The School District’s Annual Report Is More Significant Than You Think


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Anyone interested in what’s going on in our Madison schools should get a copy of the 2013-2014 Annual Report on the MMSD Strategic Framework and read it.  You can review the report on line, but that’s really not a substitute for holding the 14-page document in your hands. 

We can have all the feel-good and self-congratulatory exercises we want – and I have certainly participated in my share – but results matter. That’s why the annual report is so encouraging.

I am in my seventh year on the Madison School Board.  I started serving just as Art Rainwater was stepping down, and have been on the Board during Dan Nerad’s four years, Jane Belmore’s year as interim superintendent, and now Jen Cheatham’s one year plus.

During these years we’ve generally recognized that, in terms of academic achievement, we weren’t where we need to be as a school district.  We have always had a good number of high-achieving students and we have been able to point to and take some credit for their accomplishments. But we also have a very troubling achievement gap that has finally attracted the attention it deserves over the past few years. And over the past several years we just haven’t been able to move the needle much in terms of student learning. We’ve tried a lot of different strategies – too many strategies – but nothing has really clicked. During my time on the Board we have never had reason to celebrate clear signs of district-wide improvement.

Until now. Continue reading

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Dane County Realtors – Check Out These School Rankings, ’13 – ’14 Edition

A year ago, I wrote a blog post for the benefit of local realtors that ranked by school district the relative performance on the WKCE test of non-low income students attending public schools in Dane County. That post proved popular.   Scores from last fall’s administration of the WKCE came out this week, so I am updating the rankings to reflect the new scores.

And yes, I am uncomfortable ranking schools on the basis of the performance of students who are not low income, given the gaping disparities in academic achievement we face in Madison and our pressing need to address those disparities aggressively and effectively.

But, as I wrote last year, the fact is that we in Madison lose a lot of students to open enrollment into neighboring school districts. There is a perception among some that students who are not low income can get a better education in other school districts, where teachers may not have to meet the needs of as wide a range of learners as we have in Madison. These tables provide information that can allow folks to draw their own conclusions about that.

My conclusions are similar to last year. As I wrote previously, by and large, students who are not low income are doing fine in our Madison schools, whether in comparison to other students in Dane County or to students statewide. In addition, attending our richly diverse schools provides our students undeniable benefits in terms of cultural competency and interpersonal skills. Because we are the largest school district in the county and have established and will continue to forge great partnerships with Madison organizations, our Madison students also have some terrific opportunities that simply aren’t available in other school districts. Realtors have no reason to direct newcomers elsewhere.  Continue reading

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My latest column  for the school district’s family newsletter is a bit of a departure.  Instead of describing the latest MMSD initiative or providing an update on our most recent School Board meeting, I pass along a short piece by a parent about what we can all do to help foster a culture of kindness.

The genesis of this column is straightforward.  I came across the piece by Suzanne Buchko and found it very affecting.  I also thought it was a terrific piece of writing.  (I saw the article in the Franklin-Randall PTO newsletter, but Sari Judge had first written about it in her fine Mama Madison blog in Isthmus.)  I spoke at a meeting of the Franklin-Randall PTO a couple of weeks ago and Suzanne and her daughter Julia arrived at the meeting just as I was saying how much I liked what she had written.

I knew I wanted to reprint Suzanne’s piece in my column.  The task then became to build a frame around it that tied what Suzanne had written to the work we’re doing in the schools on social and emotional learning.

As I worked on the column, I came to a better appreciation of the efforts of our teachers and staff in developing the social and emotional skills of our students.   This important work tends to be way undervalued and underreported, in large part because it is difficult to quantify.   I may be aging myself by thinking of it as an example of the McNamara FallacyContinue reading

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School Board Campaign 2014: MTI’s Questionnaire

I am running for re-election to the Madison School Board.  Since my name will be the only one for Seat 7 on the April 1 ballot, I like my chances.  Still, I view the time leading up to the election as providing an opportunity for me to account for my performance as a Board member and to share my views on school issues.

Part of the responsibilities of being a candidate is responding to various questionnaires.  The first I received was from Madison Teachers Inc.

Here are MTI’s questions and my answers:


  1. If the School Board finds it necessary to change school boundaries, what criteria would you, as a Board member, use to make such a judgment?

For proposed school boundary changes, I’d want to apply the seven “Considerations when Redrawing Boundary Lines” approved by the school board in 2004.  They are:

  1. Every attempt will be made to keep bus routes no more than 45 minutes in duration one way.
  2. When redrawing boundary lines, current attendance area islands and optional areas will be reduced wherever possible and new ones will not be created.
  3. No student will be required to change schools, as a result of boundary line changes, more than once during his/her elementary years.
  4. Grandfathering 4th- and 5th-grade students will be considered when boundary lines are redrawn, and every effort will be made to allow 5th graders to remain at their school.
  5. School size of two sections per grade level to a maximum of 650 students.
  6. Every attempt will be made to avoid creating schools with high concentrations of low-income families.
  7. Efforts will be made to keep geographically and historically defined neighborhoods together and to consider the proximity of students to a school when redrawing boundary lines.

I would also consider the feedback and views of any working group that has been studying the issues, as well the views of affected families and other stakeholders. Continue reading

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A Technology Plan for Madison Schools

My most recent column for the Madison schools’ family and community newsletter discusses the school district’s proposed technology plan.  (The plan has been revised since I wrote the column so that devices will be provided for kindergarteners and first graders on a one-device-to-two-students ratio, rather than one-to-one.)

Here is what I wrote:

There is quite a bit going on in your school district these days.  What seems to be getting the most buzz is the recently-released draft of a proposed five-year Information and Technology Plan for the district.   

Most of the attention has focused on the proposal for one-to-one computing for students.  This means that all our students would have wireless computing devices available to them when needed.  The report calls for tablets for students K-5, with keyboard covers added for students in grades 3-5.  Secondary students 6-12 would be provided with a notebook device.  No decision has been made on the type of device.  The devices would be acquired on three-year leases with insurance included for lost, broken or stolen devices. Continue reading

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School Improvement Plans

Here’s an explanation of School Improvement Plans for Madison schools that I wrote for the December MMSD Family Newsletter:

Are you interested in knowing more about what’s going on in the classrooms of the schools your children attend? Of course you are. So take a moment to look at your school’s new and improved School Improvement Plan, or SIP. You can find it by clicking on the School Improvement Plan icon on the home page of your school’s website, or you can click here for a list of all school SIPs. You’ll find a one-page summary of the SIP along with the full plan for each school.

School improvement plans have been around for a while. But they’re different this year – they’re now the playbooks that list the few key strategies each school will follow to improve its learning culture and student achievement. What’s more, the plans identify who’s in charge of what, establish goals, and lay out timelines and specific metrics by which progress on the strategies and goals will be measured. They put some teeth into the school district’s pledge to be more transparent in our work.

The school improvement plans are the work of School-Based Leadership Teams (SBLT). Members of the teams attended a two-day conference in August, just prior to the start of school, where they learned about the new SIP process, reviewed data on their school’s performance, and began work on formulating their plans. Continue reading

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The Legislature Prepares Another Gift for K12 Inc. and the Virtual Charter School Industry

Pending Senate Bill 76 is another volley in the war Wisconsin Republican legislators have unleashed on local control.  The bill would further undermine the authority of locally-elected school boards to determine the number of charter schools that operate within their school districts.

Senators Darling and Olson introduced an amendment to the bill on October 31.  The amendment provision making it easier for a school district to convert all of its schools to charter schools has already drawn attention.  What seems to have escaped notice so far is that Senators Olson and Darling may have mixed up their holidays – their Halloween amendment provides yet another Christmas present for their well-heeled friends at K12 Inc. and the for-profit virtual charter school industry.

The poor performance of virtual charter schools in Wisconsin has resulted in few if any negative consequences for their operators.  But this past year, a slight dose of accountability has slipped into the mix with the advent of school district report cards issued by DPI.  Senators Olson and Darling’s amendment nips that positive trend in the bud by stripping virtual charter schools out of the home school district for report card purposes.  It is hard to see this as anything other than a sell-out to K12 and their virtual charter chums. Continue reading

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