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.