Response to West High Parents’ Open Letter

While the School District’s plans for changes to our high school curriculum have evolved, the opposition of some teachers and parents to changes at West High has not.  An “open letter” to the school district from a group of parents has been published in the Cap Times, and an article mentioning the letter is in the State Journal.    TJ Mertz has taken a break from his Common Council race to blog about this as well. 

Here’s my response to the open letter:

As was explained at our workshop last Thursday evening (Jan. 6), there are two changes in the works for our high school curriculum. 

The first, and most important, is an ambitious process to identify district-wide academic standards in the core curriculum areas of English, math, social science, and science, and to align coursework in our core classes to the standards.  The ACT College and Career Readiness standards and (for English and math) the Common Core academic standards recently adopted in Wisconsin will provide the foundation for this work.  As part of this initiative, we will also be adding the EPAS  assessment system, which consists of the EXPLORE test for eighth and ninth graders, the PLAN test for tenth graders, and the ACT for eleventh graders. 

The process of identifying and deciding how best to implement consistent academic standards will include the participation of teachers across the District, as well as opportunities for input and feedback from parents and students.  The current plan calls for the implementation of the standards in core classes for ninth and tenth graders starting with the 2012-2013 school year.  There’s more information on the plan here

I think this initiative to identify and implement consistent, coherent and rigorous academic standards in our core academic classes, starting with high school and eventually extending throughout K-12, is the most important work the District has taken on in the three years I have been on the School Board.  

At this point, this initiative does not call for the addition of more AP classes in our high schools to supplement or replace current electives, though it doesn’t exclude that possibility either.  The extent to which additional AP classes, or anything else, become a component of the plan will depend upon the outcomes of the inclusive planning process that has yet to take place.  It is similarly undetermined at this time what impact the initiative will have on 11th and 12th grade electives; whatever the effect is, it won’t be felt for at least two years.   

At the Board workshop last Thursday, we did not hear any significant objections to this plan.  Ed Holmes, West’s principal, and the two West teachers who serve as the school’s Small Learning Community grant coordinators indicated that the opposition that West teachers expressed toward the addition of 9th and 10th grade accelerated classes did not extend to this academic standards initiative.  

The second change in the works is the addition of accelerated class options in English and social studies for ninth and tenth graders at West and Memorial.  (East and LaFollette already offer such classes.)         

The concerns expressed in the West open letter regarding this change address two interrelated issues.  The first is the policy question of whether we should as a District offer accelerated class options to all our high school students.  I think we should.  Offering the accelerated options furthers the goals of the Strategic Plan and the TAG plan the School Board has approved.  Consistent with these documents, the administration has proceeded with plans for starting accelerated class options in English and social studies for 9th and 10th graders at West and Memorial. 

The second issue, and the one that surfaced last Thursday, was one of implementation.  Specifically, the question was whether there would be enough time to put together the new classes at West and Memorial (though the conversation was expressed exclusively in terms of West) by next fall.  Reference was made to the fact that staff at West had two weeks to put together a description of the new classes for the course catalog for next year.  The issue appeared to be urgent because the course catalogs are going to press this week. 

Speaking for myself, I don’t know why two weeks is considered insufficient time to compose a description of the new classes for a course catalog, or why eight months should be insufficient time to design and prepare to teach the classes. 

But there’s a larger point here.  The Board is responsible for policy decisions.  Whether to work toward more consistency in core academic areas across our high schools and whether to make accelerated course options available to all students are examples of policy decisions that I think fall within the Board’s purview.  Implementation of our policy decisions is left to the administration.  I don’t think that review of the timeline for developing the classes at West, or reviewing the class descriptions in course catalogs, is or should be a Board responsibility.

The open letter is correct that, in contrast to the curricular standards initiative, we are moving forward with the addition of the accelerated class options without seeking out additional teacher, parent or student feedback.  Under the circumstances, I’m comfortable with this approach. 

I understand that the open letter signatories and others, including a number of West teachers, disagree with this decision.  I also understand that reasonable arguments can be made in support of the current arrangement at West.  I respect these views, but I think, on balance, that the approach we’re pursuing is the right one and there is no convincing reason to delay implementation any longer.  

I feel compelled to comment on two additional points that the open letter raise for me.  The first, which bears on the academic standards and curriculum alignment point, urges us to be more deferential to the views and interests of West’s teachers.  The second argues that we should not add the 9th and 10th grade accelerated classes because it will lead to “more segregation.”    

As to the first point, I wish people were a bit less concerned about what will inconvenience or irritate our teachers and a bit more concerned about what’s best for our students.  I think it is absolutely correct that the alignment plan will reduce the autonomy of teachers.  Classes will have to be designed and taught against an overriding structure of curricular standards that will need to be addressed.  I think that is a good thing. 

We’d all like the freedom and autonomy to be able to define our own job responsibilities so that we could spend our time exclusively on the parts of our jobs that we particularly like and are good at, but that is certainly not the way that effective organizations work.  I believe that teachers need to be held accountable for covering a specific, consistent, coherent and rigorous curriculum, because that is what’s best for their students.  I don’t see how holding teachers to curriculum standards should inhibit their skills, creativity or engagement in the classroom.

The second point concerns 9th and 10th grade accelerated class options and the accusation that this will result in “segregation.”  This line of argument has consistently bothered me. 

We don’t hear much from African-American parents who are upset about the possibility of accelerated classes because, as the open letter puts it, they will result in “more segregation.”  On the contrary, we on the Board have heard a number of times from middle class African-American parents who are dissatisfied, sometimes to the point of pulling their kids from our schools, because their kids regularly experience situations where well-meaning teachers and staff assume that because the kids are African-American, they’ll need special help or won’t be able to keep up with advanced class work.  I think that frustration with this essentially patronizing attitude has contributed to community support for the Madison Prep proposal.  It seems to me that the open letter suggests the same attitude.   

I am attaching to the end of this an email sent to the East High discussion group last October by Pete Nelson, an MATC math instructor, who counters the “segregation” claim better than I can.  I think the implication of Mr. Nelson’s position is that we should offer rigorous curriculum and display high expectations in all our classes, whether accelerated or not. 

I reject the idea that we shouldn’t offer accelerated options because we fear we’ll be uncomfortable about the classes’ racial makeup.  Instead, we should work hard to identify and encourage students of promise from typically underrepresented groups before high school, so that they’ll be in a position to enroll and succeed in accelerated class offerings when they get to ninth grade. 

This will be a multi-year undertaking, and the skin tone of the first accelerated classes will probably be predominantly pale.  In the years to come it will be a worthy challenge to our district, our middle schools and our students to create, in Pete Nelson’s memorable words, “a motivated rainbow of a class with a class-wide ethic to achieve deep understanding and a drive to overcome commonplace expectations.”  

There’s another point here as well.  I don’t think these ninth and tenth grade accelerated classes should be designed for only the very highest achieving students.  The classes should be rigorous and move at a faster pace, but there should be room in the classes for smart, hard-working, motivated students who aren’t likely to be National Merit finalists.  It doesn’t make much sense, for example, to start an AVID program specifically designed to prepare promising students from diverse backgrounds for accelerated and AP classes, and then deny them access to those classes, on the basis of an overly selective admission policy (e.g., the past practice for admission to accelerated 9th grade biology at West) or anything else.

Consistent, coherent, rigorous academic standards.  Accelerated options available to all.  High expectations.  Deep understandings.  Sure, our reach may exceed our grasp, but why not see how far that ambitious reach can extend?   

 Here is Pete Nelson’s email from last October: 

 Dear East Community:

 I contribute to this discussion group only once in a blue moon, but this issue is near and dear to my heart and I am compelled to comment.  I cannot think of a more important issue than that of race and racism in our educational institutions.

I speak as a lifelong political progressive who has been active in community issues relating to racism and economic and social disparities for thirty years, from Cleveland to Chicago’s south side to Madison.  More important, I speak as an adult basic instructor in mathematics at MATC who teaches many of the students that have been failed by their experience in the Madison schools, most of them students of color or students mired in the low margins of the socioeconomic system. 

With that said, it frustrates and saddens me see how many well-meaning people have this issue exactly backward.  It is not racist school policy to offer multiple tracks, specifically honors or AP TAG classes.  Rather, racist school policy – of the most insidious nature imaginable – is failing to offer those classes because students of color aren’t in them.  That argument implicitly says that students of color cannot achieve, and that message speaks volumes about the difference between looking fair in some lowest-common-denominator way versus fighting for the hard and true and noble path in student achievement. 

Simply put, we should have TAG classes and they should be filled with students of every class, race and color.  That they have historically not been filled with students of every class, race and color is the real issue.  It tells us that our methods for evaluating students are abysmal, even abusive (how many of you have enjoyed watching your 4th grader take class time to learn to use a squeeze ball to reduce stress on standardized tests?).  It tells us that we are not successfully seeking out students of tremendous potential because we don’t understand them or don’t know how to relate to them or reach them.  It also says that we fail to properly appreciate what a culture of demanding expectations of achievement can do for every student in a classroom, especially when we demand of ourselves to understand and embrace each of our students as strikingly unique individuals and not achievers based upon highly overrated and dubious “educational standards,” standardized test scores or other unhelpful common denominators.

The progress of my classes at MATC this semester is typical and no surprise to me.  I have two algebra classes.  One, downtown, is mostly white and/or middle class.  The other, in South Madison, is almost entirely students of color, most with difficult personal circumstances, most of whom have always failed at math.  One class is achieving well enough. The other class is over-achieving, pushed hard, pushing me back, engaged, holding an average grade of AB.  Any guesses which is which? 

 As educators and supporters of our schools we can do so much better than we do.  But we cannot do better by pretending that differentiation in a classroom can accomplish the same thing as a motivated rainbow of a class with a class-wide ethic to achieve deep understanding and a drive to overcome commonplace expectations. 

 I say that we need both TAG classes and the recruiting methods and policies to make sure that they reflect every kind of brilliance in our community.


 Pete Nelson

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2 Responses to Response to West High Parents’ Open Letter

  1. Jane Doughty says:


    Thank you for this great response. Now if only you could educate your fellow Board members to embrace this point of view, there might be a chance to “save” education in MMSD.

    –Jane Doughty

  2. Anne Spurgeon says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful post.

    You were able to put into words many of my own thoughts and hunches about the atmosphere and faculty mindset at West High since our eldest entered school there in 2003. Our two recent graduates had many challenging and exciting experiences at West, in the arts, in science and math, as well as in the higher level English courses. They spent the better part of their first two years there unchallenged, frustrated and disappointed, though, and it caused more damage to their attitude toward school and toward English and History courses than we realized at the time. Our youngest child heads to West in a couple of years, and we have had some serious discussions about pursuing online schooling, home schooling or other alternatives to avoid 9th grade (and perhaps 10th grade) there. If the school administration continues to develop and implement policies that follow those outlined in your blog post (more accelerated class opportunities, focused recruitment of kids from diverse backgrounds who want and need more challenging coursework, more meaningful evaluation methods) we won’t have to consider sending him anywhere but West.

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