Myths of Madison Prep, Part 1

Van Morrison – “Too Many Myths” (click to listen or download)

The discussion around the Madison Preparatory Academy (MPA) proposal and the related events and processes has been heated, but not always grounded in reality.  Many have said that just having this conversation is a good thing.  I don’t agree.  With myths being so prevalent and prominent, a productive conversation is nearly impossible.  Since the vote is scheduled for Monday (12/19), I thought it would be good to take a closer — fact based, but opinionated — look at some of the myths.  This is part one, the first set.

Three things to get out of the way first.

One is that the meeting is now scheduled to be held at 6:00 Pm at the Memorial High School Auditorium and that for this meeting the sign up period to speak will be from 5:45 to 6:00 PM (only).

Second is that much of the information on Madison Prep can be found at the district web page devoted to the topic.  I’m not going do as many hyperlnks to sources as I usually do. because much of he material is there  Time constraints, the fact that people rarely click the links I so carefully include, and because some of the things I’ll be discussing are more along the lines of “what people are saying/thinking” than official statements also played a role in this decision.  I want to emphasize the last.  Some of the myths being examined come straight from “official” statements or sources,  some are extensions of “official” things taken up by advocates, and some are self-generated by unaffiliated advocates.

Last, some thoughts on myths.  With my students, I often do assignments on the relationship between myth and history.  There are three things that I tell my students to keep an eye on.  The first is to look at the relationship between the myth and reality (most, but not all myths have some basis in reality).  Second I ask them to think about how people believing the myth shaped their actions and what came next.  Last, is the “follow the money” idea of exploring who benefitd from particular myths and the actions they led to.  I’m going to be doing some of all of these, but mostly I’m also going to leave these up to the reader to ponder.

On to the myths, in no real order.

Madison Prep is a Litmus Test on MMSD’s and/or Madison’s Commitment to Students of Color and/or Students in Poverty and/or Innovation and/or Charter Schools

Madison Prep is a very specific plan with very specific educational strengths and weaknesses, potential legal entanglements, and a myriad of other issues.  The reactions and vote on Madison Prep are largely about these.

I’m reminded that Paul Soglin initially portrayed the Edgewater Development (which he then favored) as a litmus test for Madison.  Now as Mayor it looks like he has killed the project.  As he should have known in 2009, the details and specifics matter.

Yes, attitudes on all of these things listed in the heading  have shaped some of the positions people have taken, but people who share a deep commitment to the education of students of color or in poverty are on both sides of the issue, people who care little about these things are on both sides of the issue.  Many advocates for MPA believe it will help these students,  many opponents believe that it will not (more on that below and in part 2, but see this related post for now)and that it will hurt the majority of these students who will remain in MMSD schools by taking resources away.  It is a pretty bad litmus test if that’s the case.  Similar things are true with the other things in the heading (I doubt many Charter School opponents are in favor although some Charter proponents are against, … you get the idea).

And the alternative isn’t the “status quo.” That’s a false frame that has been very useful for those who attack public education.  Not doing Madison Prep does not mean not doing anything or anything better or different.

Madison Prep advocates have convinced many that there is a need to do things better and/or differently — some of us didn’t need to be convinced — but that’s much different than making the case to do MPA  (some of this is covered in the myths examined below and in part two).

It Is/Isn’t (All) About the Students

I addressed some aspects of this in relation to the Urban League and the “choice” movement in this post and this post.  In those posts I concluded that in the case of much of the “choice” movement there are larger anti-public sector forces in play, that via Kaleem Caire ULGM has strong links to those parts of the “choice” movement, and that at least one part of the Madison Prep plan needlessly exploits children and families in order to benefit the school and the idea of “choice.”

There is a more general part of these myths that applies to all of the institutional players.  It isn’t insulting to recognize the ULGM, MMSD, MTI, and even the Board of Education all have turf at stake in this matter and that they all have imperatives to protect (in the case of MTI a legal imperative to protect) and expand their turf.

It probably isn’t going too far to extend this to many of the individuals whose professional pride, reputations and to some extent livelihoods are in play.  Non-professional advocates also bring some pride to the table and many — myself included — have visions of public education we seek to expand that might be considered “turf.”

Recognizing that it isn’t “all about the students” doesn’t mean that for all it isn’t partially, or mostly, or even primarily about the good of the students, but it does take away the ridiculous posturing some are so fond of.   It can be very useful to document and delineate what else it seems to be about for institutions and individuals, but to attack one side for their interests while refusing to  recognize that  in one way or another everyone has some interest in something other than “the students”  is wrong.

It should be added that for the professional MMSD administrators, I would guess whatever desires they have to protect their turf are balanced by an understanding that controversy is rarely good for careers or school districts.  I think we can see some of this in the last myth in part one.

There Are No Legal Barriers to Approving Madison Prep As A Non-Instrumentality or Risking Legal Challenges In Order to Vote Yes is Worth It

On these legal issues (remember that according to  the Administrative Analysis the sex segregation matters still demand further review, see the ACLU for more) , the initial official MMSD position starts on page 26 of the Administrative Analysis, Ed Hughes posted his unofficial views here and the official ULGM response is here; the “despite the legal issues, vote yes” stuff is all over, the best source being this letter from Kaleem Caire.

Ed Hughes recent proposal to vote to open the school in 2013 demonstrates that  these legal barriers to approval are real and formidable.

I am not an attorney ( I written and  taught legal history, but that doesn’t count for much), so take my legal analysis for what it is, the work of an interested amateur with nothing at stake but pride.  In my opinion there are significant legal barriers to approving a non-instrumentality charter school which would violate the work preservation clauses of existing contracts.

The ULGM makes a couple of main counter legal arguments.

One is that contracts contrary to statutes  or limiting the exercise of statutory powers are void.  I see a couple of problems with this.  First, the cases cited are more about contracts that restrict exercise of constitutional duties than they are about statutory powers.  Second, and I’m not sure this is relevant, the contract did not restrict the exercise of powers when it was signed; it only restricts  the exercise because Act 10 subsequently made memorandums of understanding impossible.  If there is a conflict, it seems to be between Act 10 and the Charter School Statute.

The other is that Act 65, which allows for public employee contracts to be revised in order to cut pay or benefits also allows for a revision to employee non-union (or maybe lower paid union) employees at a non-instrumentality charter school.  This does not seem to be contemplated in the law, but I’d like to see a reaction to this (and the other issues raised by ULGM) from the district legal team.  We will probably get that on Monday; I’d like it sooner (so that we could all have something better than my inadequate legal interpretations and scribblings to go by).

It is likely that even a yes vote would not result in MPA opening.  It would be tied up in courts and odds appear to be that MMSD on behalf of ULGM would lose.

The “vote yes despite the contract/law issues” argument is based on astounding hyperbolic rhetoric, comparisons that don’t work and an end game I don’t understand.  Again, the case is made for the urgency of doing something, but that’s the litmus test myth, something does not equal MPA.   There are some very good reasons to believe that Madison Prep will do more harm than good and there is not a lot of reason to believe that opening this school will accomplish anything comparable to the examples given by Kaleem Caire of ending ” Jim Crow,” or winning Woman Suffrage (see below).   At absolute most, a few kids will have greatly improved educational opportunities.  That would be something real and good, but the scope and scale are wrong for the comparison (on the general overselling of charter schools, the miracleschools wiki is a great place to start).

The examples employed by Caire are about civil and human rights, what ULGM is asking for is to trash a contract in order to open a school.  You can see how strained is this in how Caire squeezes the word “contracts” into his rhetoric:

More importantly, will the Board of Education demonstrate the type of courage it took our elders and ancestors to challenge and change laws and contracts that enabled Jim Crow, prohibited civil rights, fair employment and Women’s right to vote, and made it hard for some groups to escape the permanence of America’s underclass? We know this is not an easy vote, and we appreciate their struggle, but there is a difference between what is right and what is politically convenient.

The history invoked is one of challenging, (sometimes breaking), and changing laws in pursuit of rights.   There is no right to open a school,  only a right to a due process decision on an application (the myth that MPA has not been treated fairly in this process, should be in part 2).  Contracts aren’t part of that history either, except in the sense that when contracts — like housing covenants  and yes ,  some union contracts (discriminatory promotional practices come to mind)  — were thought to be in violation of civil rights laws they were challenged in court (or administrative processes) after the laws were changed, not broken or disregarded.    School Boards don’t have the power to change laws and shouldn’t trash contracts.

On a radio show MPA Board Member John Roach went even further, saying that MMSD should emulate President Obama, who — according to Roach — “broke contracts” in order to kill Osama bin Laden.   In a sense diplomatic agreements are contracts and they were violated, but school boards are not heads of sovereign nations, and opposing Madison Prep really has little in common with the decisions on the choice of tactics in the “War on Terror.”

Or maybe it does, because what Caire and Roach and others are doing is a scorched earth fight, “destroying the village in order to ‘save’ it.”  Presenting these kind of false hopes and choices in this manner makes the always difficult work of school-community relations more difficult by creating unnecessary expectations and  that result  in even greater distrust.

I think the ULGM case is weak; it certainly isn’t a slam-dunk, black letter law thing.  If the vote were yes, there would certainly be challenges, legal expenses incurred, perhaps other repercussions in labor relations, and I’d guess the school wouldn’t open anyway.  With all this in mind, I don’t understand the thinking behind organizing around a false hope in a manner that will make working together in the future harder.

The Madison Prep Educational Plan Has Been Thoroughly Vetted, by MMSD, The Board and the Community.

I can’t count the number of times during this I’ve said the educational program should be central to this discussion.  It has not been.  Some of this is because other — mostly legal — issues have come up, some of it is because the MPA PR campaign and official filings have been very light on discussing how and why they see their program meeting the needs of those whose needs are not being met by MMSD, some of it is because the MMSD administration failed to address these in their analysis, some of it is that all educational programs (proposed or actual) are complex, filled with uncertainty and take work to understand.

When I point out the lack of attention given to the educational program, I am often met with disbelief or contradiction.  I can’t prove that it has not been examined, but I can point to some evidence.  The best evidence that I can think of is the official “Administrative Analysis.”  Here are some excerpts from the “conclusions” on the educational aspects (you won’t find much about education):

On sex segregation:

The Board should review these legal implications before making a judgment regarding how to proceed on this issue.

On the International Baccalaureate  (after a paragraph asking about alternatives to IB at MPA that seems to ignore the statement in the MPA plan that says “Madison Prep will offer both the Middle Years Programme (MYP) and the Diploma Programme (DP) to all its students”, the “analysis” “reccomends”

If Madison Prep is approved, it is recommended that more information be provided detailing the specific requirements for graduation.

And this on “College Preparatory Educational Program”

MMSD Response: The IB curriculum is aligned with the goal of college and career readiness without remediation.

On Harkness Teaching there is a little more in the way of questions, but no more in the way of analysis and conclusions:

…A specific teaching model (e.g. Harkness Teaching) has strengths for a range of learning and social areas (e.g. inquiry-based learning), but used exclusively, may not address the full range of learning situations required. Will other teaching methods/models will be included in Madison Prep? If so, what are examples of other acceptable models and specifically when would other teaching models be appropriate?

Recommendation: If Madison Prep is approved, it is recommended that further detail be provided regarding the appropriateness of Harkness Teaching as an exclusive teaching model or provide descriptions of the range of other acceptable teaching models and when they would be appropriate. Clarify if this method will be used daily, in all subjects, or for specific types of learning on a less frequent basis. Further information is requested regarding the potential impact on student learning and achievement during the several year period of teacher efficacy in situations where teachers may be novice in both methodology and curriculum.

This is actually the closest the analysis gets to engaging in educational issues.  All the rest are about technical matters.  My favorite is the one on the extended day/year that is a back-and-forth about a misreading of the calendar.

Remember that “how a decision to establish or not establish the proposed charter school will impact families to be served” is among the things the Administration is required to provide and the Board of Education is required to consider.  I would think that the education program would be central to that., but it isn’t there, nor has there been an extended Board discussion on this.  No wonder so many  prominent backers are silent on MPA’s educational program.  Which brings me to the next myth, but that has till wait till the next post.

Thomas J.  Mertz

2 Comments

Filed under Accountability, Best Practices, Contracts, education, Equity, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, Scott Walker, Take Action, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Myths of Madison Prep, Part 1

  1. J Jiumaleh

    Can school alone really close the achievement gap? This is not just a Madison problem but exists in many (all?) cities around the country; so it’s hard to say whether MMSD is “failing” our kids or whether our society is failing them. We’re using educational performance to measure the problems these individuals experience in their adult lives, but do their problems stem entirely from school? Perhaps another myth of the Madison Prep discussion is that the right school program can make up for poverty, social instability, poor nutrition, poor medical care and all the other ills these kids and families suffer.

  2. John Duffy

    Not to mention the overarching role that the violence of imperialism, militarism and global war plays in draining resources from human development and alternatives to the social hierarchies that perpetuate injustice up and down the institutions of our civilization.

    John from Oak Park, Illinois

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s