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.