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.
Where and how should the Madison school district focus its efforts on reducing the achievement gap -- during the elementary, middle or high school years?
I would like to explore this question further and assume an idea a bit more bold. Imagine, if you will, the Madison schools under a reform governance model, one that is committed to effective and efficient operations, high achievement for each and every student, and the elimination of the achievement gap.
The Madison school district has done a fairly good job of working toward narrowing the achievement gap in reading and mathematics. We've set admirable goals of getting kids to grade level in the elementary grades. Our challenge now is to set benchmarks for each grade level with the goal of graduation and continued success.
Linda Darling-Hammond, author of The Right to Learn and Doing What Matters Most: Investing in Quality Teaching, summarizes well what we know so far. Over the past 30 years, a large body of research has demonstrated that four factors consistently influence student achievement: smaller schools; smaller class sizes (especially at the elementary level); a challenging curriculum; and highly qualified teachers.
She also observes that in order for our kids to succeed, we need school districts to "create personalized learning communities in which children are well known," and she would offer a simple starting point for our efforts: no special programs, just equal educational opportunity.
The bigger question is, "Are we satisfied with incremental improvements in the status quo and with a board governing through oversight?"
Frankly, I'm not. I'm profoundly dissatisfied; I want a board focusing on governance and leadership for change. It's time.
As a community, Madison must focus on the gap in learning experiences that children face before they ever enter kindergarten. Children in poverty enter school with less than one-tenth the vocabulary of their middle-class peers. The United Way's announcement of funding for new high-quality preschool programs is a step in the right direction.
Today's research overwhelmingly indicates that the earlier we reach children, the better chance they have to succeed. Some are suggesting that education should begin at age 4 in our schools, and that it would greatly benefit those children whose families cannot afford preschool.
Our school district must plan for the future by starting at the early grades, but this does not mean that we abandon our efforts at middle or high schools. Many low-achieving students enter our schools at the higher grades, so we must provide high-quality learning experiences with appropriate interventions for all students, including those who struggle, regardless of age.
Some people seem to feel that it is necessary to pit one group of students against another, saying that if Madison focuses on students who are struggling, it will abandon its high-performance learners. But careful research of high-achieving schools shows that teaching techniques focusing on engagement, inquiry, and hands-on experiences can and do elevate achievement levels for all students. That is why partnerships with our University pre-service programs and high-quality professional development are so critical to the success of our children.
By most accounts, closing the achievement gap will require more than an educational response. What else needs to be done?
I tend to agree with Ronald Ferguson of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, who has researched achievement gaps. He examines why students of color often underperform academically. Ferguson also helped launch the Tripod Project, which helps schools strengthen curriculum, teaching and teacher-student relationships.
Ferguson's studies have documented the correlation between teacher expectation and student performance. He observes that gaps are present at the very beginning of kindergarten. But he believes, and other studies conclude, that what matters for kids is having that teacher who assures them that they can do it, that the teacher is available to help, and that the student knows that his/her achievement matters.
I like what Phillip Jackson, founder of the Black Star Project, says: "Right now, especially for black and for Latino parents, other people are creating those standards and those standards are not very high, and, in fact, they're very, very low. The only people who are going to create high standards and maintain high standards for black children [are] black parents."
Jackson argues for "a massive infusion of parental involvement at all levels of the educational system, at the governance level, at the grassroots level, at the field trip level, at the report card pickup level."
Our district needs to follow Jackson's advice. We need parents, families and the community to get involved.
We can increase teacher training, provide smaller classes, and set high expectations. But we have to look at the total picture for those children who are not succeeding.
Public schools should be the "great equalizer" in our society, but they cannot do it by themselves. What goes beyond an educational response? Certainly, one has to deal with the socio-economic, cultural and environmental causes of low achievement, namely: culturalism, racism, poor health, inadequate housing, unsafe streets, and lack of job training. Our schools cannot succeed unless the city, county and state work together to take on the insidious nature of poverty and its resultant effects on the most vulnerable members of our society -- the children of poverty.
The Schools of Hope Project in Madison is a great example of community involvement in closing the achievement gap. It started as a civic journalism project by Channel 3, the State Journal, and the United Way. Over the past ten years, it has evolved into a major contributor towards closing the third grade reading gap.
Currently the three main players remain involved, the UW School of Education has added its expertise, and both MTI and MMSD are enthusiastic. The project has been supported by a Vista grant and hundreds of community and Vista volunteers. While it is mostly concentrated in the lower grades, there is also a middle school math component, and it has recently expanded county-wide. This is an example of Madison taking the lead in solving a nation-wide problem.
What is your favorite children's book or book series?
Okay, embarrassingly enough, I devoured Nancy Drew when I was a beginning chapter book reader. Nancy never rested until she solved the mystery. I guess I related to her fortitude and creativity -- and the fact that she rode around in her dad's convertible didn't hurt!
A favorite book that I carried around up until high school graduation was a 600-page encyclopedia of animals that gave a broad selection of animal biology information at my fingertips, including classification by scientific (Latin) and common names, distribution maps, information on threatened species, anatomical drawings and beautiful photographs.
However, the wonderful thing about having kids is the chance to discover new books and characters, and fantasize again. In our house I can tell you the books with the most wear and tear take us to imaginary places where trains come alive and learn kindness (Thomas the Tank Engine); kids are brave and intelligent and it all takes place in a treehouse (the Magic Tree House series); the simple pleasures of childhood are illustrated in yummy fashion (Shirley Hughes collections), and a kid can run for office -- something my 10-year old thinks should be allowed by law (The Kid Who Ran For President).
For a real treat at any age, Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends can't be beat. I have read this book with students from all grades, my own children, and my grandchildren. There is something in it for everyone.
Silverstein wrote for children because he felt that adults had become too serious about life and had forsaken their earlier dreams. He felt it important to touch base with the child in all of us. Enter his world and you once again reach back into a childhood filled with possibilities -- a humorous, imaginative place where anything is possible.
The very first poem is an invitation to enter his book:
If you are a dreamer, come in,
If you are a dreamer, wisher, a liar?
If you're a pretender, come sit by my fire?
From there on, the reader is confronted with a girl who won't take the garbage out and its repercussions, to a boy who wouldn't stop watching television, a king who ate one too many peanut butter sandwiches, and through a conversation between two generals, what the world would be like without wars.
In the title poem the last stanza tells us:
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.
For over 25 years I followed my students there and it was a great ride!