Myths of Madison Prep, Part 2

That Petrol Emotion – “Big Decision” (click to listen or download)

Part 1 here, (the introductory material is copied from there).

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 two, although there are plenty of myths left to be examined, I’ve only gotten one up here.  I may post more separately or in an update here on Monday.

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, much of the information on Madison Prep can be found on the district web page devoted to the topic.  I’m not going do as many hyperlinks to sources as I usually do because much of he material is there already. Time constraints, the fact that people rarely click the links I so carefully include, and, because some of the things I’ll be discussing presently are more along the lines of “what people are saying/thinking,” rather than official statements, also played a role in this decision.  I especially want to emphasize this last point.  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.

Lastly, I want to offer 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 benefited from particular myths and the actions that resulted from those myths.  I’m going to be exploring some of these, but mostly I will be leaving many of them for the reader to ponder further.

On to the myths, in no real order.

Madison Prep will “effectively address the educational needs of children who have under-performed or failed to succeed in Madison’s public schools for at least the last 40 years. “

The quoted portion  is from Kaleem Caire.

Before getting to the crux of the matter, which is the probable effectiveness of the educational program for these students, I’m compelled to say something about the “last 40 years” part.  Essentially, this creates another set of myths having to do with what has and has not changed over the past 40 years.  Beginning with the obvious, the students who could attend Madison Prep were not even born 40 years ago.  More to the point, things like family structure, community structure (and the lack there of), poverty, mobility, the number of English Language Learner students, and so much more, have changed significantly in this time period.  As a historian I’m attuned to continuity and change; interestingly the official Madison Prep team talks about both, but never seems to expend any effort an examining how the continuities and changes have impacted educational successes and failure. Mostly they use continuity to paint an unbroken record of failure and change to invoke a crisis (more on this below).  It should also go without saying that the educational landscape and MMSD practices have changed greatly in the last 40 years.

The usual caveats about the uncertainties surrounding the impact of any educational plan or program are in order, as is the usual appeal to base decisions on the best information you have available, and for one not to take blind leaps of faith.  These are children’s lives and there are scarce educational resources in play here.  Avoiding doing more harm has to be part of this to.  In her support for Madison Prep, MPA Board Member Gloria Ladson-Billings has betrayed history, logic and the very idea of educational research by saying “we can’t do worse.”  Of course we can, and many of the models for Madison Prep do much worse than MMSD.

The best place to start is with the oft-cited Urban Prep of Chicago.  As I have noted in a previous post, MPA’s plan of gender segregation, extended school time and “no excuses” policies, has many similarities to the Urban Prep model.  As I also noted and is well documented elsewhere, Urban Prep is by almost every measure a failure.   The attrition rates are high, the achievement scores are beyond dismal, the gaps between students in poverty and others are large.  They are doing worse – much, much worse than MMSD.

One feature that is unique (or nearly unique) to Madison Prep is employing the International Baccalaureate (IB) as a way to address the needs of students who have “failed to succeed.”  There are many good things about IB, but because of the rigor and resultant attrition rates, it is very problematic for this purpose and in this context.  I fear that IB will be a means to “push out” instead of “lift up.”

Previously, I quoted from a Denver Public Schools report on IB:

There is no available evidence that the IB will increase student achievement in DPS schools or that the IB has had a positive effect on student achievement in similar districts or schools. A thorough search of the literature has netted no empirical studies on the effects of IB on student achievement….

[T]he model is not proven to improve student achievement in schools with low-income populations, to narrow the achievement gap, or to bring  low-achieving students up to proficiency in reading, writing or mathematics.

Now, I want to point to, and quote from, two research reports on IB.  The first was either commissioned or purchased recently  by MMSD from Hanover Research (it is among the materials for the Innovations and Alternatives Committee, one that MMSD had this on file and did not use it for its MPA Administrative Analysis and is inexcusable).  The second is a pair of case studies commissioned by IB of two schools serving “non-traditional” IB students (Bland, J. and Woodworth, K. Case Studies of Participation and Performance in the IB Diploma Program, SRI International, Center for Education Policy. 2009).

Some quotes from the Hanover report:

Studies consistently find that the causal relationship between high achievement and the IB programme is bi-directional high-achieving students are more likely to become IB students, and the IB experience amplifies learning success.

There really isn’t much out there on IB with students who are not already achieving (the case of Southside High in Rockville Centre NY, is interesting, but not applicable for a variety of reasons  — demographics are the biggest — ; the success there seems to have been about boosting middle achievers, and even that success only resulted in about 10% of the students achieving the IB diploma).

Conversely, ineffective programmes tended towards a strict one-size-fits-all approach to the AP/IB curriculum,”which often led to student dropouts, including many minority students who left the programme because they believed that the curriculum, instruction, and environment of the classes were inappropriate for their individual needs. The study also identified other ways in which the AP/IB programmes failed to meet the needs of minority students.

Note that, only supplemented by the “Prep Year,” MPA is employing IB as “one-size-fits-all” approach.

And from the conclusions of the case studies:

MPA will be non selective in admissions, but certainly not in retention/attrition.

Back to the Hanover Report:

Primarily, the biggest failure of the IB/AP courses involved the difference between the programme curricula and the learning needs of students. The inability of IB or AP course curricula to meet the learning needs of minority students and students from impoverished backgrounds was especially problematic.  Ultimately, the study concluded that AP and IB programmes can provide the opportunity for minority students to succeed if a programme works to create a school-wide, an environment that fosters growth, and sufficient support structures to succeed. (Emphasis in the original)

Note that here they are talking about “minority” students, not students who are failing/being failed, as the MPA advocates often do.

The two case studies also deal with students who are not failing.  In one school there were strict admissions requirements, and the other the requirements were looser, but included being at grade level, along with some other factors.  I want concentrate on the second study, because it is closer to MPA’s plan, which will have no admission requirements.  Some charts from the study:

There are two things I want to point out with this chart.  First, notice the drops from 11th grade enrollment to becoming a diploma recipient are significant.  MPA has asserted that all of their students will earn IB diplomas.  That’s  utterly unrealistic.  At the other school in the study, the highly selective Hillsborough, only 89 of the 146 students who entered in 9th grade received IB diplomas.  MPA has also projected an equally unrealistic  5% attrition rate between grades 11 and 12; at Lamar it was 24%.

Attrition is a key issue (self-selection is another, but I don’t have the time to go into that).  It is another way MPA can do worse.  Churning students through, and in effect pushing those who don’t make the cut back to MMSD schools, while in the end serving only those who thrive.  I want make it quite clear that I am not saying this is the intent, but it is was I think the design will produce.  It is exactly those students who Kaleem Caire says are “dangling by their thumbs waiting to be rescued,” who are most likely to be ill served by IB and MPA.

Attrition is among the educational aspects that the MMSD Administrative Analysis ignored.  The chart and figures offered by MPA reveal little or no awareness or understanding of research on IB, or the schools like KIPP (see here) and Urban Prep, that are also part of their model. Here is the MPA chart and discussion:

These attrition projections are much too low, but even by these numbers it looks like only about 70 of the 120 students who started are projected to graduate (assuming that those who leave each year are drawn equally from the initial students and later arrivals).  My guess is that number will be closer to 50 graduating students and maybe even lower, well under half  (if we leave everything the same and only change the 11th to 12 grade figure to match Lamar’s study, you would end up with about 53  of the initial 120 students graduating).  Mostly importantly, those who do graduate, will overwhelmingly be those who would have graduated had MPA never existed in the first place.

This does not mean that some  of those students who leave will not have benefited in some way from MPA. There are some aspects of the school that I think are so bad as to be both harmful academically and otherwise; but IB does have some things to offer some students, and the Prep Year — if done well — could be beneficial.

One of the main points I want to make is that everything I can find, including the International Baccalaureate research materials and the consideration of attrition rates presented above, indicates that MPA will do — the least good — and the most harm — to those who need and deserve the most help.

Madison Prep officials and supporters have worked hard to disseminate myths to the contrary, but from what they have offered, and from what I can find, there is little basis in reality for those myths.

Thomas J. Mertz

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

2 responses to “Myths of Madison Prep, Part 2

  1. Jeff Henriques


    Don’t you realize that data means nothing in this debate. It’s all passion and rhetoric. Factual evidence can be ignored because we believe otherwise. (sigh)
    Thank you for your efforts to keep reality in this debate.

  2. Jeff

    You are welcome, but never be said that I (or you) lack passion, it is just that ours is informed by data and the like.

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