The Backstory on the West High Protest

(Note:  I am updating this post as errors are pointed out.  For example, I initially wrote that meetings with high school department chairs and the TAG Advisory Committee took place last Wednesday, October 13.  The meetings actually took place on Tuesday.)

There has been a spot of controversy over the Madison School District’s proposal for curricular reform for our high schools, known as Dual Pathways to Post-Secondary Success. Here is my understanding of the course of events by which a plan for improving our high schools led to a widespread student protest and walkout at West High School.  This account is based on my participation in some of the developments, conversations with others who were involved, and some speculation.

I.    Background: The REaL Grant

The story begins in 2008, when the School District was awarded a five-year, $5.3 million federal grant to help foster small learning communities in high schools.  This is known within the District as the REaL grant (for Relationships, Engagement and Learning).

The purpose of the grant is to support the large changes necessary to

  • Increase student achievement for all students
  • Increase and improve student-to-student relationships and student-to-adult relationships.
  • Improve post-secondary outcomes for all students

Our four comprehensive high schools have been working on grant-funded initiatives since the award.  An initial focus of the grant was to develop teacher leadership among department chairs and also to improve collaboration among teachers, and across the four high schools.  The initiation of professional collaboration time for the middle schools and high schools was an outgrowth of this work.

Longer-range goals of the grant, at least as the administration saw it, included bringing more consistency to the curricula offered by the four high schools.  Traditionally, the four schools kind of went their own ways, with less collaboration among them and less central direction than one might expect.  I think this is a problem.  Others have seen it as valuable for each high school to have its distinctive traditions and approaches.

To the District’s REaL grant team (which has included Pam Nash, Julie Koenke, Kolleen Onsrud and others), the issue is larger than the different high schools offering different classes.  To them, the central question centers on what common body of knowledge and skills — often referred to as “essential understandings” — should we expect our high graduates to possess.  This leads to the question of how we should design and align different class offerings to best impart these essential understandings.

The administration has looked to the ACT College and Career Readiness Standards as a resource for defining essential understandings, as well as the Common Core academic standards recently adopted in Wisconsin and many other states.

Another initiative in the air, growing in part out of the School District’s strategic plan, has been a quest for better and more systematic means of assessment of students’ performance.  Specifically, the District has been moving toward adopting the Explore, Plan and ACT suite of test for all students from middle school through high school.  This set of tests is referred to as the EPAS system (for Explore, Plan and ACT).  The EPAS tests are designed to test students from middle school through high school on their progress as measured against the ACT College and Career Readiness Standards.

The achievement gap is another primary focus of the REaL grant.  Specifically, the data virtually cry out that we are not serving our African-American students well.  One response to this has been the institution of the AVID (Achievement Via Individual Determination) program, first at East and now at all four high schools.  The AVID program is designed for students from backgrounds that don’t typically predict academic success and who have performed okay in school but likely below their potential.  The program provides a class for students who fit this profile that teaches study skills, provides mentoring and peer support and challenges the students to set their sights for advanced classes and college.

As the 2009-2010 school year ended, the District’s REaL grant team started work on updating the District’s REaL Grant Action Plan with the goal of advancing the work on consistency, rigor, better assessments, and enhanced opportunities and support for students from the wrong side of the achievement gap.

II.     The Second Plotline:  9th and 10th Grade Classes at West

Another plotline was developing at the same time – the issue of 9th and 10th English and social studies classes at West.  This has long been a contentious issue. West does not offer accelerated class offerings in English and social studies for 9th and 10th graders.  The school has had a strong commitment to heterogeneous classes for 9th and 10th graders in these subject areas, with a broad range of electives offered to 11th and 12th graders.  A number of West families have objected to this approach – they would like to see an “honors” or accelerated option available for students in all years.

On August 17, 2009, The School Board passed a Talented and Gifted (TAG) plan.   As I understand the plan, it commits the district to differentiated class offerings across all schools and grades.  The terms of the plan seem to me to be inconsistent with the West approach, and I thought so at the time that I joined my fellow Board members in voting to adopt the plan.  The District’s Strategic Plan similarly calls for expanding and creating effective accelerated learning opportunities for all students.

Some West parents felt the same way.  Invoking the policy adopted in the TAG plan, the parents pushed the District to develop and offer honors classes for 9th and 10th graders in English and social studies.  In May of this year, they met with Dan Nerad and Pam Nash and were given to understand that the District would direct West to develop accelerated classes for 9th graders, starting the next school year.

Some number of West teachers strenuously objected to this change.  Dan Nerad and Pam Nash told the teachers that they would establish a committee that would include teachers to explore the issue over the summer.  I was never clear whether the intended purpose of this committee was to explore whether the change to accelerated classes should take place, or how to make the changes in the best way, with it as a given that the changes would be made.

So, this is how things stood at the start of summer.  The group of West parents believed the West approach was inconsistent with the TAG plan, that the District had essentially agreed, but that there might be some backsliding going on in response to the concerns expressed by the West teachers.  The West teachers expected that there would be a committee put together to work on the issue, however the issue was to be defined.

III.     The Development of the  Dual Pathways Plan

During the late spring, the four high schools were working on putting together their proposed REaL action plans for the 2010-2011 school year.  The administration would review these plans, and then come up with a plan for the district as a whole.

My sense is that the District’s REaL grant team thought it was time to take their work to another level.  The initial focus of the grant was to get teachers within and across schools talking and to provide opportunities for more collaboration and the development of department chairs as teacher leaders, and that work was well underway.

When the team reviewed the four high school REaL action plans for the upcoming year and started to think about a District plan, they sensed some common themes in the proposed plans, particularly those for East, LaFollette and Memorial.  The plans pointed toward more consistent curricular offerings and an emphasis on improving access to and performance in advanced classes for students from groups that have been underrepresented in those classes.  (The focus of the West plan was more on school-to-students relationships rather than curricular issues.  West, for example, has taken the lead in adapting for high school the Positive Behavior Intervention System (PBIS) approach to student conduct in the middle schools.)

This is largely speculation on my part, but my sense was that as the District team started working on a District plan, a number of initiatives and projects seem to coalesce into a broad new approach toward our high school and middle school curricula.

Specifically, the push for greater consistency across the high schools suggested a uniform approach to the offering of advanced and other classes.  The TAG plan and the District’s strategic plan indicated that the uniform approach should be one of offering accelerated class opportunities for all students.  The concern about the achievement gap underscored the critical importance of keeping the pathway to advanced classes as open as possible and beefing up efforts to both identify as early as possible students from underrepresented groups who looked like they might be able to handle accelerated classes and provide those students with the support they’d need to succeed, along the AVID model lines.  This implied a need to extend the approach down into the middle schools, and also to rely on EPAS and other tests for the early identification piece as well as for generally better and more useful assessments. Finally, the District has adopted a policy calling for Individual Learning Plans (ILPs) for each student.  The ILP process seems like a good fit for the effort to identify a broad range of promising students in middle school and to plan a specific pathway with them that would enhance their opportunities by stretching them in the direction of more challenging courses.

The emphasis on more Advanced Placement classes that is a part of the Dual Pathways plan is new.  I haven’t seen references to AP classes in other materials on the REaL grant and don’t really know where it came from.  (The District is a participant in an Advanced Placement Incentive Program for which DPI received federal funding in 2009,  but I do not recall this being mentioned in connection with the plan and only East and LaFollette qualified as participating schools for purposes of the DPI grant.)  There are several reasons why I think it is good move to push to add more AP classes in our high schools, and to encourage more students from different backgrounds to take AP classes (and I hope to blog on this soon), but this part of the High School plan does not seem to be something that came from the schools themselves.

While it is far from complete in all its details, the Dual Pathways plan drew on these threads and initiatives in the service of what seem to be three overall goals:  (1) to develop and implement a more consistent, coherent, standards-based curriculum across our high schools; (2) to increase rigor and opportunities for challenge for everyone; and (3) to create a structure of assessments, individual counseling and encouragement, and targeted academic supports beginning in middle school to increase significantly the number of students from underrepresented groups successfully completing accelerated and AP courses in high school.

Put this way, I imagine the sense of the District’s REaL grant team regarding the likely reaction to their proposal was “What’s not to like?”  They would soon find out.

IV.     The Rollout of the Plan:  The Plotlines Converge

I first heard indirectly about this new high school plan in the works sometime around the start of the school year in September.  While the work on the development of the plan continued, the District’s responses to the various sides interested in the issue of accelerated classes for 9th and 10th grade students at West was pretty much put on hold.

This was frustrating for everyone. The West parents decided they had waited long enough for a definitive response from the District and filed a complaint with DPI, charging that the lack of 9th and 10th grade accelerated classes at West violated state educational standards.  I imagine the teachers at West most interested in this issue were frustrated as well.  An additional complication was that West’s Small Learning Communities grant coordinator, Heather Lott, moved from West to an administrative position in the Doyle building, which couldn’t have helped communication with the West teachers.

The administration finally decided they had developed the Dual Pathways plan sufficiently that they could share it publicly.  (Individual School Board members were provided an opportunity to meet individually with Dan Nerad and Pam Nash for a preview of the plan before it was publicly announced, and most of us took advantage of the opportunity.)  Last Tuesday, October 12, the administration presented the plan at a meeting of high school department chairs, and described it later in the day at a meeting of the TAG Advisory Committee.  On the administration side, the sense was that those meetings went pretty well.

Then the issue blew up at West.  I don’t know how it happened, but some number of teachers were very upset about what they heard about the plan, and somehow or another they started telling students about how awful it was.  I would like to learn of a reason why I shouldn’t think that this was appallingly unprofessional behavior on the part of whatever West teachers took it upon themselves to stir up their students on the basis of erroneous and inflammatory information, but I haven’t found such a reason yet.

V.     The Dual Pathways Plan and District Policy

The issue at West came to be expressed in terms of the impact of the plan on West’s current electives.  The plan does not have any direct impact on electives.  As I understand it, the plan calls for the addition of two additional English electives at West — Literature and Composition AP and Language and Composition AP.  It may be that the addition of these classes will make it impossible as a practical matter to continue every English elective that is currently offered at West; that is an allocation issue that is typically handled at the school level.

The proposal calls for changes that will unfold over a number of years and is not complete in all its details.  I think there are two fundamental policy decisions that underlie the plan.

The first is whether we should be developing a uniform and consistent approach to the curriculum we offer in our high schools, or whether we should empower the individual schools to pursue their own approaches.  I like the consistent approach myself.  I also think this is consistent with our strategic plan.  For example, the plan  has the following objective for its action plan for accelerated learning: “Structure MMSD’s K-12 instruction, comprehensive course offerings and pathways in alignment with MMSD’s Strategic Plan and the Wisconsin Model Academic Standards to expand and create effective accelerated learning opportunities for all students.”  (Since the plan was adopted, the Wisconsin Model Academic Standards have given way to the Common Core standards.)

The second policy issue is, assuming the consistent approach, do we want to offer accelerated class offerings to all students in all grades, or do we follow the heterogeneous classroom model in place at West?  I recognize that there are serious arguments to be made in favor of the West approach, but I come down on the side of accelerated offerings, and, I would argue, the School Board came down on that side as well when we approved the TAG plan and our strategic plan.

In other words, controversial as it may be in its particulars, I think the Dual Pathways proposal is broadly consistent with existing School Board policy.

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12 Responses to The Backstory on the West High Protest

  1. DSN says:

    The rumor mill must have been running wild at West High if indeed there were no plans from the administration to do away with electives.

    My daughter is a freshman at West and I have seen her be tormented by the issue of “electives being taken away .”
    My daughter was at her wit’s end trying to figure out what was true and what was not. Having no inside information as to what was going on we were in no position to guide her one way or the other either. The idea that electives were going to be taken away was so strongly etched in her psyche that she decided to go to the sit-in to see if any light would be shed on this issue there. She also apparently wanted to make sure that her number counted in case the administration reneged on the assurance that cutting electives indeed was not part of the proposed changes. She reports feeling conflicted about everything that went on.
    Apparently the sit-in was full of talk about “fight against segregation ” (which was also the major theme of Media coverage as the reason for the sit in). However nothing in the letter sent to the West parents detailing the proposed changes to curriculum seems to promote “segregation” that glaringly exists anyway – the elephant is in the room for all willing to see if the reported statistics regarding the acheivement gap are true.
    Other reasons given for the organization of this sit-in including inclusion of students in decision making were not highlighted at all by the press. Media reports also talked about the administrative proposals as response to the TAG complaint.-these don’t seem to be entirely true either.
    It was painful to see a fourteen year old trying desperately to tease out the facts from fiction when as an adult I had no clue as to what was going on.
    The question is why did this have to be this way and how did it all start? This is really worth looking into so history does not repeat itself. I am very disturbed by all that went on last week.

  2. Ed

    Thanks for the narrative. Two questions and then two observations.

    Did the “committee that would include teachers to explore the issue over the summer” ever meet?

    Was there any explicit discussion of the 9th & 10th grade classes at West in the Board’s consideration prior to adoption the TAG plan? I don’t recall any. It is likely that this was discussed by the group that drafted, but there are no public records of that group.

    I can see why at the time and now you see the 9th & 10th Grade classes “inconsistent” with the TAG plan, but I’m not sure that this is clearly the case. The TAG plan deals with identified TAG students and little progress has been made in implementing an identification process consistent with the plan. If we don’t know who the applicable students are, it is difficult to say what reforms are appropriate — will the Dual Pathways which has been estimated to create a 70/30 split in most core classes be appropriate for TAG students? It is also difficult to say if current practices are inappropriate. Current practice at West is that those in the top 5% (district not state) may skip English 9. This may or may not be sufficient, depending on how you define the TAG group and whether you see English 10 as an appropriate offering. Note: I would prefer embedded honors for these classes to current practices, an idea that I understand was approved and then withdrawn (I’m still agnostic on what I do and do not support in the Dual Pathways, except the open access with supports — I strongly support that).

    The second observation is that although the administration and the REaL teams have studied and embraced EPAS, I don’t think there has been much critical consideration of this by the Board. You may think that this is not the Board’s role. I respect that, but disagree. This is a costly (time and money) and fundamental change. Professional opinion is mixed on the standards themselves and the benefits. I think there are real questions that haven’t been fully explored.

  3. Vicki says:

    Does either of you know the source of the estimated “70/30 split”? 30% of students taking accelerated classes seems high to me, and runs the risk of exactly what the students at West are protesting–the segregation of the school (although of course West is nowhere near 70% poor and minority). Still, if there are too many kids taking AP classes, the AP classes will be diluted to the point that they are no longer challenging for gifted kids, and the “regular” classes will no longer be truly heterogeneous.

    I think West could easily afford to skim off the top 15-20% of students in each subject, and still have adequately diverse classes among the remaining students–say, three honors or AP sections of most subjects. Of course, many students might opt to have only one or two honors or AP classes–either to keep their course workloads manageable, or just because their interests and aptitudes were strongest in those areas. So, even with only three honors sections of every course, many more than 20% or even 30% of the school might have SOME honors or AP classes, even if in every subject the “regular” courses still had a diverse range representing roughly 80% of the students.

    I also think the idea in the proposal of making AP courses open to everyone might be one more sign of the district’s extreme conflict avoidance. Right now, they get badgered by parents wanting to get their kids into the one honors option open to freshmen (Accelerated Biology), so they don’t want to be badgered anymore. They may not realize that once there are two or three honors sections of EVERY course, people won’t be hammering at the doors to get into them–and, for example, some families will opt OUT of Accelerated Biology in favor of Accelerated History, Accelerated English, Accelerated Spanish, etc.

    Certainly, admission to AP courses should be based on multiple criteria–ranging from student self-selection with an essay, to teacher nomination, to test results, to previous grades, etc. However, allowing acceptance with NO criteria being met might well lead to the AP courses filling up with thoroughly average middle-class students, to the benefit of almost nobody.

    The above is obviously just my two cents. What do the two of you think?

  4. Vicki

    I don’t think there is a firm source or a good number, but from more than one person I heard that talk about “what would this look like” referenced the 70/30 (for West), with the 70% being in the accelerated, not the preparatory (this may just be loose talk, so take it for what it is worth, I do think the “what will this look like” questions — like much else — need good answers) .

    17.9 % of West 10th graders were below proficient on the last WKCE Reading test and 21.2% on Math. Advanced reading is 64.1%; Math 37.9%.

    • Vicki says:

      So, it sounds like their “accelerated” track wouldn’t really be all that accelerated, and their “preparatory” track might be closer to what we would ordinarily think of as remedial (rather than, say, average or “proficient” students who would like to get ready for truly accelerated coursework)… In that case, I doubt that anything close to 70% of the student body at West would really be taking AP classes, except maybe in one or two subjects as seniors. Curious…

      • Vicki says:

        By the way, the reason for my question about the source of the 70/30 estimate is that some teachers at West have apparently been spreading “erroneous and inflammatory information” (to quote Ed’s original blog post). So, I think it’s important to know whether the “loose talk” from which this estimate was derived is based on some teacher’s nightmare scenario, or if it’s based on casual comments made by the people who actually developed the proposal. If the former, I wouldn’t give it too much emphasis.

  5. Two things. I did not hear this from a teacher, nor sourced to a teacher.

    Second, there is so much confusion and so little information that I don’t put much weight in the 70/30 and now regret citing it (although it sounds like you had heard it too). I should have just written “will the unknown student split in Dual Pathways be appropriate for TAG students? ” and noted that estimates are needed.

  6. In response to TJ’s questions,

    1. My understanding is that “no committee that would include teachers” was ever assembled and so there were no meetings.

    2. The second question is whether there was any explicit discussion of the 9th and 10th grade classes at West during the Board’s consideration of adoption of the TAG plan. I raised the point during our Board discussion of the plan. As I recall, I observed that I thought the terms of the TAG plan were inconsistent with the structure of the 9th and 10th grade classes at West. I don’t recall the substance of the response I received from the administration representatives at the meeting, but I recall it not being very specific. I haven’t gone back to look at the video of the meeting to double-check this. I don’t recall any other discussion of the point.

    As to the 70/30 number, I asked during my meeting about the Dual Pathways proposal with Dan Nerad, Pam Nash and Sue Ablanalp if anyone had a sense or expectation as to how the numbers would play out – what percentage of students would choose some or all accelerated classes and what percentage would choose preparatory classes. Pam answered that that had not been a point of discussion, but her off-the-cuff estimate was that maybe 30% of students would choose the accelerated path and 70% preparatory. This was offered as a tentative guess in an attempt to provide me some context and not as a claim or assertion that people should rely upon in forming opinions about the plan.

    As to Vicki’s points, I’d personally be delighted to have the problem of “too many” students choosing the accelerated option. I don’t think this would necessarily result in the rigor or quality of the classes being diluted. During the 2008-2009 school year, the last year for which data are available, only 9.2% of MMSD students took AP tests – a percentage that seems to me to be way too low, and that is lower than the average for school districts in Dane County. Jay Matthews, the Washington Post education reporter and blogger, has written a lot about the advantages of opening the door wide to AP classes for all high school students willing to accept the challenge. Here’s an example:

    And here, by the way, is a document that describes the two English AP classes – composition and literature – and includes sample questions from AP tests:

  7. Ruth Spinks says:

    Three things. First, is it your impression that the dual pathways proposal is not calling for a preparatory English 11 and English 12 class in addition to accelerated (AP) sections? The original “High School Pathways Overview” sent to teachers from Pam Nash clearly lists under the preparatory heading for the 11-12 school year, “11th and 12th grade courses implemented.” You state that the plan only calls for the addition of AP Lit and AP Language. If you’re right, is the administration not to blame for some lack of clarity in the original communication? Did teachers deliberately misinform? Or were they dreadfully misinformed by Nerad and Nash? I know several teachers at West, and I’m very hesitant to dub them “unprofessional.”

    Secondly, you ask whether “we want to offer accelerated class offerings to all students in all grades, or . . . follow the heterogeneous classroom model in place at West?” Are you aware that West does offer accelerated classes to juniors and seniors (arguably, they offer accelerated classes to sophomores, too, since students can take English 10 as ninth graders and skip straight to electives as sophomores)? Your language makes it seem like West is more heterogeneous with its grouping than may be the case.

    And third, given that the AP courses are year-long classes–effectively four semesters worth of class–isn’t it fair to say not just that “the addition of these classes will make it impossible as a practical matter to continue every English elective that is currently offered at West,” but that the addition of these classes will almost guarantee a drastic reduction in the number of Honors elective courses offered at West? And if the plan is also to implement a preparatory track at 11th and 12th grade, then the necessary consequence will essentially be the death of the current English course offerings. Perhaps the students at West were in such an uproar not because they were manipulated by a cabal of teachers but because they take ownership over their education–in large part because they are allowed to choose their courses from among several diverse and captivating offerings. West’s curricular offerings are closest to a small college’s (and thus great for college prep) but also mirror the pursuit of interest that non-college-bound students will face, too.

  8. In response to Ruth Spinks’ questions:

    1. It is my impression (but nothing more than that) that the dual pathways proposal is not calling for a preparatory English 11 and English 12 class in addition to accelerated (AP) sections.

    2. I am aware that West offers accelerated classes to juniors and seniors. I apologize if my post may have been ambiguous in this respect.

    3. I do know that AP courses are year-long classes. It would not surprise me to learn that the addition of an AP Literature and AP Composition class would result in the reduction of two other English elective offerings each semester. Is that a drastic reduction? Doesn’t seem so to me. It could be that so many students sign up for the AP classes that additional sections are added, and this could further reduce elective offerings. But, to my mind, if those are the class selections that students make, then the school should try to accommodate those choices.

  9. I just want to point to a related issue and that is that due (at least in part) to budget constraints many students cannot now get into the electives of their choice (academic and otherwise) and even after going to second and third choices students are left with holes in their schedules. Resource/study halls can be good things, but when they are the choice solely because classes are not available, that’s a problem.

    I’ll add that “open access” should mean sections are added to the level of interest. That is not the case now and I fear it won’t be after the reform, especially if the Board continues to not use their full revenue authority (the levy they/you are poised to approve on Monday is $14 or so million under the amount allowed).

  10. Clarification — I’m just reading the latest budget documents and it looks like the technical underlevy is down to about $10 million. Fund 80 is outside this calculation, but the levy there is over $2 million less than in 2008-9. Call the underlevy $12 million?

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