Fact-Checking School Board Campaign Claims About the Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School Proposal.

In the heat of the current School Board campaigns, there has been a lot of misinformation about the School Board’s 6-1 vote in January to approve the application of the Isthmus Montessori Academy (IMA) to become a charter school within the Madison school district.

Below are ten points of clarification about the IMA proposal — mostly facts but with some opinions mixed in.

This explanation is prompted in part by the following statement attributed to the Kate Toews for School Board campaign:

IMA (Isthmus Montessori Academy) is an existing private school and the district recommended against taking it on as a charter at every single opportunity because it doesn’t meet academic, demographic, or budget standards. The current district estimates show that $375,000 will be cost reduced from Lakeview, Gompers, Emerson, Mendota, Hawthorne, and Sandburg when it opens. Turning private schools into public ones is not innovation, and is not what charters were intended to be.

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The Diversity Dividend in K-12 Schools: Part 2, Drifting Toward Homogeneity.

The first part of this post drew from the many amicus briefs submitted in connection with Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that reaffirmed colleges’ compelling interest in promoting the racial diversity of their student bodies. As the amicus briefs explain, truly diverse classrooms benefit students’ academic achievement, social and interpersonal skills, workplace preparation, and civic engagement.

This second part of the post looks at the forces pushing in the other direction.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s about-face on the constitutionality of race-conscious approaches to promoting integration has removed the principal counterweight to the centrifugal forces that push white families toward predominantly white schools. Even as courts, scholars, colleges of all stripes, and Fortune 500 companies have been celebrating the many benefits of diverse classrooms, the trend in K-12 education is clearly towards more segregation. This trend is misleadingly reinforced by school rating systems that systematically undervalue the benefits students derive from truly diverse classrooms and systematically overrate predominantly white schools.

The Flow and Ebb of the Supreme Court’s Concern with Segregated Schools.

In Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court emphasized that “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments,” as it famously rejected the doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson and ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” In a follow-up decision, the court ordered states to desegregate their schools “with all deliberate speed.”

Subsequent desegregation efforts focused more on “deliberate” than “speed.” It was not until the Civil Rights Act in 1964 authorized Department of Justice lawyers to sue segregated school districts that appreciable progress began to be made. The Supreme Court’s high water mark in promoting desegregation came in a 1970 decision, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, where it unanimously upheld busing as a permissible means to promote school integration. Continue reading

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The Diversity Dividend in K-12 Schools, Part 1


Last summer, in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the United States Supreme Court affirmed previous rulings and held that colleges have a compelling interest in promoting the racial diversity of their student bodies.  The Court made clear that we have a federal policy in favor of diverse schools.  The policy gains added significance against the backdrop of the national trend toward more segregated classrooms.  This first part of a 3-part post describes the dividends that benefit students who attend diverse K-12 schools.

Despite the Supreme Court’s pronouncement and the persuasive weight of the scholarship on which it is based, our state policymakers are indifferent to benefits of diversity in K-12 schools.  What’s worse, the usual tools employed to assess the relative quality of K-12 schools in a predominantly white state like Wisconsin have the perverse effect of penalizing diversity.

This ill-serves our Madison public schools.  In typical quality comparisons, our schools suffer in comparison to our Dane County neighbors because our classrooms display a level of racial diversity that pays dividends for our students in critical but non-quantifiable skills and aptitudes, but not for our schools in standardized test score averages.  The second part of this post explores these issues.

Our evaluations and assessment tools should be better aligned with our national priorities. There is a relatively simple way of measuring the degree of diversity in schools and school districts – a Diversity Index – that I describe and calculate for a number of Wisconsin school districts in the third part of this post. This type of measure should be incorporated into the state’s school report cards and other assessments of school quality. Continue reading

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The Likely Impact of the IMA Charter School Proposal on MMSD Equalization Aid

On January 30, the Madison School Board will consider a proposal from Isthmus Montessori Academy (IMA) to establish a new charter school within the Madison school district. As the name suggests, the school would offer a Montessori curriculum.

A key question is what would be the financial impact of the new charter on the school district. For several reasons, this is very hard to project.

The financial analysis that the MMSD administration prepared for the School Board’s benefit looks at whether the addition of the school would generate sufficient new revenue authority to cover its net costs to the school district. In other words, would we be able to raise property taxes enough to cover the cost? The answer: not for the first couple of years. This is because revenue limits are based on the number of students in a school district, and new students are phased in over three years for revenue limit purposes.

While this analysis is helpful, I think it may be more useful to look at the likely impact of a new charter school on the equalization aid we receive from the state. Will the additional costs of the new school be offset at all by an increase in equalization aid? If so, by how much?

It is hard to make projections of future equalization aid. The equalization aid formula is based on six variables. Three are calculated by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) on the basis of statewide factors as well as on the total amount available in equalization aid in a given year. The other three factors are specific to the school district: the total number of students (calculated per DPI rules), the total amount of property value in the school district, and the total amount of school district expenditures (again calculated per DPI rules). (I wrote an explanation of the equalization aid formula a few years ago that you can find here.) Continue reading

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Betsy DeVos, Our Public Schools, and the Misleading Metaphor of the Market

Fox News pundit John Stossel recently wrote a column that – wait for it! – praised Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education and mocked those who oppose her.

Like many before him, Stossel defends DeVos’ hostility to public schools by invoking the metaphor of free-market competition, which he sees as a bracing corrective to ineffective, wasteful, and teacher-union-dominated public schools.

Stossel writes:

My consumer reporting taught me that things only work well when they are subject to market competition. Services improve when people are free to shop around and when competitive pressure inspires suppliers to invent better ways of doing things.

DeVos understands that. That’s why she wants to allow parents to choose the schools their kids attend. Schools that do a better job will attract more students. Better schools will grow, while some inferior ones will close.

Inferior schools, like any failing business, should close. It’s a disservice to students to keep them open.

Metaphors can promote clarity when they provide perspective on one concept by drawing parallels to others. But they’re not always helpful. As Amos Tversky observed in Michael Lewis’ newest best-seller, “Because metaphors are vivid and memorable, and because they are not readily subjected to critical analysis, they can have considerable impact on human judgment even when they are inappropriate, useless, or misleading.” When the topic is the future of our public schools, the metaphor of the market is useless, misleading, and downright harmful.

Invisible Hands Don’t Care About Quality.

The metaphors of the market and Adam Smith’s invisible hand of competition explain how we’re better off when business winners and losers are determined by the cumulative impact of individual consumer choices rather than by government dictate.

But this is a very agnostic approach to market value. Since Stossel writes, “I wouldn’t want to be trapped in a bad restaurant while government debated how to improve it,” let’s take restaurants as an example.

So long as they avoid poisoning patrons, the value of restaurants inheres solely in the extent to which they win favor among those who are willing and able to spend money on their menu items. If they do, they succeed. If they don’t, they fail. As a social matter, we don’t care who the winners and losers are.   Continue reading

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What’s Going On with Personalized Pathways?

There’s a lot of concern being expressed these days about the Madison school district’s Personalized Pathways initiative.

Personalized Pathways are intended to bring a more coherent, focused and engaging organizational structure to our high schools.  Ninth grade students will have the opportunity to select a pathway built around a theme.  Each of our four large high schools will offer a health services-themed pathway next year that will be available to 120 to 150 students at each school.

Students in that pathway will take English, math, social science, and science classes together.  The teachers of the classes will coordinate, the classes will have a health services focus to some degree, and the students will be offered more than the typical menu of hands-on and experiential learning, guest speakers, and larger-scale projects.  Students will be offered options for both stand-alone and earned honors within each pathway.  The plan is for each school to gradually offer additional pathway options over the next several years.

The school district’s communications to students and families about pathways has fallen a bit short.  Eighth graders will soon have to decide whether they want to sign up for the health services pathway, and, for many parents, news about pathways and upcoming decision-points is seemingly coming out of nowhere.  Additionally, there are apparently rumors swirling around suggesting that the pathways initiative will bring with it all kinds of bad stuff. Continue reading

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Good News: Madison Third-Grade Reading Scores Are Finally Trending Upward

The Madison school district released the 2015-16 Annual Report on the MMSD Strategic Framework a couple of weeks ago. There is good stuff in here on the progress our school district and our students are making and it rewards a thorough read.


It is worth highlighting the encouraging data in the report on third-grade reading.   The percentage of students who are proficient readers by third grade is generally recognized as perhaps the single most important statistic for a school district. Its significance has spawned the urban myth that planners in departments of corrections study third-grade reading scores to determine how many prison cells they will need to build in coming years.

Why focus on third grade? As the saying goes, up to third grade students learn to read and after third grade they read to learn. A 2014 United Way of Dane County report quoted a finding of the National Research Council: “Academic success, as defined by high school graduation, can be predicted with reasonable accuracy by knowing someone’s reading skill at the end of third grade. A person who is not at least a modestly skilled reader by that time is unlikely to graduate from high school.” Sociology professor Donald Hernandez has found that, in the words of Education Week, “A student who can’t read on grade level by 3rd grade is four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who does read proficiently by that time. Add poverty to the mix, and a student is 13 times less likely to graduate on time than his or her proficient, wealthier peer.”

Like just about all measures of academic performance for Madison students, third grade reading scores over the years have shown a gaping and seemingly intractable achievement gap between African-American students and white students. Improving academic achievement for all students, and particularly accelerating learning for African-American students in ways that can narrow gaps, have been overriding priorities for superintendent Jen Cheatham since she arrived in Madison in April, 2013.

So, how is it going? In Madison, we measure learning primarily through MAP tests that are administered in the fall and spring to our students between grades 3 and 8. The springtime scores let us know how many of our students are proficient, as MAP defines it, and also what percentage of our students made the expected growth in their skills between the fall and spring administration of the tests.

Here is a chart that shows both the percentage of all third-grade students who measured proficient in reading by MAP standards over the past four years, as well as the percentage of African-American third grade students:

Copy of Wizard dataJust as we’d like, the chart shows progress for all students and accelerated learning for our African-American students. Over the last two years, the reading proficiency of all our third grade students increased by three percentage points, and the percentage for African-American third graders jumped ten points, though starting from an admittedly dismal level.   The achievement gap on this measure was narrowed from 30 percentage points to 23 percentage points. Continue reading

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