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Wednesday, August 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 71.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Moss and Thomas address the achievement gap
Take Home Test 2007: Week 7, Seat 3

For more than a decade, Madison schools have been faced by racial disparities in academic performances. Known as the achievement gap, this problem has become a central issue in terms of curricula and distribution of resources as the level of poverty grows within the district.

We've asked the Madison school board candidates to identify when and how this issue should be addressed in schools, as well as how the problem can be solved outside of the purely educational setting.

Here are the responses for the candidates for Seat 3: Beth Moss and Rick Thomas.

Where and how should the Madison school district focus its efforts on reducing the achievement gap -- during the elementary, middle or high school years?

Beth Moss
It is our fundamental responsibility to provide an education for all children so that each child will achieve his or her full potential, regardless of economic or racial background or disability. The public school system must provide an equitable education for all children.

To prevent the achievement gap from widening, the schools and community need to work together to concentrate on reaching all children in the early years. I will advocate for the resources to make universal early-childhood education, important in addressing educational inequality, possible in Madison. One success is KinderReady, a program designed to increase kindergarten readiness in children who do not have access to private pre-k. Children and families who participate in these and other early intervention programs are better prepared to start kindergarten. Outreach needs to increase with home visits to identified families. Small class sizes for those crucial first years of elementary school are important.In middle and high school, the district must increase minority staff recruitment, increase professional development in cultural competency, and improve access to AP and other high-level courses in high school. Tutoring and mentoring programs, such as the Urban League's Schools of Hope tutoring program, in which I have participated, have been instrumental in closing the achievement gap.

These programs must be expanded so that everyone in the community has a stake in the success of all our students. We must all share an expectation of reaching higher. In doing so, we will increase the level of achievement and success for all.

Rick Thomas
While I believe it is necessary to have all students achieve to their maximum potential at all ages, we should focus our efforts on the achievement gap at the elementary level.

The best way to do this is to insist on a results-based curriculum that is constantly being evaluated and improved upon. The two areas we should concentrate our efforts on are reading and math. I was shocked to find out that approximately 25% of our students cannot read at grade level and our math scores are in the bottom 30% statewide. These are not acceptable numbers to me, and changes need to be made. If students are not proficient at reading and math, it is very difficult for them to achieve to the best of their abilities.

I also believe that high standards for behavior are essential to reducing the achievement gap. We have excellent teachers in our district who have to use way too much classroom time on discipline. Our administration and parents must step up to the plate and support our teachers' need to have the rules of classroom behavior consistently enforced. Substandard results will not be tolerated and passed off as progress if I am elected to the school board.

By most accounts, closing the achievement gap will require more than an educational response. What else needs to be done?

Beth Moss
Educational opportunity is a cornerstone of an equitable society, but the schools alone cannot address inequality. A child that is hungry, homeless or ill clothed cannot take advantage of opportunities as easily as the comfortable child. A parent working low-wage jobs and worried about past due bills cannot provide the educational support that better situated families take for granted. The global nature of inequality is beyond the district, but we can and must act locally to make a difference in our community.

A first step toward engaging families who struggle with poverty and improving education for all students is communication. The board needs to make communication among the district, school staff, and families a priority so that concerns ranging from academics, safety, and recreation can be addressed. The MMSD has tremendous potential to be a leader in closing the gap between high and low achievers while maintaining high expectations for all students.

The MMSD is an integral part of the quality of life here in Madison. City officials, the board, and the district must coordinate efforts to improve employment, educational, and recreational opportunities for families of color and low-income families. With the UW and the state, we must also increase minority recruitment to retain and attract more middle- and upper- income families of color. These efforts will strengthen our community and further our reputation as a nationally desirable city in which to relocate and raise a family.

Rick Thomas
In order to close the achievement gap two major changes must be made.

First, the district needs to become more responsive to the parents and students. This is going to take a major cultural shift at the upper administrative level. We have a bloated bureaucracy that must be trimmed if we are to become more responsive to our parents and students. Arrogance and elitism have no place in our district. We must begin listening to the parents and students and responding to their needs. The world is changing a lot faster than the district is, and in order to achieve academic excellence, and prepare all students for life after high school, we must use all of the resources this city has to offer.

The second major thing that needs to be done is setting high standards for classroom behavior. Children quickly learn what is tolerated and not tolerated, and we must have an administration that is willing to back up the teachers in this essential area. I have proposed a Classroom Code of Conduct Contract that clearly spells out proper behavior, and I will insist that it be enforced. Children much prefer an orderly classroom where they can concentrate on learning, and all will achieve to the best of their ability if that is the expectation.

What is your favorite children's book or book series?

Beth Moss
One of my fondest memories from my daughter's childhood is reading from the Junie B. Jones series by Barbara Park. We started in kindergarten at Junie B's age; by the end of second grade, my daughter was reading the books to me. Junie B's behavior was so extreme that we could laugh and then discuss Junie B's better choice and the choice we would make in a similar situation. My daughter was the opposite of Junie B, never getting into trouble, so it was fun to live kindergarten through the eyes of a girl with a good heart whose misunderstanding got her into trouble.

Now in seventh grade, life is hectic, but it all slows down when we read an Agatha Christie novel together.

My favorite children's book is The Runaway Bunny, by Margaret Wise Brown. When our son was a toddler, he only sat sit while being rocked. He had a limited interest in toys or interacting with us, but he loved The Runaway Bunny. We went through four copies of the board book. He loved the repetition, colorful illustrations, and I appreciated the opportunity to talk about family relationships with him. I think he learned about being part of a family from the bunny family.

Reading to children is one of the most important things we can do to give our children an advantage when starting school. It is also a wonderful opportunity to bond with a teen. No questions or distractions -- just time spent together.

Rick Thomas
My favorite children's book series is the Magic Tree House collection by Mary Pope Osborne. The combination of adventure, history, science and personal growth make the books so good. I encourage reading of any kind with children, and I am constantly seeking out new books to read for my son and myself.

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