The Six Major Components of the MMSD High School Plan

In an earlier post, I provided my understanding of the background of the protest at West High about the proposal for changes in the District’s high school curriculum.  I explained how the proposal was an outgrowth of the work that has gone on at the high schools for the last few years under the auspices of a federal grant, known as the REaL grant (for Relationships, Engagement and Learning).

That proposal, which will affect all four of the District’s comprehensive high schools and is now known as the High School Career and College Readiness Plan, has since evolved somewhat, partially in response to the feedback that has been received and partially as a consequence of thinking the proposals through a bit more.

Here is where things currently stand.

The high school proposal should start a conversation that could last for a few years regarding a long-term, systematic review of our curriculum and the way it is delivered to serve the interests of all learners.  What’s currently on the table is more limited in scope, though it is intended to serve as the foundation for later work.

The principal problem the proposal is meant to address is that we currently don’t have any district-defined academic standards at the high school level.  There is no established set of expectations for what skills students should be learning in each subject area each year.  Since we don’t have any basic expectations, we also don’t have any specific and consistent goals for accelerated learning.  A corollary of this is that we really don’t have many ways to hold a teacher accountable for the level of learning that goes on in his or her classroom.  Also, we lack a system of assessments that would let us know how our students are progressing through high school.

The high school and career readiness plan as currently contemplated has six components designed to remedy these shortcomings.

The first component of the plan, and its basic, foundational goal, is to identify on a district-wide basis the sets of skills (standards) that students should be learning each year in the four core subject areas of math, English, science and social studies.  These are sometimes referred to as essential understandings, but it seems more useful to refer to them as academic skills.

We will be looking to two source documents to identify these skills.  The first is the set of ACT College Readiness Standards.  They can be found here.  The second is the Common Core State Standards.  These are a set of standards that were recently developed nationally and have quickly been adopted in Wisconsin and many other states.  They can be found here.  Tim Peterson, the District’s Assistant Director-Curriculum and Assessment, is in the process of preparing a document that compares the two sets of standards.

The ACT College Readiness Standards are written in terms of skills that can be tested on an ACT-like test, such as “Correctly use reflexive pronouns, the possessive pronouns its and your, and the relative pronouns who and whom.”  The Common Core standards are much more elaborate.  Here is an example of a Common Core Writing Standard for Grades 11-12 students:

Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

a.      Introduce a topic; organize complex ideas, concepts, and information so that each new element builds on that which precedes it to create a unified whole; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., figures, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.

b.      Develop the topic thoroughly by selecting the most significant and relevant facts, extended definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples appropriate to the audience’s knowledge of the topic.

c.      Use appropriate and varied transitions and syntax to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships among complex ideas and concepts.

d.      Use precise language, domain-specific vocabulary, and techniques such as metaphor, simile and analogy to manage the complexity of the topic.

e.      Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing.

f.       Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the information or explanation presented (e.g., articulating implications or the significance of the topic).

Curriculum experts from the District as well as REaL grant coordinators and department chairs from the high schools (and more teachers as well; the formation of the group is still a work in progress) will be putting together a document or guide for use in all four high schools that will specify, for example, that in 3rd year English classes, students will be given writing assignments that teachers will assess by judging them against the Common Core standard quoted above.

This guide will specify the skills to be covered but will not be prescriptive regarding the content of the class.  So, a student in the 3rd year English class will have the specified writing assignment, but the subject of the essay will be up to the teacher.  There is nothing in the standards that states that the students are to read works by Charles Dickens and Toni Morrison in their sophomore English class, for example, but the standards will discuss the skills the students should be able to display when analyzing whatever readings the teacher does assign.

A better system of assessments goes hand-in-hand with the development of coherent and consistent academic standards.  The second component of the high school plan is the introduction of the EXPLORE, PLAN and ACT tests.  These tests are collectively known as the EPAS system and are aligned to the ACT college readiness standards.

The plan calls for the administration of the EXPLORE test to all 8th and 9th grade students in the district this year, adding the PLAN test for 10th grade students in 2011-2012 and the ACT for 11th grade students in 2012-2013.

The third component of the plan calls for embedded honors in all core subjects (except accelerated classes).  This is an offshoot of the larger goal of increasing rigor and expectations across the board.  Successful implementation of this step will require significant professional development for teachers, who will be called upon to differentiate their curriculum effectively.  That curriculum will be keyed to the specified academic standards for the class that are identified as part of the first step described above.  Professional development will also be provided on effective ways of providing support to struggling students and how to structure effective teaching strategies to enhance comprehension and skill development.  Since the professional development has not yet taken place and the academic standards have not yet been identified, implementation of this component will take some time.

The fourth component of the plan is advanced course offerings available in the core subjects for students in all grades in all high schools.  The advanced courses will be available for any students who feel up to the challenge; no teacher recommendation or other special application procedure will be required, other than successful completion of any course prerequisites.  A specific goal is to increase the number of students of color who sign up for and successfully complete advanced classes.  The new assessments completed as part of this plan will help students and parents/guardians make appropriate decisions about what classes to choose.

This component of the plan will require changes in the 9th and 10th grade English and social studies classes at West and ninth grade English, social studies and science classes at Memorial.  The genesis for these changes is independent of the West parents’ DPI complaint, and in fact the changes are called for in the district’s strategic plan (“create accelerated learning opportunities for all students”).  I understand that teachers at West and at Memorial are working on developing the new accelerated options that will be offered next year.

The fifth component of the plan calls for more A.P. classes to be offered at the high schools.  This is a logical extension of the fourth component of the plan.  If we are going to offer accelerated options to all students in the core subject areas, then it makes sense to look to A.P. classes to fill this need where appropriate.

Adding more A.P. classes has two dimensions.  First, where there is a gap in a school’s advanced offerings, the addition of a new A.P. class is a good way to fill it.  For example, East added A.P. English Literature and Language last year and A.P. English Composition and Literature this year to fill some gaps in its English curriculum.  The second dimension is seeking to obtain an A.P. designation for existing classes that already cover the general subject area at a high level of rigor.  A high-level math class at West became an A.P. Calculus BC class within the last few years.  The same process could probably be followed for some other existing classes at West.  It takes a fair amount of work for the teacher to obtain the A.P. designation (the national organization has to approve the specific syllabus) but it is doable.

The sixth component of the plan is the middle school piece.  If we are to be successful in increasing the enrollment in advanced classes of students from traditionally under-represented groups, the process has to start before high school.  We will have to align the core classes in middle school to the high school curriculum so that middle school students will have the proper academic foundation to flourish in high school.  We will also need to incorporate useful assessments as an accountability measure and a planning tool for students.  Such assessment should help us to identify students of promise so that we can provide them appropriate levels of challenge and prepare them to pursue advanced classes in high school.

More specifically, the plan calls for expanding the AVID program into the middle schools.  The current plan contemplates new staff at the middle schools who would both work on instituting an AVID program and administer programming options through the Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth (WCATY).  In addition, the plan calls for instituting the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment system in the middle schools.  The MAP test is taken on computers and is described as a dynamic test – if the student answers a question correctly, the program automatically generates a more difficult question, and if the answer is wrong the next question is easier.

So, that’s a summary of what is currently planned.  As I understand it, these six basic components of the plan are not open for debate, but there is a lot to talk about with teachers and others regarding effective implementation and the best ways to integrate these components into the distinctive fabrics of the four high schools.

Schedule-wise, the current school year is to be devoted to identifying the academic skills by year that we should expect our students to be mastering in the four core subject areas and planning for the necessary professional development.  Also, all 9th and 10th graders will take the EXPLORE test this year.

Next year, the 2011-2012 school year, we’ll be offering accelerated classes in all four high schools and will be implementing the professional development plan.  In addition to the EXPLORE test for 9th and 10th graders, the PLAN test will be given to 10th graders.

In 2012-2013, the ACT will be added for 11th graders and the four high schools will offer more consistent courses in all four core subject areas, aligned to our newly-established academic standards, with accelerated options.

This schedule assumes that we can identify adequate funding for the additional testing, and professional development, and student supports the plan calls for.  It also assumes that the School Board approves and supports the proposal.  The plan as a whole has not yet come before the Board, though a number of the components are included in the District’s strategic plan

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One Response to The Six Major Components of the MMSD High School Plan

  1. DianeBH says:

    Ed,

    Thanks for such a clear explanation. Question re:

    ==The advanced courses will be available for any students who feel up to the challenge; no teacher recommendation or other special application procedure will be required, other than successful completion of any course prerequisites.
    ==

    I can envision some folks considering this tracking if the prerequisites are limiting. For instance, “Sure, you can jump into advanced English 11, but only if you took advanced English 10…”

    That might not leave room for the person who, for whatever reason (more confidence, outside tutoring, a desire to work harder, etc.) has jumped in ability level, or who just wants the challenge. (They may be willing to be a C student in an advanced class rather than an A or B student in a general class.)

    My kids aren’t in high school here yet, but I’m assuming each class/grade has finals at the end of the year. I’d recommend allowing any student to take the final exam of a prerequisite class, if they haven’t taken that class — and if they pass it, then they could go into the advanced class without needing the prereq.

    That would allow for a kid who repeated algebra in 9th grade (and therefore would normally take geometry in 10th grade) to potentially move up to whatever the advanced 10th grade math class is, if he can pass the geometry final – even though he hasn’t taken geometry. That particular kind of jump is less likely than a jump in English, but it’s certainly possible. And it would allow kids to get advanced classes at any point in their high school career, whether they’d taken the prereq or not.

    Just a thought….

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