Late last year the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) responded to mounting criticism of their struggles with minority students by voting down a non-union charter school and promising to create a plan to address the district’s sizable racial achievement gaps. Earlier this year MMSD released the plan, titled Learning from the Past, Changing the Present, and Building Our Future.
Admittedly I did not expect much. Upon review some parts pleasantly surprised me, but I am not holding my breath that it is the answer to MMSD’s achievement gaps. It is a classic example of what I call a butterflies and rainbows education plan. It includes a variety of non-controversial, ambitious, and often positive goals and strategies, but no compelling reason to expect it to close the achievement gap. Good things people will like, unlikely to address MMSD’s serious problems: butterflies and rainbows.
What follows is a review of the specific recommendations in the MSSD plan. And yes, there are good things in here that the district should pursue. However, any serious education plan must include timelines not just for implementation, but also for results. This plan does not do that. Nor does it say what happens if outcomes for struggling subgroups of students do not improve.
Recommendation #1: Ensure that All K-12 Students are Reading at Grade Level
The good: The plan recommends the use of differentiated instruction to reach students at different reading levels, as well as a research-supported reading recovery program. It also recommends the use of assessments three times a year to trigger reading interventions for struggling students.
The bad: The plan calls for a move toward a common curriculum for all K-3 students. This is too restrictive, even the highest quality curriculum can be expected to leave some students behind.
The unknown: The quality of the interventions given to struggling students will determine the success of this recommendation.
Recommendation #2: District-Wide Focus on Third-Grade Students
The good: Recommends putting a reading interventionist at every school to help struggling students, and offering tutoring through outside entities.
The bad: The details are mostly nonsense. The paragraph below, for example, is little more than an enthusiastic “trust us”:
“We have the staff and volunteers to create a laser-like focus as a powerful new chance to help children, parents, communities, and schools unite in closing the achievement gaps while also raising the bar for our third-grade students.”
The unknown: Like the first recommendation, the key questions are the quality of the tutoring and the quality of the reading interventions.
Recommendation #3: Extend the School Day
The good: It sounds good; it is logical that giving students more classroom time can provide an academic benefit.
The bad: The district has no actual plan to extend the school day. The specific recommendation states:
“A committee of district staff, community members, and parents will be formed to examine extended school day. Further study of the concept of extended school day will be explored and recommendations from the committee will be brought to the Superintendent.”
In other words, it is an idea that sounds good but is impossible to implement, hence it is being relegated to committee purgatory.
The unknown: What will the committee conclude? As with most government committees, I doubt it will matter.
Recommendation #4: Expand Summer Learning Opportunities
The good: Expands the availability of summer school as well as virtual summer school options to Madison students.
The bad: These programs already exist. Why would the expansion of existing programs in a district struggling with achievement gaps be expected to close those gaps?
The unknown: Will the students that need the most help take advantage of summer programming now that it is being expanded?
Recommendation # 5: Develop an Early Warning System
The good: According to the document:
“[T]he Early Warning System will identify students based on five key criteria: attendance, grade point average, D’s and F’s, suspensions and credit deficiency. Each criterion and a composite score will have an associated tier based on severity.”
Teachers and principals need good information to make instruction decisions. Knowing which students are struggling and in what subject area is a crucial prerequisite to a successful intervention. The plan also promises enhanced data tools, which too can improve instruction strategies.
The bad: It is vague. What will be done with the information? The plan states:
“This regularly run report will be available to principals and administrators, who will use this information with staff and parents/guardians to plan appropriate instructional responses and interventions.”
The unknown: Will the early warning system tell teachers anything they do not already know? Will the planned interventions be appropriate?
Recommendation #6: Explore Innovative Instructional Designs
The good: Finding new ways to effectively reach struggling students is a necessity in a district failing subgroups of its students.
The bad: This recommendation is mostly nonsense, and it too calls for the creation of a committee. The recommendation states:
“Schools will be encouraged to explore and submit innovative program and design proposals for consideration. These proposals will be reviewed by a school district/community member committee.”
The unknown: Will schools submit innovative programs for consideration? If they do, what will this new committee do?
Recommendation #7: Develop a System of Shared Accountability
The good: Hey, accountability is good, and so is sharing! Ok, the plan does call for increased support for principals from central office administrators. Central office administrators might be a valuable asset for principals.
The bad: Central office administrators might not be a valuable asset for principals. After all, they have been running a district with the academic struggles that necessitated the plan to begin with.
The unknown: Where is the shared accountability? What happens if outcomes do not improve at individual schools?
Recommendation #8: Prepare All for Life After High School
The good: The concept is sound. The point of high school is to prepare students for what comes after high school.
The bad: The cart is a little before the horse on this recommendation given MMSD’s dismal minority graduation rates. In addition, the specific recommendation is simply that high schools hire a .5 fte position to “focus on the expansion of career exploration opportunities.”
The unknown: Will hiring a half-time employee with a vague charge do anything to close the achievement gap?
Recommendation #9: Implement ACT College Entrance Test and ACT Test Preparation
The good: Recommends expanding ACT testing preparations and implementing universal ACT participation. This is hugely positive, it will give a more accurate portrait of district performance and ensure students satisfy a necessary prerequisite to college.
The bad: Nothing.
The unknown: Will the ACT preparation offered be an asset to students? Will universal ACT testing be implemented as planned?
Recommendation #10: Expand Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID)
The good: The AVID program is both a course and a set of teaching strategies designed to improve academic performance for groups of struggling students. MMSD has had some success with the program on a limited basis and provides evidence that the program is successful elsewhere.
The bad: It’s not free, but MMSD says they can fund the expansion in part by keeping students that otherwise would have left the district.
The unknown: How large and how successful can the AVID program be?
There are seven other recommendations that I will group together:
- Implement Comprehensive Diversity Training for All Staff Including Promising Practices Cohort
- Create Cultural Practices that are Relevant (CPR) Model School
- Integrate Cultural Relevance into District-Wide Professional Development
- Support the Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Development of All Students
- Increase Options for Restorative Practices
- Implement a Comprehensive Family Engagement Program and Provide Parent Liaisons
- Recruiting, Selecting, and Retraining a Diverse Workforce
All are important in building a MMSD that is representative of and respectful and responsive to the populations that it serves. Though there are specifics that I quibble with, the seven recommendations generally call for a shift in the mind-set of MMSD. Such a shift is clearly necessary given MMSD’s persistent struggles with a growing segment of the district’s student population.
There are some good things in this plan, universal ACT testing, increased use of programs with good track records, and increased responsiveness to all families will improve MMSD. However, the plan has a whole lot of filler and reads more like a response to criticism than a plan that will close the achievement gap.
As I wrote at the start, any mention of what happens if achievement gaps persist despite the existence of the plan is notably absent. Also, too many of the specific progress indicators are the creation of plans or committees to address problems. Where progress indicators do rely on academic outputs time limits and corrective measures for failure to meet indicators are non-existent.
That MMSD is having this conversation and putting some positive ideas forward is a move in the right direction. But closing the achievement gap in Madison is going to require more than Learning from the Past, Changing the Present, and Building Our Future.