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.


Anonymous said...

I am a west student, and the problem to us is that we don't want the change in curriculum because of the loss of the choice of what core classes we get to take. As it is now, we get to choose which english, science, math, and social studies we take. To our understanding, this proposal wouldn't allow us to do that anymore. The fact that we can choose what we take is not something that we don't take for granted at West. It is something we cherish, and don't want to have taken away for us. The options of us choosing our classes is something that makes West unique and also is one of the reasons that West is so diverse. With this new proposal, it would separate the school into "accelerated and preparatory".

Lucy Mathiak

I understand the concerns. Please know two things. First, this proposal affects all high schools, not just West. Second, the students in those schools also deeply value the ability to choose the courses taken to earn the credits to graduate. Those students have as much at stake as the students at West, and I am curious to see how the rest of the district reacts to the plan.

I am glad to hear that this will be taken up in the Student Senate, and look forward to learning the reaction to the proposal from a student perspective.

I am still considering the merits and weaknesses of the proposal, and have a number of reservations after my first reading of the document. I encourage you and your fellow high school students to continue to follow this issue and to communicate your concerns to the board.

As much as I don't wish this upheaval on anyone, I must say that I am very impressed by the passion, advocacy, and organization that I am seeing from the West high students.

Kay said...

Lucy, you said:
"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."

What I read from the Supt's office was that they "haven't proposed eliminating" electives. The next sentence says that a "dynamite elective" *could* be adopted district-wide, and that "consistency in electives" is desired (by them). This suggest that electives not deemed workable or suitable for all schools would be gone. Certainly adding APs and new core courses will not leave room for West's wealth of elective courses. Would you not read the proposal in this way?

West may have the most to lose, because its curriculum has shunned the AP-generated curriculum for a more challenging, broader, and inclusive set of electives. But each high school has unique programs and offerings valued by its community which we wouldn't care to see standardized away. Equity in offerings doesn't have to mean the same courses at every school, does it?

Thanks for your careful attention to all this, Lucy. I agree that the response by West students has been impressive, and I am particularly touched that my West seniors care that their younger siblings have access to the same kind of West community they have experienced. They are very concerned that the school not be divided into "pathways."

Jan O said...

Lucy, I appreciate your taking a thoughtful approach. I hope all the Board members will make a data driven decision (I posted a comment about this on one of the blogs on this site) AND will listen to students, as it seems you are doing. My son, a junior, is very distressed & willing to fight to keep West's current programming. I have to say, we're proud of him & have encouraged him to get as much data as he can to make his argument!
By the way, I also posted a comment on another blog on this site, copied from a West High student who posted on Great Schools:

Posted June 20, 2010

It's the highest achieving school in WI; over 7% of the senior class were national merit finalists. (33 semifinalists-the most in the state!) There were 3 perfect ACT scores this year. Overall, there is enormous drive to succeed amongst the students, with a good majority of them being 3.5 gpa and above. The pressure to do well, not just from parents and teachers, but from fellow students as well, is noticeably great. It was a family joke that hardly any of the seniors skipped all day on senior skip day- they didn't want to miss their important classes, even with two weeks of school left!
Submitted by a student

Lucy Mathiak

Kay, thanks for your comments. A couple of things:

My comment on what administration conveyed to the board is just that. As this debate has unfolded, or perhaps morphed is a better word, what is said and meant has shifted from time to time. Including my own statements, which are being shaped by my engagement with the e-mails and Facebook posts that I have read.

As for who loses what, it seems to me that the real issue is what it is that is being proposed and whether the board will support implementation. To be honest, I have a grid, but that is not the same thing as a proposal or a plan.

There needs to be a lot more detail and a budget before there can even begin to be a discussion of whether any of this should move forward. And in the meantime, I am concerned that value aspects of our curricular offerings will be lost without anything of substance to replace them. Electives fall in that category.

Wouldn't it be ironic to have strong and vital classes survive budget cuts only to be trashed in the name of reform?