Pass the Hatchet

“Let me chop it, let me chop it”

Roger and the Gypsies – Pass the Hatchet (listen)

Marc Eisen of the Isthmus has checked in again on the Madison Schools with a column titled “When Policy Trumps Results.” This time the target of his ill informed scribblings is the equity work of the district, particularly the Equity Task Force, of which I was a member. It is a hatchet job.

Mr. Eisen gets his facts wrong, misreads or misrepresents task force documents and at no point engages with the content of the task force’s work. We offered the Board ideas for policies and practices that we thought would help produce and assess results. You would never know that reading Mr. Eisen’s column. Despite the title, all he seems to care about is style.

In return, I’m going to wield the axe. I’m going to go paragraph by paragraph to highlight the low level of knowledge and effort Eisen displays and the ultimate emptiness of his critique, hitting some other things along the way (quotes from Mr. Eisen in italics). Mr. Eisen’s column probably does not deserve this much attention. However the power of the press is such that often when uncorrected, “the legend becomes fact.” I believe equity work in our school district is too important to allow that to happen. Let’s get started.

Much to its credit, the Madison school board has mostly ignored the March 2007 recommendations of the district’s Equity Task Force.

This is simply wrong. On April 21 the Board of Education moved forward on equity, asking the Administration for a redraft of a working document based largely on the report of the task force. Over the last year — in discussions over budgets, school closings, boundaries, discipline and expulsions and more — Board members have explicitly and implicitly employed the work of the Task Force. I wish the Board had more extensively and more directly worked through the Report in public meetings, but the record shows they haven’t ignored it.

This earnest but unhelpful committee delved into the abstractions of what distinguishes “equity” from “equality,” how the board might commit to equity and what esoteric guidelines could measure that commitment.

Yes we were an earnest bunch. Who else would volunteer their time for a year and a half?

I’m no judge of how helpful we were/are, but I do know that Board members (of all stripes), administrators, and teachers have all termed the work of the task force “helpful.” In a manner typical of Isthmus coverage of school issues, rather than talk to those involved — the people who the task force sought to help –, Eisen simply asserts his own opinion.

As to “abstractions of what distinguishes ‘equity’ from ‘equality,'” I am not sure what Report Mr. Eisen read, but there is nothing resembling this in the Final Report. The word equality appears only once in a simple statement that “equity and equality, though closely related, are not the same.” We did discuss this among ourselves and discuss it when we met with community groups, because we wanted to be clear that equity cannot be achieved via a “one size fits all” version of equality.

We were asked by the Board of Education to give them a definition of equity, a statement of commitment and guidelines for implementation. Mr. Eisen labels these last two “esoteric.” This seems to me to be a poor word choice. The vast majority of these portions of the Task Force Report are written in plain language, there is a minimum of education speak; it is very accessible. Click the link and judge for yourself. We also sought to ground the strategies by preparing a responsibility chart and giving examples of how success might be measured.

This points to another basic misunderstanding of Mr. Eisen’s. The guidelines in the report are “guidelines for implementation,” clearly labeled as such and make no mention of measuring commitment or anything else. Because we shared Mr. Eisen’s desire for results we went beyond our charge to include a statement on “Monitoring and Evaluating Outcomes,” emphasized accountability in the statement of commitment and included in the appendices the notes on measuring success. These are separate and distinct for the guidelines.

It is worth noting that a number of the guidelines for implementation are things that Mr. Eisen has advocated for in the past (and even advocates in the column under discussion). Some examples from the Report (linked to works of Mr. Eisen with similar ideas)

I honestly don’t know what to make of Mr Eisen’s wholesale dismissal of the task force in light of these and other shared beliefs. There may be a clue in his next paragraph.

If you are already slipping into catatonia from the meaningless rattle of words, that’s understandable. This is stuff that appeals to progressive professors at the UW-Madison School of Education and to graduate students who aspire to become progressive professors at the UW-Madison School of Education.

Before speculating on Mr. Eisen’s agenda, I can’t resist pointing out the “meaningless rattle of words” inducing catatonia can only be those of Mr. Eisen because the only words quoted from the task force to this point are “equity” and “equality.’ In addition to being a poor reader and a lazy researcher, Mr. Eisen is either a perceptive self critic or a very bad writer/editor.

Once past this revealing gaffe, Mr. Eisen indulges in a favorite sport of the neo-conservatives, ridiculing “progressives” and academics (more below). I’m a proud progressive. While I share some of this skepticism toward academics, I think Mr. Eisen’s brush is much too broad.

“Equity,” the committee announced in its report to the board, “involves opportunity; access; elimination of barriers; distribution of resources; protection of specific groups; recognition and acceptance of differences” and marches on for another 75 words in an act of faux definition.

Two important things here. First, Mr. Eisen does not quote the definition itself, only the introductory material. Second, he has no specific criticisms of any of the ideas the task force sought to include in the definition, only general ridicule and dismissal. For the record, here is the definition we suggested to the Board:

Equity assures full access to opportunities for each MMSD student to achieve educational excellence and social responsibility.

In a sense Mr. Eisen is correct that this is a faux definition. We avoided saying what equity is, settling on trying to say what equity does, to put the focus on results

The more it seeks to explain itself, the more suspect the whole equity endeavor becomes. As someone who sat through a meeting at East High last year where the task force’s work was explained to baffled parents (we filled out a survey that asked, “What does the definition of equity mean to you?”) and who then watched a poorly attended forum discuss the task force’s findings at Centro Hispano on April 3, all I can ask is:

What is it about progressives and their penchant to champion programs on the basis of their rhetorical gloss rather than their success, or at least their prospects for success?

I was one of the presenters at the East High meeting and attended the forum at Centro Hispano. The purpose of the East High meeting was not to explain the task force work, but to get feedback. At that and other venues we received some very useful feedback. I didn’t take a survey about who was “baffled” and who wasn’t, but my memory is that once we got past who we were and what we wanted from them, the parents were interested and engaged. I just dug up a couple of emails from parents who were there and neither indicates any bafflement. I don’t doubt that Mr. Eisen was baffled, but I do question his unsupported assertion that the others in attendance were.

As to the meeting at Centro Hispano, the forum was organized by a charter school advocacy group, only one Equity Task Force member was involved, at least two of the invited panelists were not familiar with the task force’s work (although the announcement said a task force member would be on the panel, to my knowledge none were invited), the Task Force Report was apparently attached to the invitations but discussing the work of the task force was not on the announced agenda and only came up in passing. Mr. Eisen’s characterization is misleading.

The question Mr. Eisen asks seems to be the crux of his complaints. He reads the recommendations of the task force as mere rhetoric and sees nothing that offers “prospects for success.” Here we differ. I see much that I think will add to the success of the district, but beyond that I find it sad and confusing that Mr. Eisen can read the Report and find nothing of use — even in areas where he is in agreement with the recommendations — and can only respond with a nonsensical criticism (disguised as a question) of those easy strawmen “progressives.” For the record, the task force was a relatively diverse group and I have doubts about how many members could accurately be called progressives. I don’t care, but if Mr. Eisen is going to label people, maybe he should learn something about them first.

The Madison schools face a real problem in the achievement gap that separates white students from minority students, poor students from middle-class students.

I can’t think of a bigger challenge for this community than to get these kids up to grade level before they get lost in the hormones and peer pressure of middle and high school.

These are the kids who drop out, who lack the skills to hold jobs, who run the risks of drugs and alcohol, who break the law, who shatter neighborhood comity, who get busted.

I agree with most of this. The only thing I’d add is that we can’t ignore those students who are already in middle and high school and behind. Here and elsewhere Mr. Eisen appears to have given up on these students.

Call me naive, but I think most Madisonians are prepared to give these troubled kids extra help. They might volunteer their own time in the Schools of Hope program to tutor struggling readers. They might support raising taxes to fund four-year-old kindergarten or other programs designed to rescue kids from a dreadful fate.

This point needs to be emphasized. Madisonians aren’t afraid to tax themselves. They just want good services in return and know that their money isn’t being wasted.

Yes, I will call you naive, or at least somewhat naive.

Schools of Hope has been a great success. The community involvement has been heartening, the results impressive, but gaps remain and both involvement and progress seem to have plateaued. Again, the task force recognized the importance of community involvement as one part of the answer.

The task force also called for universal quality early childhood education. Unfortunately this is one part of the Report the Board of Education has ignored. After the Centro Hispano meeting I had a long talk with Mr. Eisen. Most of it was about how shoddy the Isthmus coverage of school issues is, but at one point he challenged me by asking (something like) “Why aren’t you advocating for four-year-old kindergarten?” I answered that I was and that the task force had also. I explained to him that in private conversations with multiple Board members I had asked them to consider a referendum on 4K, that just that evening I had brought the matter up with a Board member and that thus far they had not shared his optimism and have been reluctant to move in this direction.

I’m going to keep trying to get a referendum on 4K because it is the right thing to do, but I understand their reluctance and am also not optimistic. There is a pressing need for an operating referendum — without a successful referendum the district in 2009-10 will face $5-$10 million in cuts from the same service budget — and this has to be the first priority. Multiple measures on a referendum ballot invite a split vote, making it more difficult to pass any. I’d like to at least try for 4K and hope to convince at least four Board members. I hope Mr. Eisen continues to advocate for 4K.

I’m not terribly optimistic about an operating referendum vote either. Mr. Eisen blithely declares that “Madisonians aren’t afraid to tax themselves. They just want good services in return and know that their money isn’t being wasted.” Maybe Mr. Eisen believes that our schools waste money and don’t provide good services (if so, I’d be happy to go round for round with him on these matters), because the last time MMSD asked Madisonians to tax themselves to preserve programs and services, the measure lost by almost 11%. I also want to point out that making the case for any referendum, a 4K referendum in particular is going to involve citing the expertise of those progressive education professors that Mr. Eisen doesn’t like, the work of Progressive Dane and other progressive organizations and the votes of many progressives. It does not make sense to dismiss and alienate these people.

But I can’t for the life of me see them rallying around a pompous and abstruse equity policy, especially one that reads like it was formulated by the UW Department of Leftwing Social Engineering. (Example: “Equity will come about when we raise a generation of children tolerant of differences and engaged in their democracy to stop the processes leading to inequity.”)

Again Mr. Eisen’s reading skills seem to have failed him. The quoted passage is not from the body of Task Force Report, nor the draft policy but an excerpt from public comments included in the appendices. At best this is irresponsible; at worst it is dishonest. I ask readers to judge pomposity and abtuseness themselves and note that again Mr. Eisen says nothing about the substance of the task force’s work, only the style. If anything it appears that Mr. Eisen is the one obsessed with matters of rhetoric to exclusion of content.

The issue of public response is a real, if secondary, one. The primary job of the task force was to report to the Board of Education. This was not a campaign document. That said, we did recognize that a commitment to equity could either enhance or detract from perceptions of the district and that the success of all things related to public schools require public support. It was our hope that the community would recognize that our recommendations addressed important matters in a positive ways.

There is some evidence that Mr. Eisen is wrong in general about Madisonians rallying around equity. The East Area Parent Teacher Organization and the Northside Planning Council have been using equity as a rallying point for years and have had some success in generating Board and public interest.

The school board, after a suitable 14-month delay, should politely shelve the task force’s recommendations when it finally gets around to voting on them in May.

As the comments on Mr Eisen’s opening paragraph indicated, it is much too late for that.

Equity can be honored in principle, but in practice the board needs to be laser-focused on the practicalities of closing the achievement gap.

So much more wrong here. First there is the implication that raising achievement can be accomplished via a laser focus, when common sense and research agree that academic success depends on multiple factors and no single initiative can promise results for most (much less all) students. There is the related implication that MMSD has been neither focused nor successful in raising achievement. Both of these are relative and subjective, but again I disagree and again Mr. Eisen offers no evidence in support of his position. Most significantly Mr. Eisen does not identify what that focus would entail. The task force offered specific recommendations, Mr. Eisen does not.

Mr. Eisen has been on record in opposition to one initiative of demonstrated utility in raising the achievement of those in the middle and at the bottom and supported by the task force: heterogeneous or mixed ability classrooms. Maybe his desire for a laser focus is a desire to make sure that his children and the children of his peers aren’t part of the effort to improve the achievement of poor children.

Too often Madison’s libs and progs devote themselves to elaborate exercises in policy-making as if policy is an end in itself.

I can only speak to the case of the Equity Task Force, but in that case I can say without fear of contradiction that none of us saw policy as an end in itself, but as a means to an end. We knew words in a policy book without action are useless and actions without results are a wasted effort. Many of us are and have been involved at the school, district and state level working for better policy, actions and results.

Here I’m going to get a little earnest. It was an honor to serve with my fellow Equity Task Force members. They are people who care deeply about making our schools work for all students and have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment by volunteering their time. I’m proud of our work and proud to have come to know you all.

Most of the rest of the article is about Inclusionary Zoning (I hope Brenda Konkel or someone more familiar with that issue weighs in), but one further reference to education deserves attention.

This failure has only exacerbated the school board’s challenge in dealing with the achievement gap. The research is crystal clear: Kids in high-poverty schools fare far worse academically than poor kids attending middle-class schools.

This is exactly why policy matters. The current policy and practices of the district say nothing about economic segregation in classrooms and are relatively weak in school assignment (see here). The task force recommended that the administration annually report to the Board any schools or classrooms that significantly diverge from the overall socio-economic makeup of the district and offer actions to address this segregation. Mr Eisen may have a better way to deal with this issue. He offers none beyond Mayor Cieslewicz’s ill conceived “share the poverty” proposal. My thoughts on that will have to wait for another day, but simple numbers show that even if this is wildly successful and 2,000 children in poverty move to other districts, MMSD will still be at close to 40% free and reduced lunch. History shows that those children will remain geographically concentrated. Whatever the solution, it will involve policy.

This is all very frustrating. Many people read the Isthmus and few people pay much attention to school issues that do not directly impact them. Mr. Eisen’s latest “effort” is one of many examples of that newspaper’s confidently criticizing the schools and the Board of Education with little regard for logic or truth. It is all about posturing, style over substance. Nowhere in his column does Mr. Eisen discuss any of the policy recommendations of the task force. Nowhere. There is a certain irony in that Mr. Eisen’s supposed concern for results is manifested exclusively as a critique of style.

Bob Somerby at The Daily Howler has extensively documented how the national press does the same thing — from falsely labeling Al Gore a congenital liar to constant references to of John McCain’s “straight shooter” image — they endlessly repeat falsehoods or focus on the trivial; ignoring important matters in order to create amusing fictions. The people working to make our schools better, the children and the public deserve better.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under AMPS, Best Practices, Equity, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, Referenda, Take Action, Uncategorized

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