There is a lot of excitement about Dan Nerad taking the reins as Superintendent of MMSD. I share this excitement. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him three or four times, have read numerous articles about him and his work, have talked to people who know him from Green Bay and have researched what he has accomplished in his career. All this leads me to believe that Dan Nerad is a very high quality district leader who will fit well in Madison and contribute greatly to the improvement of our schools.
Still. I worry that expectations are unreasonably high and that we may be setting Nerad and ourselves up for a fall. Over and over again I have heard and read people saying “when Dan Nerad gets here” either preceded or followed by some hope or promise of a positive change. There will be changes and I think that (from my perspective) they will be mostly positive. So what’s the problem? Here is a list:
- It doesn’t recognize all the good work of the recent past. Not Just Art Rainwater’s contributions, but the contributions of our Board members, our staff and teachers and our community. Looking to Nerad to for huge improvements can make it seem like MMSD has been stagnant or failing. It hasn’t. For some nice overviews and reflections on Art Rainwater and his time with MMSD, see the current MMSD Today.
- We shouldn’t forget that educational improvement is incremental. Perhaps the best history of educational reform is David Tyack and Larry Cuban’s Tinkering Toward Utopia. In their prologue they write:
Although policy talk about reform has had a utopian ring, actual reforms have typically been gradual and incremental — tinkering with the system. It may be fashionable to decry such change as piecemeal and inadequate, but over long periods of time such revisions of practices adapted to local contexts can substantially improve schools. Rather than seeing the hybridizing of reform ideas as a fault, we suggest it can be a virtue. Tinkering is one way of preserving what is valuable and reworking what is not.
The point in the last sentence is related to my concerns about belittling what has been accomplished in our schools. Tyack develops this further in one of my favorite essays “A Conservationist Ethic in Education Reform.”
- No policy, reform, set of policies or reforms will make everyone happy. Uncontested school board races and an apparent conflict and controversy avoidance strategy by the Board of Education may have lulled some into thinking that divisions are a thing of the past in Madison school politics. They aren’t. I recognize that most people involved share many values and even have much agreement about how best to put those values into action, but also know from personal experience that there are passionate disagreements among people of good will when it comes to education. Whatever Dan Nerad does or does not do, tries or does not try, some vocal segments of our community will object that it is too much or too little or just plain wrong. The divisions that have been hidden will become apparent again at some point. I believe that Dan Nerad is skilled at working toward consensus, finding common ground and building coalitions. This will serve him (and our community) well, but it won’t satisfy everyone.
- The challenges Madison’s schools face are great, too great for any individual to address alone. The issues raised by demographic changes are well documented; the insane choices created by the state school finance system are well known; the pressures from testing and other ill-devised mandates of NCLB are readily apparent. I don’t believe these are intractable, but I do recognize that there are no simple answers and that sustained hard work and cooperation from all associated with the district and all segments of our community are necessary if we are to be successful in meeting these challenges. Dan Nerad cannot do this without help from many quarters. Much has been written about his openness, outreach and cooperative spirit, but if some members of the Board of Education continue to be blasé about or dismissive of public engagement, little improvement is possible. The community has to step up too. Schools of Hope (as well as other Urban League programs) and the Foundation for Madison Public Schools are great; Mayor Cieslewicz, Alder Satya Rhodes-Conway and others are actively working to expand school/city/community initiatives; MMSD has wide-ranging partnerships with the University of Wisconsin School of Education and other local research and higher education institutions; PTOs, PTAs and PTGs are doing wonderful things; Thousands of volunteers help our schools on a regular basis; Our legislative delegation — especially Rep. Sondy Pope Roberts — are leaders in the fight for school finance reform; ABC Madison and Get TUFF have been educating and agitating for state school funding changes; Communities and Schools Together and Mad-City Grumps are preparing for the next referendum campaign; countless other individuals and groups are contributing to the betterment of our schools… (apologies if I left out your favorite). An impressive list, but it isn’t enough. We all can and must do more.
So let’s work together to welcome Dan Nerad, expand the good our schools are doing, fix the state finance system, pass a referendum…have realistic expectations about what a change in the superintendency will bring and do our best to help Dan Nerad exceed those expectations.
In this spirit (or maybe just because I like it), here is video from the last referendum campaign.
Thomas J. Mertz