On the Agenda — MMSD, Week of February 22, 2010

The main Madison Metropolitan School District meeting this week is on “Branding.”  The other meetings noticed are of the  Four-Year-Old Kindergarten Advisory Council (Monday, 9:00AM at 4C, 5 Odana Court), the Wellness Committee (10:00 AM Tuesday, Hoyt Building) and the Talented and Gifted Advisory Committee (Tuesday, 4:00 PM at Lapham).

The “Branding” meeting is labeled a “Community Engagement” session and  will be held at Marquette on Monday at 6:00 PM.   Here is how it is described on the District website:

Hosted by the Board of Education, the Engagement Session is an early step in the development of a communications plan aimed at ways to focus on positive branding of the MMSD school experience and to publicize the benefits of graduating from the MMSD.

The overall goal – from the school district’s new strategic plan — is to identify ways the MMSD can actively promote the benefits that all students derive from the challenging, respectful, inclusive education that Madison Schools provide.

The session is open to the public. Parents of MMSD students are particularly welcome.

After a short introductory presentation, attendees will break into smaller groups for discussion, followed by a brief report-out period. The session will be facilitated by Superintendent Dan Nerad and other district leaders.

Gayle Worland has more in the Wisconsin State Journal.  Some excerpts:

The desire to spiff up the public perception of Madison schools came out of months of discussions last year as a community team formed a five-year strategic plan for the district, said Superintendent Dan Nerad.

“There was a strong feeling that, one, we have a lot of positive things that need to be more proactively discussed,” Nerad said. “And two, as we face our challenges, (such as) becoming a more diverse School District and needing to meet the needs of a broad range of learners, it is even more important that we do this work.”

….

The district has given marketing firms until March 1 to apply for a two-year contract, at $43,000 a year, to create a communication plan. Monday’s public meeting is billed as an “early step” in the process, and officials said they have no idea what form any branding efforts might take.

….

Part of the message that needs to get out is how well Madison schools prepare students for college, said School Board member Ed Hughes.

“The benefits of going to a diverse school are really apparent to our graduates once they’re out in the world,” said Hughes. “But we could be better, I think, in communicating those benefits to people.”

Counteracting “street-corner conversations” is another hurdle, he said.

“You hear a discussion about school safety issues and concerns about academic rigor, and I think a lot of those are based on less than a full understanding of what’s really going on in our schools,” Hughes said. “The problem is that there is some kind of information that is kind of sticky – people hear it and that’s what they remember. If there’s a fight in the school, that’s what they know about. And how you get over those images and get people to take a fresh look at what’s really going on in the schools is a challenge.”

This school year alone, 589 students living in Madison opted to attend a different school district, while 172 students living outside the city’s boundaries asked to attend a Madison school.

Meanwhile, online schools run by districts throughout the state have ramped up their advertising in the Madison market, which only raises the stakes. For every student that leaves the district, it loses $6,443 in state aid.

More on Ed Hughes’ attempt to call attention to the way Virtual Schools are being used as a a “cash cow” to the detriment of state taxpayers and other districts and the benefit of the districts that host them in Susan Troller’s Cap Times post and Amy Hetzner from the Journal-SentinelSome background on how the well-funded lobbying campaign led by former State Superintendent candidate Rose Fernandez scared the Democrats off from addressing this issue here.  I wish Ed luck, but doubt that in this election year the Democrats have any more backbone.

For some background on the the long-delayed Communications Plan see the minutes of the August 23, 2007 Board meeting here.  The Request for Proposals for the Communications Consulting contract can be read here.

My own thoughts are that A) With the contact pending the session this week is putting the horse before the cart; B) The RFP could be more about enhancing communication with families with students in the district — something that has a direct effect on climate and achievement — and less about spreading the word to others; and C) I am glad this is getting some attention, think a consult is  agood idea but am skeptical that the potential will be realized.

The 4K group will be reviewing “output” (input?) from forums (I believe these are forums with providers) and setting a time-line for the next year.

I got nothing on the Wellness meeting.

I got lots on the TAG meeting agenda, but no time to write some of it up.  Unfortunately, I will not be unable to attend, so there won’t be a meeting report ( I can’t attend the “Branding” meeting either).

The most interesting thing on the agenda is a presentation on “Comprehensive Identification” by Committee Member,  UW- Whitewater Professor and Gifted Education professional Scott J. Peters.  Peters is a former student of “Cluster Grouping” researcher and consultant Marcia Gentry and recently completed a dissertation entitled “Practical instrumentation for identifying low-income, minority, and ethnically diverse students for gifted and talented programs: The HOPE teacher rating Scale.”

I am glad that they are starting with improved identification procedures.  As I have said, a successful and equitable TAG program must begin with purring in place procedures that are much, much better than those that have been used.

The work by Peters that I have had a chance to review holds some promise and serves as a reminder of why this is and will be difficult.

The key difficulty is that there is no real definition of giftedness; no scientific, professional or lay agreement about who should be receiving gifted services or interventions (much less what those services, programs or interventions should consist of).   Note I phrased this as “should be” not “would benefit from.”

I firmly believe that almost all students would benefit from most of the services, programs or interventions in place or contemplated for those classified as “gifted.”   This isn’t to deny that there are some students who “need” these services, programs and interventions or that there are some who are “profoundly gifted” and I agree that it is the duty of any responsible educational institution to recognize and address this.

There is a related difficulty and that is that gifted programs have historically been disproportionality populated by white, middle and upper class students (for an exploration, see:  Barlow and Dunbar, “Race, Class, and Whiteness in Gifted and Talented Identification: A Case Study“).  This has become politically untenable and has been morally indefensible.  For advocates of expanded TAG programing and those in the gifted industry (like Peters), the lack of a definition provides a way around or out of the problem of disproportionality.

Whether it is by promising to recognize giftedness in multiple domains or  — as Peters’ work does — improve teacher referrals, the lack of a definition means that there is  a lot of room to work with.  Gifteness is whatever they say it is and with that as the first principle it is possible to say 1% or 30% or 99% of students are gifted and locate giftedness among diverse students in any proportion you desire.

Of course in these days of  data fetishes, it helps to have some numbers to crunch.  Peters crunches numbers and crunches them very well.  With the Hope Scale, he has produced an instrument for teacher referrals that is consistent and clean internally and demonstrably nearly sociio-economically non-discriminatory (his sample had very few African Americans and he presents this as a work in progress).  See his “Initial Validity Evidence for the HOPE Scale: New Instrumentation to Identify Low-Income Elementary Students for Gifted Programs” for some fine number-crunching and note that the “validity” in the title is internal validity because with no definition there is no possibility of external validation.

Returning to the elasticity of definitions  as both an opportunity and problem, I was particularly struck by this instruction given to teachers using the Hope assessment (there is a discussion of this in this paper co-authored by Peters):

“When completing this form please respond by thinking about the student compared to other children similar in age, experience, and/or environment”

Elsewhere, in a review of  David Lohman’s Identifying Academically Talented Minority Students Peters wrote:

Lohman’s argument is thus that the more specific the norm group used for comparison, the better. This is true for groupings such as income, race/ethnicity, as well as school or grade-level groups. The use of narrowly defined comparison groups allows educators to see which students are achieving or have the potential to achieve given similar background and circumstances.

I have to think about this.  On one hand, I appreciate the recognition of bias and the desire to overcome it.  On the other hand I see something like “she’s smart, for a poor girl” happening and I don’t like that.  I have to think about it.

I have friends who say that whenever I write about TAG issues it is overwhelmingly negative.  I like to think of  it as more skeptical than negative (and in this post also observational/analytical), but they do have  a point.

With that in mind, I want to close by emphasizing how happy I am that MMSD is trying to improve identification,   repeat that despite my criticisms I see promising things in Peters work and am glad that MMSD has the benefit of both his general knowledge of the field and his ongoing research, and once again say that I support efforts to improve transparency, consistency and services in the TAG area (not every manifestation, but the some and the idea of doing these things).

On an unrelated topic, Lucy Mathiak’s “The Edgewater TIF. Or, Can I Use My MasterCard to Pay My Visa Bill???” is a must read (I don’t know when the Edgewater TIF will go before the Board of Education — not “on the agenda” yet —  but Lucy Mathiak is the Board rep to the TIF Board).

Thomas J. Mertz

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