The Mess with West (Updated)

The Raunch Hands “Mess Around” (click to listen or download)

[Update: I just got emailed this letter as a West parent.  Crisis communication is happening.  Not much new here, but some clarity.]

The first steps with the  “High School Curricular Reform, Dual Pathways to Post-Secondary Success” are a mess, a big mess of the administration’s own making.

Before I delve into the mess and the proposal, I think it is important to say that despite huge and inexcusable problems with the process, many unanswered questions and some real things of concern; there are some good things in the proposal.  One part near the heart of the plan in particular is something I’ve been pushing for years:  open access to advanced classes and programs with supports. In the language of the proposal:

Pathways open to all students. Students are originally identified by Advanced Placement requirements and other suggested guidelines such as EXPLORE /PLAN scores, GPA, past MS/HS performance and MS/HS Recommendation. however, all students would be able to enroll. Students not meeting suggested guidelines but wanting to enroll would receive additional supports (tutoring, skill development classes, AVID, etc.) to ensure success. (emphasis added and I would like to see it added in the implementation).

Right now there are great and at times irrational barriers in place.  These need to go.   I hope this does not get lost as the mess is cleaned up.

This is in four sections:  The Mess; What Next?; The Plan: Unanswered Questions and Causes for Concern; and Final Thought.

The Mess

The exact size and shape of the mess — like so much else with this — aren’t clear.  You can gauge for yourself by visiting the Facebook pages “Save Our Future- Madison West High” and “Walk-Out Against MMSD High School Reform.”   I heard reports that 200 or more students met at lunch yesterday and likely the number will be greater today.  The fact that students care and want to do something is great.  I’m sure that Administrators and Board Members have also heard from parents and teachers.

Then there is this video:

It is great to hear the passion and desire to be part of the process; it is sad to realize that they feel they have been shut out.

As far as I can tell the proximate cause of the student reaction at West was confused and incomplete information relayed by teachers.  The ultimate cause is that this has been drafted and communicated in what seems to be a rushed and top-down manner.

Note the “seems to be.”  Much of this has been in the works  — at least indirectly — for a long time and there have been some opportunities for input and collaboration along the way (see the High School Initiatives presentation from earlier this year).

So while this doesn’t come out of nowhere,  it has also been rushed out in a manner and form that leave much to be desired.  Extensive changes of this sort need to be considered  and revised in an open, inclusive, deliberate process.  To do otherwise misses opportunities for improvement and creates distrust instead of buy-in from those most affected.

At least one Board Member is saying that “the proposed curricular changes are not related to the DPI complaint re. failure to comply with state law on TAG programming.”  You can parse that statement carefully and maybe say it is true because things have been in the works prior to the TAG complaint, but it is equally true that the the timing and failed roll out were a reaction to the complaint.  To deny or not acknowledge the relationship to the TAG complaint in how this was “finalized” and presented (not conceived) only exacerbates the distrust that is perhaps the biggest mess of all.

You don’t have to take my word on this being rushed and incomplete, just look at some of the early items in the plan that have dates attached:  “Plan communicated to all stakeholders in September” with a variety of information to be compiled in September to support the communications.  This communication didn’t happen in September and if the supporting information has been prepared, it has not been shared.   If it has been prepared and not shared there is much more wrong here than a rushed time-line, there is a basic lack of understanding of communications principles.

There may also be a basic misunderstanding of policy formation principles at work.    Part of that communication item for September reads:

Develop data-based rationale for reforming the MMSD high school curriculum providing both an accelerated pathway and a preparatory pathway.

I’m going to be nice and assume that the intent here was to say “Develop a presentation of the data-based rationale…,” because otherwise our self-styled “data -driven” district is making policies and then creating “data-based ratuonale(s)” after the fact.  Let’s chalk this up to the rush job.

What Next ?

Hard to say what will come next.  There may or may not be a protest walkout at West on Friday.  There may or not be a crisis communication strategy from the administration [there is, see the update at the top].  There may or may not be an attempt to go beyond crisis communication and initiate a more open and extensive collaborative process (I’d like that).

The Board of Education will see this on an agenda in some form I have heard (not confirmed) that this will be the first week of November.  What form isn’t clear.  They may be asked to approve the proposal or they may may simply receive or reject a report.  I hope it is the former.

I also want to note that how this comes before the Board matters not only in terms of democratic governance, but because the new Communication Plan protocols require certain things — such as equity and budget analyses —  with some Administrative proposals.   These are not part of  the materials circulating.

My guess is that whatever happens in the coming weeks, at least part of the time-line is out-the-window.   Supporting work will be ongoing, but I’d be surprised if the scheduled significant changes to Language Arts and Mathematics are fully implemented in 2011-12.  I’ve been surprised before.

In the meantime, effective involvement is crucial.  Let the Board know your concerns (  Let Superintendent Nerad know too (  Before voicing an opinion, it is good to do some study and get your facts straight and concerns clear.  Keep and eye on the Board agendas (and this space) to see when it comes up and in what form.  At every juncture, ask for a chance to be part of the process.  If asking doesn’t work, demand.

The Plan:  Unanswered Questions and Causes for Concern

From reviewing the proposal itself, a read of postings elsewhere, conversations and emails —  with and from students, teachers, parents, Board of Education Members and administrators  — some issues have stood out as things that I believe need further attention.  What I’m offering here isn’t comprehensive or thorough, but introductory.

Before proceeding I want to again emphasize that the commitment to open access  with supports is a huge and positive step (and note that it may be possible that this could be accomplished without the radical changes being proposed).

Pathways, Tracking and Ability Grouping:

I have supported the inclusive model for English 9 & 10 and 9th & 1oth grade Social Studies.  I have also thought that real embedded honors would have improved the model.  Some of the positive aspects of this will be lost if the new proposal is implemented.  There will be two “pathways” and this will almost certainly mean an increase in segregation by race, language and income.  I don’t like this.

Despite this inclusive portion of the existing  West program,  you’d be a fool to believe that segregation and something like tracking aren’t already part of the West reality.  I’ll go further and say that I sincerely doubt that in the foreseeable future these will be eliminated.

So the questions become ones about the extent and nature of the segregation or groupings.

Willis D. Hawley makes a useful distinction between tracking and “ability grouping” (read Pathways) based on student movement among the tracks (or programs) and warns that “Ability grouping often turns into tracking.”  This, along with the demographics of the pathways would need close monitoring and if there is great segregation with little or no movement, actions should be taken to remedy.

The existence of “embedded honors in the Preparatory Pathway is supposed to facilitate movement.  I have serious doubts about that.

Doubts based in part on the fact that the access to the Accelerated Pathway is supposed to be open.  This also needs to be monitored and special attention needs to be paid to informal ways that students are discouraged from challenging themselves and the availability of appropriate supports for success.

Standards, “College Readiness” and AP:

I don’t think much of standards as key to successful education reform.  Unfortunately, we are stuck with them — Wisconsin signed on to the Common Core Standards before they were even complete (this says much about how education policy at all levels has been taken over by well-funded rhetoric).  The proposed reform in MMSD and at West adds the ACT  “College Readiness” to the mix.

In general I don’t like the wholesale adoption of any standards, whether from an advocacy group (like the Common Core or for that matter the NACG Standards incorporated in the TAG Plan) or from an organization like the ACT or the College Board (AP), with supporting things for sale (an issue with the Common Core too).  MMSD – and other districts — should pick, chose and adapt what is appropriate for local circumstances.

Advanced Placement is a little different.  There are real concerns about a “cookie cutter” approach stifling creativity and breadth in teaching and learning.  These and other issues have led some districts — including Scarsdale, NY —   to abandon AP.  There is a growing consensus that the rapid expansion of AP is problematic (for balance see here).  Was any of this part of drafting of this plan?

In defense of expanded AP, it does provide an external measure of achievement and it does give students a head start on college.  Like so much else, some good and some not so good.

Trade Offs: Electives, Budget and Schedules:

Because of budget and schedule constraints this proposal cannot be implemented without other things being cut.  You can’t add support services without either increasing expenditures or eliminating something else.   Teachers and students only have time for so many classes, if they are taking new AP classes, they won’t be taking existing offerings.  So far there has been no clear statement of what these other things might be.

The rumors were that electives in some form were due to be cut.  I have this response from a senior administrator:

This is not true.  We are adding Advanced Placement courses in the four content areas.  They will be open access courses and may be taken or an elective may be taken. For example Advanced Placement offers only two English courses.  We require 4 years of English.  This leaves room for elective choices

How much room, both in terms of budget and schedules remains to be seen.  I think it is clear that many favored electives will be retained.

I’m not going to give my full Wisconsin and MMSD school funding rap, but I will ask those new to this to visit Penny for Kids, sign the petition, share it with friends, join the Facebook group…get involved.

Where Did This Come From?

As noted above, this has been in the works as part of a series of High School Initiatives.  The immediate model for much of it is Hersey High School in Arlington Heights Illinois.  Arlington Heights is not Madison and Hersey is not West.  One statistic stands out — Hersey has a poverty rate of 7% or 8%, West’s is 35%.  A quick review of the Evaluation and Policy Research page at Hersey shows that while the concerns and issues overlap, they are also very different.  The review also showed some very questionable choices in what data is presented and how it is presented.  Maybe more on this later.

Final Thought:

At the top,  I called this mess inexcusable.  I see this as a failure of leadership.  Couldn’t they anticipate this reaction?  Didn’t they read Susan Troller’s “branding” piece?  Don’t they now that successful reform requires buy-in?  This looks rushed and reactive, not considered and confident.  I know lots of very good work has gone into this, but that work is in danger of being lost due to some key failures.

With this in mind, I renew my call for the evaluation of Superintendent Dan Nerad to be made public.  Part of restoring confidence has to be sharing with the public what the Board of Education thinks is is going well and what the Board thinks could use improvement.  I know at this moment many in the West community have some definite ideas about these matters (positive and negative…I see successes as well as failures).

Thomas J. Mertz


Filed under "education finance", Accountability, Best Practices, Budget, education, Equity, finance, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, Pennies for Kids, School Finance, Take Action, Uncategorized

3 responses to “The Mess with West (Updated)

  1. Audrey Luppa

    If they really wanted to reform the high schools in a way that would raise achievement, they’d give us lower class sizes. There is a ton of research to support that smaller class sizes (20 students or less) significantly raises student understanding and test scores. Pretty soon we won’t have to walk out, we’ll be shoved out because …there are too many bodies in the classroom. Why aren’t we demanding a strategy that has been proven to work? The 5.2 million dollar Smaller Learning Communities money could hire a lot of teachers, and shouldn’t we be looking at the classroom itself as the learning community?

  2. Class sizes are important, more so in the early grades, but important.

    That said, the SLC grant is targeted to specific kinds of reforms. MMSD can only use the funds for certain things.

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