The Unfortunate Trend Toward Opting Out of Standardized Tests

Multiple Choice: The normal schedule at your child’s school will be disrupted for several days while the school administers a standardized test to all students. You think the test is a pointless waste of time that could be better spent on classroom instruction. You listen with interest when another parent urges that you opt your child out of taking the standardized test. What is your best course of action if you want to support your child’s school?

  1. Keep your child home from school during testing days.
  2. Opt your child out of taking the test and write a letter to the school’s principal explaining your action.
  3. Discuss the issue with your child and jointly decide on a course of action.
  4. Send your child to school to take the test.

Surprise! The correct answer is 4. Read on to find out why.

This month public school students in Madison are for the first time taking the Badger Exam, the Common Core-aligned standardized test that has replaced the WKCE. But not all students. A relatively small but growing number of parents have opted their children out of taking the exam. It’s becoming a thing. While most of the opt-outers are just taking a pass on the Badger Exam, some of the more gung-ho parents are opting out of all of the standardized tests that Madison students take.

Opting out has been described as an act of civil disobedience to protest schools’ over-reliance on high-stakes standardized tests. The more enthusiastic opt-outers see the tests as a cash-cow for big corporate interests like Pearson, who are happy to drain the budgets of strapped school districts with bloated testing charges. The also contend that the tests deliberately judge students by unrealistically high standards as part of a scheme to label public schools as “failing” and so advance the interest of charter school operators, privatizers and other enemies of public education.

For opt-outers holding these views, there’s really no middle ground. The logic of their position compels that they reject the very notion of standardized tests and that they advocate for banishing the tests from our schools entirely. They may not be able to stop the tests on their own but they can stop their children from taking the tests. And so they do.

From my perspective as a School Board member in Madison, I have a different view. I think opting out of standardized tests is, generally speaking, a lousy idea. This puts me quite at odds with the engaged, pro-public schools families who are choosing the opt-out route. So I will try to explain my views.

The next part of this post describes the principal standardized tests administered in the Madison school district. I then explain the ways in which the results of standardized tests can be valuable. My take on the principal pro-opt-out arguments comes next, followed by some concluding thoughts.


The principal standardized tests given in Madison are the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) and the WKCE, which has been supplanted this year by the new Badger Exam. (There are other standardized tests that are given less universally, but this post is already long enough so I won’t discuss the others here.) The school district administers the MAP test because we choose to and the WKCE and Badger Exam because we have to.

Measures of Academic Progress (MAP)

MAP consists of reading, language usage and math assessments that are aligned to the Common Core State Standards. The computer-based tests are taken by our students in third through eighth grade. Each part of the test typically takes a little less than an hour, though the tests are not timed.

Our students take the MAP three times each year, in fall, winter and spring. The tests measure a student’s academic progress compared to the average student at that grade level. By comparing a student’s results from the fall and spring, we can estimate how much the student has learned over the course of the school year.

The school district looks at MAP results to get a sense of how individual schools and the district as a whole are doing on our goal that every student be on track to graduate. Our 2013-14 Annual Report included a number of progress indicators that were based on MAP results. School Improvement Plans for elementary and middle schools typically identify improvement goals expressed in terms of MAP performance.

 WKCE/Badger Exam

Prior to this year, the state-mandated standardized test was the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam (WKCE). Students from third through eighth grade, plus tenth grade took the test in English, language arts and math each fall. Students in fourth, eighth and tenth grade took WKCE tests in science and social studies as well. The school and school district report cards issued by DPI are based primarily on WKCE results.

This is the first year for the Badger Exam, which is the Wisconsin version of the Smarter Balanced assessment, a new standardized test in English language arts and math for grades three through eight that is aligned with the Common Core State Standards. The goals of the computer-based test are said to be to challenge students with multiple choice questions, extended response, technology-enhanced items, and performance tasks intended to test students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills in both English language arts and math.

The Badger Exam roll-out has been rocky. The delivery of the test was delayed and then on March 10, DPI announced that it was eliminating the English Language Arts Classroom Activity and the Performance Task for this year. Bills are working their way through the state legislature to cancel DPI’s school and school district report cards for this year, because of uncertainty about the reliability of the Badger Exam results upon which the reports would be based.

MMSD has stated that it will deemphasize this year’s Badger Exam results as well. According to a FAQ on the test:

The Madison Metropolitan School District believes that any results from the first year of implementing an assessment should not be used for high stakes decisions. The first year of an assessment often has challenges with implementation and understanding the nuances of administration that may cause data that is not truly reflective of student achievement. These results will not be used for decisions about students, staff, programs or schools.


Monitoring Progress Systemwide

A key goal of the school district is that all students have access to a consistent, standards-based core instructional program that systematically and seamlessly provides them with the knowledge and skills necessary for full participation in college, the workplace and the community. This goal, which spans the 14 years a student can spend in our schools from pre-K through high school, requires the identification of the knowledge and skills that our students are expected to master at each grade and in each class. The Common Core State Standards anchor this work.

We need to be able to monitor how well this strategy is working by checking on the knowledge and skills acquisition of students in every grade, because students won’t be able to flourish in fifth grade if they didn’t master what we expect them to learn in fourth grade.

In large part, we rely on MAP test results to check our students’ progress. This illustrates an important point. It is the aggregate results on standardized tests, rather than the scores of individual students, that are most useful. We want to see how our students – and identified subgroups of students – are doing overall, how they are doing in particular grades, and how they are doing in particular schools.

If the test results show problem areas, then those become areas of focus. If some schools are showing particularly positive results, then we want to identify what they are doing right so that their success can be replicated in other schools.

For this sort of system-wide analysis to be possible, we have to have some common basis for measurement and comparison. That is the role of the standardized test. Without this kind of common calibration, it becomes much harder to measure, monitor and compare the progress made by students.

Test scores are not the be-all and end-all of school performance, of course. We also need to look closely at school climate and at the extent to which our students are receiving a well-rounded education. But MAP results are a critical component of how we assess our performance as a school district.

Identifying Gaps

In addition, aggregate test results can identify disparities in performance among student groups and help us identify what groups of students we are not serving well. In large part, our achievement gaps are measured by differences in aggregate performance on tests like the WKCE. Heightened public awareness of our achievement gap was kick-started when Kaleem Caire started requesting that MMSD provide the Urban League with detailed data on student performance back in 2008. Much of the data was derived from the results of standardized tests. Half of the education measures identified in the Race to Equity report are based on standardized tests.

The simple fact is that abandoning standardized tests would be a major disservice to those students that the school district is not serving well, because it would make it easier to explain things away and paper things over. I have never heard anyone suggest that a solution to our achievement gap is to stop measuring it.

Reporting to the Community 

Finally, and I understand that this is more controversial, I think there is value in having all students in the state take a standardized test like (though preferably better than) the WKCE. The results play a key role in the school and school district report cards prepared by DPI.

I have issues with the ways in which the report card scores are tabulated – which you can read about here – but I think there is value in having a way to compare the performance of schools and school districts. Most folks agree. According to the most recent Marquette Law School poll, “Voters strongly support continuing federally required testing in math and English, by 80 percent to 17 percent.”

Here it is particularly important to distinguish between the test results themselves and the pernicious uses to which they can be put.   Republican legislators want to label as “failing” schools that earn unimpressive report card scores and some seek to impose penalties on schools with low grades. This is misguided. It may also be part of a broader strategy to undermine public education in the state, a strategy that seems to explain much of the Republican agenda on education.

But the fact remains that it is useful to have some consistent set of assessments by which some aspects of school performance can be measured and compared in a reasonably objective manner. I think school districts owe it to the public that supplies their funding to provide this basic sort of accountability measure.


What about the arguments against standardized tests?  Here is how I think they stack up from a Madison perspective.

1.         The stakes are too high. School funding and teacher evaluations should not be based exclusively on the results of standardized tests. Agreed. But that’s not how things work in Madison. Generally low test results are one of the factors that go into identifying our more high-needs schools, but they tend to get more attention and resources rather than less. Unexpectedly low test results for a particular class should prompt the teacher and principal to think about the effectiveness of the teaching strategies that are being employed, but they do not affect the teacher’s pay or by themselves result in any sort of adverse employment action. Right now in Madison there simply aren’t any high-stakes consequences attached to standardized test results.

 2.        An inordinate emphasis on standardized test results leads to narrowing the school curriculum to only those subjects that are tested. I am sure that there are school districts where this is the case. Madison is not one of them. One of our principal Strategic Framework goals is a well-rounded curriculum, measured by enrollment in music, art, foreign language and other classes that are not WKCE subjects. This goal is specifically intended as a counterweight to our goal of high academic achievement, which unavoidably relies on standardized test results.

3.        Standardized tests do not measure the whole child.  Nope, they don’t.  The tests are oblivious to a child’s creativity, resiliency, kindness, emotional maturity, perseverance, courage, and other qualities that we seek to nurture in all our children. But that isn’t a shortcoming of the tests; it is a reason to avoid judging and labeling children exclusively on the basis of test results. It is just as misguided to criticize a math test for not measuring, say, resiliency as it is consider it a shortcoming of a lawn mower that it won’t roast a chicken. That’s not what it’s designed to do.

4.        The tests are racially biased. The makers of the tests will argue that they’re not, and will back up their claims with a whole host of studies. But there is no question that, as a group, students of color tend to score lower than white students and students in poverty tend to score lower than students who are not economically disadvantaged. What is the significance to draw from this? As I write above, it doesn’t do the low-performing groups of students any favors to do away with the tests. That’s like attacking obesity by eliminating scales. It is up to the school district to investigate possible causes of the disparities and implement smart strategies to reduce them.

5.        The tests take too much time away from classroom instruction. Well, yes, this is a valid point. Time spent administering standardized tests is time taken away from instruction. And because things don’t always work out as smoothly as we’d like, there will be times when some students’ learning will be compromised because other students are taking tests. It’s a trade-off. We have to think that the benefits we derive from our students taking a standardized test are worth the price we pay in lost instructional time. From what I can tell, the trade-off is worth it for the MAP. We don’t have a choice as far as the WKCE and Badger Exam are concerned. But when we do have a choice, we should always keep in mind this genuine cost and demand that clear and tangible benefits of any standardized test outweigh this and any other costs.

6.        Businesses make money on the tests they sell us. Some have criticized test-making juggernaut Pearson and other companies for making lots of money on the tests they sell to school districts. This doesn’t seem persuasive to me. Standardized tests are either worth their cost or they are not. If they are, then it is not a concern to me that some corporation may profit from selling them to us.


There have been a lot of problems with the Badger Exam, which may prompt some parents to think about opting their kids out of it. But don’t think that this will strike a blow against high-stakes tests. This initial Badger Exam is looking like it will be about as low-stakes as a test can get. The legislature is likely to pass a law precluding DPI from issuing school report cards incorporating the test results and MMSD has announced that the district won’t use results from the test for any decisions about students, staff, programs or schools.

Opting out of this particular test won’t come at much cost but it is also not likely to provide much benefit. Taking a pass on the test won’t keep it from being administered or somehow restore more time for classroom instruction. It will mean one fewer student’s learning will be measured and will make whatever information the test provides that much less reliable.

In future years the stakes will increase for the Badger Exam or whatever may take its place, since DPI will be back to issuing school report cards based primarily on the test results. Opting out may have more consequences as well.

The most tangible consequence is that if too many students in any demographic category fail to take the test, DPI deducts five points from the school’s report card. East High got docked five points for insufficient test participation and another five points for excessive absenteeism on its 2013-14 report card. This knocked the school down from the “meets expectations” to “meets few expectations” category.

This matters, whether we want it to or not. Families considering a move to Madison will research the schools and will shy away from neighborhoods that are served by a high school that “meets few expectations.” Go ahead and try to explain to them that a school’s low report card score was simply a consequence of engaged parents opting out of the state-mandated standardized test in order to register their opposition to the flawed political narrative that public schools are failing.

Opting out of the Badger Exam is currently getting all the attention, but the more gung-ho opt-outers urge parents to take a pass on MAP tests as well.   Tim Slekar, dean of the School of Education at Edgewood College and perhaps the most uninhibited of the opt-out advocates, has written: “And the MAP is not a good test either. It’s still high stakes. It still is racially biased. And it still takes assessment away from the teacher. There is no better assessment than the assessment done by teachers (authentically) and without stakes. SCRAP THE MAP.”

Ignore this. Parents should not opt their children out of the MAP test. That won’t accomplish anything but frustrate the school district’s assessment of our own performance and blur our vision of where we should be focusing our improvement efforts.  There are plenty of ways to support our public schools but this isn’t one of them.

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A New Front in Walker’s War on Public Education: Privatizing Charter School Authorizers

A topic that has not yet garnered much attention in the slowly unfolding catalog of horrors that is Governor Walker’s budget bill is its set of proposals for charter schools. Of a piece with the budget bill’s meat-axe approach to the UW System, the charter school proposals are certainly bold, if by bold we mean untested, excessive, and irresponsible. The policies are also poised to inflict damage on public education to a degree that could prove devastating. All this, plus privatizing an exclusively governmental function – the charter school proposals have hit a bad public policy trifecta.

The budget bill’s charter school provisions amount to a dog’s breakfast mixed together from Wisconsin’s current system for non-school-district-authorized charter schools in Milwaukee and Racine (so called “2r” charter schools) and ALEC’s model legislation, which it calls the Charter School Growth with Quality Act.  Amazingly, the result is worse than even ALEC proposes.

The 2r System

Some background, first, on the 2r system. (“2r,” by the way, is a shorthand reference to the provision of Wisconsin law (section 118.40(2r)) that sets all this out.) The current 2r authorizers are the Milwaukee Common Council, UW-Milwaukee, and UW-Parkside. They are empowered to establish charter schools in their area, either by operating the schools themselves or contracting for the operation with others. Together, they are responsible for the 23 “2r” charter schools that are currently operating in Milwaukee (22) and Racine (1).

Funding for these schools comes from the state. The schools receive $8,075 per student in general state aid. The total amount of these payments is deducted from the statewide pot of money that gets paid out in general state aid to all the school districts in Wisconsin. This year, every school district’s general state aid allocation was reduced by 1.5% to cover the cost of the $68.6 million that went to the 2r charters.

ALEC’s Model Legislation

ALEC’s legislation is fairly straightforward. It calls for the establishment of a statewide public charter school commission as an independent state agency with nine appointed members. The commission is to evaluate and either approve or deny charter school applications. The commission enters into contracts with the schools whose applications it approves, monitors their performance, and renews or revokes their charters. The commission is also to submit an annual report to the state legislature summarizing its activities and the performance of the charter schools it authorizes. About 15 states across the country have adopted a version of this legislation.

Like the ALEC model legislation, the Governor’s budget bill bulldozes through the notion of local control of schools. It establishes a new state agency, the Charter School Oversight Board, which is attached to DPI. The Board is to have eleven members. A majority are to be appointed by Governor Walker (2), Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (2) and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (2). The others include Tony Evers and two members appointed by him (each of whom must previously have been associated with a 2r charter school), and one member each appointed by Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Schilling and Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca.

The budget bill most closely mirrors the ALEC bill in its description of the requisite backgrounds and skills of the Board members.

According to the budget bill:

The appointing authorities . . . shall ensure to the extent feasible that members appointed to the board are geographically diverse and have experience and expertise in governing public and nonprofit organizations; in management and finance; in public school leadership, assessment, and curriculum and instruction; and in education law; and understand and are committed to the use of charter schools to strengthen public education.

This language comes from the ALEC bill, which states:

Members appointed to the Commission shall collectively possess strong experience and expertise in public and nonprofit governance, management and finance, public school leadership, assessment, and curriculum and instruction, and public education law. All members of the Commission shall have demonstrated understanding of and commitment to charter schooling as a strategy for strengthening public education.

ALEC’s proposal? Come On, We Can Do Worse Than That!

The budget bill gives the Charter School Oversight Board significantly less authority than ALEC’s Statewide Public Charter School Commission. Rather than itself evaluating and approving charter school proposals and monitoring charter school performance, the Board will only consider and approve applications by entities to be new 2r authorizers, like UW-Milwaukee and UW-Parkside. Any “nonprofit, nonsectarian organization or consortium of such organizations” can apply to become a 2r authorizer. Once approved, that organization is empowered to enter into contracts with charter school governing boards to establish new charter schools anywhere in the state. There is no limit on the number of charter schools that could be established this way.

Quick! Apply for a Job with the Scott Jensen Institute!

In other words, the members of the Board appointed by Governor Walker, Scott Fitzgerald and Robin Vos could join together to approve the application to be a charter school authorizer of any private entity, from K12, Inc. to the Republican Party of Wisconsin. Let’s call a hypothetical entity the Board selects the Scott Jensen Institute. The Jensen Institute would then be free to roam all over the state, contracting with new charter schools wherever it goes.

Once its application has been approved by the Board, the Jensen Institute’s only continuing responsibility would be to submit an annual report to DPI, the legislature and the Board which identifies each charter school it has established and describes each school’s academic and financial performance, as well as lists its own operating costs and the services it has provided to its contracted charter schools. Beyond that, the scope of the Institute’s operations would be limited only by the scale of its ambition.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider this, since we’d be breaking new ground here. There is nothing like what is being proposed anywhere else in the country.

Whatever one thinks of charter schools, their authorization has heretofore been considered a governmental function. The budget bill opts instead for privatization. It would establish an arrangement by which a private entity like our hypothetical Jensen Institute could function with the powers of an independent state agency but none of the responsibilities. The Jensen Institute would be empowered to grant the state’s authority to charter school operators to set up potentially lucrative operations anywhere in the state. Conveniently, it could also charge a licensing fee to each of the charter schools it authorizes.

Since it would be a private entity, the Institute would have no disclosure obligations, would not be subject to the open records law, and would not be bound by conflict of interest restrictions. While the Institute would have to be non-profit, there would be no cap on how much it could pay its officers. (The president of the nonprofit College Board was paid a salary of $1.3 million in 2012.) The head of the Institute would have more power to shape K-12 education in Wisconsin than Tony Evers, with none of the pesky responsibilities of a public official. Mr. Jensen, your table is ready.

More of Everything for the New Charter Schools    

Now, let’s look at the charter schools that would be established under this scheme. Each charter school the authorizing entity approves would be able to collect $8,075 in state funds for each student it enrolls. The state funds that get diverted into paying all these new charter schools will come right off the top of the state’s appropriation for general state aid to the state’s school districts. The more charter schools are established, the less each school district in the state will receive in general state aid. The budget bill places no limit on the amount of funding that can be drained from local school districts in order to pump state funds into these new charter schools.

The new charter schools qualify for state categorical aid payments as well.  They are designated as “local education agencies” under federal law, and so they will also be able to receive federal Title I funding and federal support for students with disabilities. In addition, these charters schools will be the first to qualify for state transportation aid to ferry their students to and from school.

Blocking a Charter School’s Doors?    

The budget bill states that most school districts will be able to “prohibit a pupil who resides in the school district from attending” a charter school established under this scheme. The exceptions are school districts that serve more than 4,000 students and that operate at least two schools that received a “meets few expectations” or “fails to meet expectations” grade on their state school report card. The districts that fall into this category include the seven largest districts in the state (Milwaukee, Madison, Kenosha, Green Bay, Racine, Appleton and Waukesha), plus Oshkosh and Beloit. Together, these nine districts serve about one-quarter of Wisconsin’s public school students.

The new authorizing entities can thus operate with a free hand in the state’s largest urban areas. There is nothing the local school districts can do to affect their operations, and there is no obligation on the part of the charter schools to consult with local school districts and attempt to coordinate their efforts.

It seems that all the other school districts might not be able to do much to stop the new charter schools either. The budget bill says that they can “prohibit” their students from attending newly-established charter schools. How is that supposed to happen? A student could simply not show up for the start of fifth grade at her neighborhood elementary school and instead start attending the new Friedrich Hayek Academy charter school that’s just opened down the street. School district officials are not going to stand with their arms folded blocking the doors to the new charter school.

Summing Up: Yikes!

So, let’s sum up. The budget bill appropriates not an additional penny for general aid to school districts during the next two years (and for 2015-16 slashes a separate $150 per pupil categorical aid payment that every school district in the state was counting on). Every district’s state aid will be reduced in order to fund the budget bill’s guaranteed payment of $8,075 for each student enrolled in a charter school. The budget bill proposes a “bold” and unprecedented scheme to establish new charter schools all over the state. The number and identity of the new charter schools is to be determined by a private entity.   That entity will wield the charter-school-authorizing power of the state and will be selected by the board of political appointees of a new state agency. The private entity will have to file annual reports but will otherwise be essentially unaccountable. What could possibly go wrong?

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The Accountability Bill: Republicans Embrace What They Otherwise Abhor

Assembly Republicans introduced their promised “school accountability” legislation  this week as the first bill of the new session. The lead sponsor of the measure is the new chair of the Assembly Education Committee, Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt of Fond du Lac.

The bill’s animating principle seems to be that there are too many public schools and not enough independent charter schools. The bill addresses that by creating a new state bureaucracy, a 13-member “Academic Review Board.” This Board is authorized to overhaul the current state report card system such that every school will receive a grade from A to F. The grades will be based primarily on standardized test results and the Board will determine the grading scale. Three years of Ds or Fs and a school will go on four-year probation. When its probationary term is up, the Board can decide the school hasn’t shown enough improvement and must be closed, to be replaced by an independent charter school.

Last year 223 of the state’s public schools received the equivalent of a D or an F on their state report card – a little more than 10% of the schools receiving grades. This is one of the rare occasions when it is accurate to say that the Republicans’ proposal threatens to literally decimate our state’s public schools.

Are there poorly performing public schools in Wisconsin? Sure. But it is the responsibility of the local school district and school board to dig into the problems at those schools and figure out ways to make improvements.

It’s striking how dead set Rep. Theisfeldt and the other sponsors of this bill must be to privatize our schools. They’re so committed that they’re willing to abandon local responsibility and local control and instead march in lockstep behind a top-down, bureaucratic, stifling approach that in other contexts they’d be elbowing each other out of the way to be the first to attack. Continue reading

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


annual report cover jpg

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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