.)

This means that the draconian school closings and massive staff layoffs reported earlier are unlikely to happen. Indeed, the board added one cut to the list at Monday's meeting when it voted to cut $43,000 in funding budgeted to produce a communication plan.

Dates to watch:

March 22, 6 PM, Villager Mall, Park St. - PUBLIC HEARING on the budget

April 1 - Board receives the budget detail

April 5 - Board budget workshop instead of committee meetings

April 12 - Regular board meeting

April 18 (Sunday) - Warner Park Community Recreation Center - PUBLIC HEARING on the budget

To comment on the budget and proposed cuts, you also may contact the Board of Education directly at

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Edgewater TIF. Or, Can I Use My MasterCard to Pay My Visa Bill???

As I watch the debates and political maneuvering around the proposed Edgewater development, it is hard not to consider ALL of the repercussions of the decisions that will be made before this is all over. One of the most invisible aspects of the debate is how TIF financing will affect the already-strained finances of Madison's public schools.

No matter where one lands on the question of how many permanent jobs will be created, the right of people to be heard on development issues that affect their neighborhoods, the value of historic preservation, or public financing for private development, there is one issue that should be made visible to all parties: the TIF financing package is going to hurt the tax base available to our public schools until the TIF is closed out (which could be over 20 years from now).

While proponents of TIF financing rightly assert that TIF increases property value and by extension increases the tax base for the jurisdictions that levy property taxes, there is a hidden side that is rarely discussed publicly in the crush to jump on the “pro-economic development” bandwagon: that benefit does not become available until the district is closed. While districts often close earlier, they may remain open for over 20 years. The benefit does not accrue for years down the road, and in the meantime the value of the affected properties is frozen at the start year of the district.

Not to worry, says the Department of Revenue:

In many areas the school levy represents the biggest portion of the local property tax bill, so it is not a surprise that a large portion of tax increment revenues comes from the school levy. This doesn’t mean that schools don’t get the money they need, however. The school levy that goes toward the tax increment is levied on top of the taxes they need to operate. The school levy is subject to the revenue caps, but within those constraints the schools get all the money they require. The tax increment makes the levy higher than it would otherwise be, but only for as long as the district has a TID in it. Once the TID is closed the larger tax base can help to reduce the tax burden on district residents. (emphasis added)

In other words, the Department of Revenue adopts the same posture adopted by the Joint Finance Committee when it went forward with the plan that left Madison with the biggest cut in state aid to any Wisconsin district: “It's OK. Schools don't need to be hurt because districts can raise property taxes to cover the revenue that they lost.” This leaves the dirty work to school districts, who must choose between raising taxes and hurting property owners during a recession, or cutting programs and adding to the damage done by successive years of cuts since Wisconsin's revenue caps went into effect in 1993.

The Double Whammy

In the case of the Edgewater, and the recently-approved expansion of the capitol square TID #23, Madison Metropolitan School District gets a double whammy of revenue loss. How does this work and what does it mean?

TID #23 as Precursor to the Edgewater Proposal

 On January 25, the Joint Review Board voted to approve the substitute amended project plan for TID #23. In full disclosure, I represent MMSD on the board and, at that meeting, was the sole vote against approving the plan at the direction of the Madison Board of Education's unanimous vote.

TID encompasses an area around the capitol square, and having been very successful, was scheduled to be closed out with the properties involved going to full value on the tax rolls and value accrued during the life of the district returned to the schools, City of Madison, Dane County, and MATC.

In a move that admittedly has no economic development impact, the city proposed that the district be kept open and expanded to other blocks around the square to cover cost overruns in the original TIF and, rather than creating a new TIF district, make improvements to the appearance of the areas added to the district:
The intent and purpose of this amendment to the TID #23 Project Plan is to increase the amount of total TID expenditures in the TID Project Plan. This increase in TID expenditures will provide for certain infrastructure projects to be completed, while also addressing an increase total project costs incurred to date.
 And what are some of the new costs?

a. Capital Square Improvements
Capital Square Improvements include built-in benches, granite curbing, replacement planters, tree replacement and related square improvement projects
Estimated Cost……………………………………...……………………$1,185,000
b. Rotary Plaza
Rotary Plaza improvements near the new Madison Children’s Museum.
Estimated Cost…………………………………………….……………….$157,000
c. 100 Block “Spoke” Streets
Improvements to 100 Block “Spoke” Streets including King St., S. Hamilton, N. Hamilton, E. Mifflin, E. Washington, W. Washington Ave., Martin Luther King, Jr., Blvd, and Wisconsin Ave.
Estimated Cost………………………………………………………….….$170,000
d. Survey, Design, and Inspection (15%)
Survey, design, and inspection of proposed improvements.
Estimated Cost……………………………………………………….…….$239,000

A secondary issue related to TID #23 emerged in response to questions at the Joint Review Board meeting: the owners of properties on the capitol square and State St. are exempt from assessments when improvements are made to sidewalks and streets in front of their properties. So, unlike homeowners, or the Madison Metropolitan School District, the full cost of improvements is born by the tax payers rather than shared with the owners of properties in these select - and highly valued - commercial blocks. We are still trying to understand that one, having received hefty charges for the stoplight that was installed at Gammon Road and Tree Lane (inn front of Memorial High School), the roundabout that went in to control the non-existent traffic near the new Olson School, and the East Washington improvements in front of East. The bottom line would appear to be capitol area property owners 2, Madison schools 0 on the public finance front.
Edgewater and TID #32
Having successfully slipped all of us a Mickey on TID #23, the city appears to be preparing to do it again with TID #32. TID #32, which includes University Square, Capitol Centre, and the Overture Center, appears to also fall within the level of success that would require that it be closed out in the near future.

Rather than creating a new district, which would be cleaner, the city is again proposing to expand a TIF district that should be closed out under law. Again, the life of the district is extended, keeping the lucrative downtown properties remain on the tax rolls at their base value - not their market value - until the Edgewater piece that has been added to the district is closed out. During that time, MMSD - again the biggest loser - does not get the payout on the TIF or property taxes at the full value of some of downtown Madison's most lucrative new develpments.

If the Common Council yields to pressure to approve this plan, it compounds the revenue loss created through the TID #23 decision. How big are the numbers for our schools? I do not have final numbers, but can predict that they will not be pretty and should be carefully scrutinized when they are made public.

Not Many Heroes Here

In the meantime, people who are watching to see if the Board of Education will close its $30 million gap by levying the maximum property tax (est. $300 for an average home; does not include any 4K start-up), may want to also watch the gamesmanship over financing for the Edgewater. These are hits to the district budget that could be avoided if the purported civic value for our public schools translates into a willingness to finance private development in ways that help rather than hurt school finances

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Community Engagement Session on Communications Strategy

Monday, February 22, 2010
6 - 7:30 PM
Marquette/O'Keefe Cafeteria
1501 Jenifer St.

If you cannot attend but have ideas to share, contact the board and administration at:

Madison schools want input for new branding campaign

By GAYLE WORLAND, Wisconsin State Journal | | 608-252-6188 | Posted: Friday, February 19, 2010 5:44 pm

If Madison Avenue met Madison public schools, imagine the possibilities:

Billboards touting the joys of high school algebra?

TV spots selling fifth-grade science?

Facebook updates on student test scores?

It's not quite a case of "Extreme Makeover," but the Madison School District needs to put some polish on its image, officials say. The word is out to marketing firms that the district would like some help, and officials are asking the public - particularly parents of school-aged children - to join them at Marquette-O'Keeffe Schools on Monday night to brainstorm on "positive branding" techniques.

The desire to spiff up the public perception of Madison schools came out of months of discussions last year as a community team formed a five-year strategic plan for the district, said Superintendent Dan Nerad.
"There was a strong feeling that, one, we have a lot of positive things that need to be more proactively discussed," Nerad said. "And two, as we face our challenges, (such as) becoming a more diverse School District and needing to meet the needs of a broad range of learners, it is even more important that we do this work."

(Full article available at: )

Sunday, January 24, 2010

State of the District Presentation Monday January 25, 2009

Foreshadowing Governor Doyle annual State of the State address, Superintendent Nerad will present a State of the District address tomorrow night. The event will feature about 45 minutes of address and 15 minutes of audience  Q & A. The document associated with the address is posted on-line for people who would like the written information.

State of the Madison Metropolitan School District
Presented by Superintendent Dan Nerad
Monday, January 25, 2010
5:30 PM
Wright Middle School Library
Fish Hatchery Road

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

4K Update: New Questions and Some Answers

At our January 11 monthly board meeting, we made two decisions about how we would proceed on implementing 4-year-old kindergarten. The media of that meeting are available on the School Information System blog, so I won't repeat them here.

Implement 4K in Fall 2011

The board voted to defer implementation of 4K until fall 2011 due to concerns about whether the district or many of the community providers could be ready to go in less than 7 months (assuming time for registration and orientation in August.

I voted to defer until 2011 for several reasons. I support 4K. I would have liked to be able to implement in Fall 2010. However, I also had to listen when people who had pushed hard to start in 2010 -- especially those from the early childhood education community --  asked us to wait a year so that there is adequate time to do all of the steps that are necessary to "get it right."

This was not inflexible balking by providers miffed because we were voting in January. Community providers told us from the beginning that they would need to know by November at the latest so that they could do the work needed to open in September. With the vote in January, some providers felt that they could still start in September. Others said they could not be ready by September, and still others couldn't commit one way or the other. Add to that, the reality that there would be an RFP and selection process before community providers would know if they would get a 4K contract from Madison, and it was cutting it close for many people.

School district administrators said that MMSD-run programs could be ready to go by September 2010, but with no sites selected it was not clear how that would work. Working with the district's estimate that c. 1600 4-year-olds would be enrolling the first year, and the requirement that at least half of those students will be taught by MTI teachers in MMSD facilities, 800 students would be in MMSD-taught programs the first year. That means that the district would need to complete any renovations to meet code (at sites not yet selected), purchase and install any furnishings or storage, work with parents and complete the enrollment process, purchase classroom materials, and hire and train teachers and numerous support staff, in sufficient numbers to meet the need of 800 students. All in less than nine months.

It may be that I am an overly negative (rhymes with witch), or that I am too dull to understand how very well poised the district is to carry all of this out while reviewing proposals and awarding contracts, but it seemed optimistic or even reckless to rush forward to September 2010. If we are serious about the dire need for 4K, then we also need to be serious about making sure that students enjoy high quality well-run programs from Day 1.

Years ago, I learned a wise saying from the printers that I work with: "there's always time to reprint, but there's never time to get it right." From that saying, I learned the very real observation that people (formerly me) who are willing to put up with the extra cost, time loss, and inconvenience of reprinting a job that went to press with clear and fatal flaws, often are not willing to slow down and take the time to make sure that any problems are ironed out before the job goes to the printer.

That same concept kept coming back to me during the push to forge ahead. Simply put, my preference is to slow down, build in time to fix any problems, and get it right so that students and families have an orderly transition to a high quality program. We have affirmed a commitment to 4K, and we also confirmed a commitment to solid 4K programs when we voted to slow down and get it right in 2011.

Defer Approving a Finance Plan Until We Have More Information

4K is projected to cost $12.2 million during the first year. These are significant resources, especially given the budgets of the past two decades. The investment in  early childhood education is a valid expenditure. At the same time, however, I feel a need to respect the resources that we will be using and make sure that we are allowing enough time to use them well. Given  the agonizing that we have done over $50,000 expenditures in past budgets, I also feel a need to make sure that we have a well-thought-out plan before we commit to spending $12 million.

The plan, as presented, would finance 4K using $3.5 million in new property tax levy, $4.5 million through reallocation of property tax funding included in the annual budget, and $4.2 million through borrowing.

People who read my post of January 7, know that I was feeling positive about the financial plan. That feeling evaporated as colleagues on the board asked persistent questions about how the financial plan would work, what the tax impact would be, and how it will all work.

I know how I missed an important piece of the package but that doesn't change the fact that I missed the added property tax component during the discussions leading up to last Friday afternoon. Simply put, I understood to be the choice of borrow OR raise property taxes; I missed that we were talking about borrowing AND raising property taxes.

That is a big distinction.

There are a range of perspectives among board members on the following point, so I need to stress that I speak only for myself when I say that I am very uncomfortable with levying additional recurring property taxes to pay for 4K. Yes, we are able to levy at a much higher level than is currently the case. We could tax enough to not need to borrow to implement 4K if we so choose. But that is not a financing plan that works for me.

The dilemma I feel is that I remember well the conversations and forums that preceded the 2008 referendum. I remember the concern for property tax burdens among many of our constituents at that time, which was before the economy tanked. I am among the state employees that is taking a 3% pay cut disguised as furloughs, and have friends and relatives among the other government sectors who also accepted pay cuts. Friends in the business and nonprofit sectors are seeing layoffs, reduced hours (and earnings), and jobs leaving. My friends and relatives who are retired have seen their investments and pensions shrink. I'm not sure that I know anyone, or many people, who are earning more this year than they were in 2008. Meanwhile insurance payments, childcare and college tuition, gasoline, and other basic expenses are going up.

Under the circumstances, I cannot take lightly the impact of adding to property taxes no matter how passionate my commitment to public education may be. And I note that it would be very unfortunate if willingness to fund 4K through property taxes were to become a litmus test on love of public education.

I also am reminded of an eloquent statement made before the 2008 referendum, which reflects much of my own thinking about what that referendum meant and how it relates to the 4K funding crunch that we now face. It also is very relevant to why I support deferring decisions on the 4K financing package until we know the results of reorganization and work to find cost savings in district programs; much of this information is slated to be presented in February.Writing in August, 2008, fellow board member Ed Hughes said:
If the referendum passes, we will have breathing room. We should have three years when the specter of budget cuts is not hanging over our heads. This will enable the Board and the new administration to put into place the process we currently contemplate for reviewing our strategic priorities, establishing strategies and benchmarks, and aligning our resources.

Superintendent Nerad has described a proposal that contemplates a broad-based strategic planning process that will kick off during the second semester of the upcoming school year. This process will be designed to identify the community's priorities for our schools, priorities that I expect will reflect a concentrated focus on enhancing student achievement. Once we have identified our priorities and promising strategies for achieving them, we'll likely turn to examining how well our organization is aligned toward pursuing our goals. This will likely be the point at which we take a long, hard look at our administrative structure and see if we can arrange our resources more efficiently.

It will take a while - certainly more than a year - for us to undertake this sweeping kind of review of our programs and spending in a careful, collaborative and deliberative way. If we do go to referendum, and the voters authorize the increased spending authority we seek, then the obligation will pass to the Board and administration to demonstrate that the community's vote of confidence was well placed. There will be much for us to do and it will be fair to judge our performance on how well we take advantage of the opportunity the community will have given us.

I believe that we will find a way to make this work, in part because implementing 4K was identified as one of our strategic priorities. I also know that I will need a lot more information about the larger MMSD budget picture, the superintendent's reorganization plans, and the way that those plans will affect the budget, before I can begin to speculate on where that $3.5 million will come from.

The way that Wisconsin funds 4K creates an additional wrinkle, in that the district will receive increasing state aid/student over the first three years of 4K operation. Trying to get a handle on the projected costs and amounts of funding from all sources for the first five years is a challenge. The assistant superintendent for business services is working on the figures, but we do not have them at this time.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

4K in Madison : Some Answers but More Questions

On Monday night, the Madison Board of Education will vote on whether to implement 4-year-old kindergarten. It has taken the Madison school district years to get to this point, and for some time it looked like 4K would not happen. Several obstacles were removed in the past year, however, and the district was able to work with community early childhood educators and with Madison Teachers, Inc., to arrive at a model that is acceptable to the district, the community, and the teachers' union.

That's the good news. On Monday night, there are two outstanding issues that will need to be resolved: financing for the first two years and, the start date for the first 4K cohort. I speak for myself, but believe that my board colleagues would agree that the need and value for such a program was resolved some time ago, so the issues are not whether to implement 4K, but rather the best way to proceed. 

Financing 4K start-up 

Wthout going into detail on the painful irony involved in Governor Doyle and Superintendent Evers promoting 4K as part of Wisconsin's Race to the Top application, it is fair to say that a good deal of the past half year has revolved around valiant district efforts to secure 4K start-up funding from the State of Wisconsin. It hasn't gone well and there is no state start-up funding, nor  can we use state ARRA funds, which could cover the costs but cannot be used for 4K. The district will receive phased-in state aid for students enrolled in the program, but must underwrite the full cost of 4K during the start-up phase, to the tune of around $3.5 million.

Sort of ironic, then, that the Race to the Top gurus place so much value on a program for which we cannot get state funds? Oops! Wait a minute! We 'might' get some 4K funds IF Wisconsin gets Race to the Top funding. As I said, there are some ironies to be considered here.

Add to the financial picture the loss of 15% of our state aid last year, and anticipated loss of another 15% next year (and who knows about the future), the financial stress that many taxpayers are under, and the poor economic recovery, and it is clear that the cost of 4K cannot simply be passed along as property taxes. (The estimate is that it would be around $40/year on a $250,000 home in year 1).

In November, administration proposed a financial plan that would cover start-up costs through phased-in reimbursement for community partners. The board rejected this plan as an unreasonable financial burden on local early childhood educators, and one that would make it impossible for many community partners to be part of the Madison district's 4K program. Since these are the most experienced providers, and they do not need the construction or equipment purchases that will be necessary for programs operated by MMSD, this did not seem like an appropriate way to handle start-up costs.

The good news is that financing the start-up costs is the area in which we are closest to a resolution. Last Monday, Assistant Superintendent Erik Kass presented several options to the board for financing start-up. The options are related to other work that we are doing to refinance district debt (take advantage of low interest rates and free up resources for uses other than interest payments), and provide choices that are more palatable than adding to the property tax load. The board will choose the financing option on January 11 at the regular meeting.

Choosing a Start Date 

This is an issue that has come to the board in the past few days, and several of us have requested information from administration to ensure that we understand whether the structures are in place to implement 4K in 2010 as originally planned, or it would be better to wait until 2011 as some local providers are requesting.

When I go back and look at the information that we received from the working group of community providers and district staff that worked out the models for implementing 4K, community providers were clear that they would need to have a decision by November 2009 in order to implement in Aug-Sept 2010. These are providers who have existing programs with experienced teachers in place and facilities that meet standards for pre-school facilities. Presumably the programs that would be housed in Madison schools would need even more time because those programs would need to post jobs and hire staff, remodel facilities, and purchase supplies and equipment for multiple sites.

I do not know what the board will ultimately decide for a start date, but I can tell you what I need to know and have asked administration to answer so that I can make an informed decision:
1) Do we know how many of the potential community providers are enrolling or have already gone through the enrollment process for their 4-year-old programs for fall 2010? I know that we've only heard from one, but don't have a feel for how many programs would be affected by our late decision (I suspect that programs that have already gone through enrollment would have trouble participating because they've already committed their slots for next fall). 

2) Would we have an RFP ready to go if we decide to start in 2010? If so, how long would it take from the time the RFP is released and the time that providers are selected? Going back to the November 2009 date, do we know how notification of a contract award in Feb 2010 (or later) would affect participation rates among community providers? 

3) If the RFP has not been developed, can you tell us how long it will take to get the RFP finalized and distributed?

4) Are the master contracts that will be signed  developed, or is there still work to do on the contract language? E.g., if we were ready to award contracts tomorrow, would the documents be ready to be filled in and signed?

5) Have the sites for the MMSD-run programs been selected? If so, how many will need remodeling or other renovation to be fully equipped and ready as 4K classrooms by August?

6) What will be the process and time line for hiring and mobilizing the teachers and aides for MMSD programs?

7) If it appeared that it would be impractical and/or counterproductive to try to start in fall 2010, could we still borrow the money and hold it in a separate account until it is needed to meet the additional 4K financial obligations?

Other board members have asked their own questions, and I expect that we all are looking forward to learning the answers. On a personal note, I find it troubling that there were not were not quick and easy answers to the questions that I asked, which I would expect if the plans were well underway and ready to implement for 2010.

If we aren't far enough along to implement in 2010, it is not the end of the world but we need to know that now. What is important is that the board has the information that it needs to approve a program that will get it right for the first class of 4K students.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Inflicting Good on the Poor: As Research-Based as We Wanna Be

For years, MMSD staff have advocated for their proposals and programming choices by arguing that they are research-based data driven best practices. At times, I have wondered whether the research selected has undergone critical review. That is, do the people selecting the research stop to ask whether the research is methodologically sound with verifiable results, much less whether it was conducted on populations or under conditions that are comparable to the Madison public school district.

I've also wondered at an understanding of research that ignores entire bodies of data or work that falls outside of the narrow educational research paradigm. (Prime examples of the latter case include the district's unwillingness to consider the considerable body of research on how children learn to read that is carried out by cognitive psychologists, linguists, and communicative disorder researchers. But that's another post.)

My questions about the level of critical review of the work selected to inform programmatic choices reached new levels this week, after TJ Mertz raised serious questions in his AMPS blog about the only resource identified by name in the TAG Plan update's section on including underrepresented populations.

At the top of page 4, the update states:  
Support for underrepresented populations: Research and review of support models for students from underrepresented populations is on-going. District staff (high school teachers and resource teachers) are conducting a book study of Removing the Mask  by Ruby Payne. 
So what's the big deal? For starters, Ruby Payne is an interesting choice for a district that embraces research-based best practices. Simply put, she does not conduct research
herself, cites little work that is more recent than the late 1960s - 1980s range (thereby missing a lot of the advances of the past 3 decades), and mis-appropriates the research that she does cite. 

Much of her work is self-published through the Aha!Process business that she heads, and which has become quite a cottage industry peddling its (unreviewed) books to districts who contract with her or one of her employees for in-service training. I note that one of the key areas of specialization for Ms. Payne and her associates is in-service training for school districts that are under the gun to improve student achievement while confronting growing issues of poverty and inequality within the classroom. (Sound familiar?)

A quick Google Search turns up several critiques of the Ruby Payne industry, but this one caught my eye: Miseducating Teachers about the Poor: A Critical Analysis of Ruby Payne's Claims about Poverty by Randy Bomer, Joel E. Dworin, Laura May & Peggy Semingson — 2008. Based on a qualitative analysis of the content basis of Payne's teacher education in-service training program, the authors conclude that

"...her truth claims, offered without any supporting evidence, are contradicted by anthropological, sociological and other research on poverty. We have demonstrated through our analysis that teachers may be misinformed by Payne's claims. As a consequence of low teacher expectations, poor students are more likely to be in lower tracks or lower ability groups and their educational experience is more often dominated by rote drill and practice." (emphasis added)
This does not bode well for serious or successful efforts to identify gifted and talented students among the full spectrum of the Madison district's student population.

At a minimum, the assertions of her work should be openly discussed and debated if her works are to shape district practice, starting with her beliefs about how people end up in poverty and/or stay there. (I note that these beliefs are completely counter to the materials that the superintendent presented to us when he first arrived, re. board understanding of poverty as a factor in student achievement.)

Her article, "Understanding and Working with Students and Adults from Poverty" embodies many of her central themes, which are repeated in her study guide and other materials. Particularly telling are the insulting and stereotyping statements that she promotes about lower class, middle class, and upper class cultures. Indeed, why would we both er if she is correct that "To move from poverty to middle class or middle class to wealth, an individual must give up relationships for achievement."

Certainly, I have to ask what practice would be dictated if MMSD accepts her bold and unstudied assertions about conflict resolution, for example:

Generational Poverty:
Physical fighting is how conflict
is resolved. If you only know
casual register, you do not have
the words to negotiate a
resolution. Respect is accorded
to those who can physically
defend themselves.

Middle Class:
Fighting is done verbally.
Physical fighting is viewed
with distaste.

Upper class:
Fighting is done through social
inclusion or exclusion and
through lawyers.

I cannot speak for others on the board, but I would hope that we would all be profoundly uncomfortable with the logical conclusions that would flow from such overly-broad and under-documented understandings about poverty. I do believe that we need to inquire about this choice of materials and question how this resource was selected and where it will lead us if we embrace the models that are likely to emerge from its tenets