What’s Going On with Personalized Pathways?

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

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

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

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

Under the circumstances, it wasn’t surprising that I received the following comment on an unrelated post:

Ed, as a regular reader of (and less frequent commentator on) your blog, let me repeat what I’ve said before, I consider it one of my primary go to” sources to go to for understanding the issues facing our schools. Having said that, I am surprised and disappointed to see literally nothing here about Personalized Pathways. Forgive me for posting the comment here, but there is no blog entry relevant to it that I can see.

This has almost come out of the blue for me & other parents. We saw the news of the grant earlier this year, maybe thought “oh that sounds intriguing, might be a good option for some students, can’t wait to hear more,” but then nothing more until …. BAM! Suddenly we hear it is rolling out literally this month (8th grade signups), and the goal is not to make it an alternative, but rather the only approach available to high school students by the end of the rollout (about 7 years? Maybe less?) If you haven’t heard already, a large crowd of concerned parents turned out for an information meeting at West last night (if you haven’t heard, ask T.J., he was there for most of it). The meeting was an exercise in exasperation for most of us, as although the “plan” is to ultimately have 100% of students to eventually choose one of these “pathways,” time and again specific questions about details were met with variations on “nothing beyond the first two years of the Health pathways rollout has been planned.” We were given no information how many “pathways” there will ultimately be (not even a range) — let alone what specific “careers” they would be in.

Also, I think I was not the only one who felt it was disingenuous how staff claimed there was no connection between PP and the referendum. The people who showed up at this meeting last night are among the most engaged in these issues, and we’re not idiots. Staff can’t say in one breath that PP is going to be great because, among other things, it will allow for “smaller learning communities” and “more personalized student engagement,” in another breath that the referendum is necessary to avoid staff cuts and funding of key initiatives, and then in a third breath that the adoption of PP is not tied to the fate of the referendum. Or rather, if that is literally true, then we as rational thinking adults have to question the purpose of this referendum, when we are being told that we supposedly have the resources to develop, implement, and staff such an enormous transformation of our high schools with existing resources.

PP may be a good thing.

Here’s my response:

Implementation of Personalized Pathways (“PP”) is not directly tied to the referendum.  But if the referendum fails, could that have a detrimental impact on PP?  Sure.  If the referendum fails and the legislature continues the same approach it has taken to revenue limits for the last six years, then the school district will likely have to find at least $12 million in reductions in next year’s budget.  Under that scenario, every initiative is at risk, including PP.   We would be scrambling to minimize impacts on our classrooms and would be looking for cuts everywhere.

That said, PP doesn’t look to me to be a particularly expensive undertaking.  In this year’s budget, we added about $700,000 for PP.  $400,000 of that is for professional development, and that was largely paid for through a generous grant from the Joyce Foundation.  The rest was for an additional 3.4 positions at middle and high schools to support academic and career planning and experiential learning coordination.

Next year, each high school will offer a health services pathway, probably for somewhere between one-fourth and one-sixth of the freshmen at each school.  This will affect scheduling, but I’m not aware that it would require extra classes to be offered, with their attendant extra expense.  (There is also no reason to think that next year’s pathways will force the elimination of particular courses or electives, as has apparently been rumored.)

So, I am not fully informed on this, but I don’t know that our budget will have to increase a great deal next year in order to support the first pathways. However, if the referendum fails we will have to cut a lot of positions and find other savings.  It’s logical to think that Board members would look at reducing expenses related to PP if that means cutting fewer classroom teacher positions.

Let me emphasize that I think uncertainty about PP or unhappiness about communications about PP would be poor reasons to vote against the referendum, akin to burning down one of our schools because you don’t like new carpeting that was being installed.

My views are informed, of course, by my belief that while the PP initiative is undoubtedly important, it isn’t something to get terrifically exercised about at this point.  There has been a lot of planning that has gone into PP over the last few years, and there are successful PP programs around the country that we have looked at and have visited and that we can learn from.  But, while I understand that the uncertainty can be a source of frustration, it really is true that we’ll learn about PP as we begin to implement it and we’ll make adjustments along the way.

We know that each of the four high schools will offer a health service pathway next year.  It will be optional.  No one has to sign up.  I assume many families will take a wait-and-see approach.

We don’t yet know what the next pathway will be, and whether it will be the same at each of the schools.  Maybe East will look at a pathway addressing the science and politics of food.  Maybe West will look at a social justice pathway. Maybe Memorial will figure out a pathway that will capitalize on its terrific debate and forensic programs.  Maybe LaFollette will construct a pathway based on the dual-language immersion program.   Each of the schools and their school communities will have a lot to say about defining subsequent pathways.

At this point, we also don’t know if we’ll eventually end up “wall-to-wall” with all students in some pathway, or whether non-pathway options will always be available.  There are champions of the wall-to-wall approach among those working on PP. But that’s not a decision that will have to be made for a while so we’ll be able to take into account how the early years of the program have been working and how they are perceived by students and families before deciding for sure.

Other than the communications shortcomings, I’m not sure of the reasons for all the PP pushback.  I’m guessing some may be concerned that pathways sound like vocational education and will represent a dumbing-down of the curriculum.  There is certainly no reason why this should be the case.

My daughter is currently in her second year at the UW Medical School.  I think a health services pathway would have been terrific for her during her years at East. I’m imagining an economics elective that focuses on the economics of our health care system. An English class where the students read fiction like The Death of Ivan Ilyich and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, plus nonfiction like The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and When Breath Becomes Air.  Statistics as a math elective.   Field trips to Epic and Access Community Health Centers.  There are a ton of possibilities.  The goal, after all, is to make a better, richer, more engaging, and — yes — more rigorous high school experience available for all our students.

You can find more information on PP on the school district’s website here.  More questions?  Leave a comment.




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One Response to What’s Going On with Personalized Pathways?

  1. Mark says:

    Thanks for responding to my concerns Ed. I regret I don’t have much time to organize my thoughts for a more coherent response, but let me put out a few things:

    “Implementation of Personalized Pathways (“PP”) is not directly tied to the referendum.” — The email blast we got from MMSD last month states PP as one of six bullet points that the referendum is needed to realize, and the Superintendent also said this clearly at the Memorial presentation a couple weeks ago (the quote is even in the State Journal)

    “There is also no reason to think that next year’s pathways will force the elimination of particular courses or electives, as has apparently been rumored.” Yes there are “rumors,” my daughter has been told an elective was hoping to take next year may not be offered. The source of this rumor is the instructor of the course. At the West parent gathering this concern was also expressed, and the response was vague and hard to understand, but I think the gist was that maybe electives would be dropped but there isn’t necessarily a direct connection to PP?

    “PP doesn’t look to me to be a particularly expensive undertaking.” – You are citing numbers for next year, which I don’t think is the ultimate question; it’s the final cost. In any case you will notice that my comment you are replying to actually said nothing at all about the expense, outside of the fact that it may prevent other things from being done. Although I could say some things about this I don’t think I’ll into that direction now.

    “At this point, we also don’t know if we’ll eventually end up “wall-to-wall” with all students in some pathway, or whether non-pathway options will always be available.” — “Wall to wall” was presented as the desired goal at last Thursdays meeting, A pdf linked from the page you gave a link to in your last sentence uses the adjective “all” and “every” on numerous slides. Please understand that at the meeting Thursday, there was actually a fair amount of qualified support/enthusiasm for PP as an *alternative.* West already has an “engineering track” developed in coordination with UW Madison which seems pretty cool to me, although my children were not interested. Even parents of kids who thrive in the current system understand that others’ do not, and may benefit more from different approaches. But understand that some of us are sending our kids to West because we like the current system (myself included; when we moved to Madison 7 years ago, we would only look at houses in the West district; we even dismissed our first realtor because she wouldn’t accept that we were firm about that requirement). It is extremely troubling to us that no one (including you here) is able to say “the things you like most about your school will still exist in 5 years” Instead much was said about the desire to align all four high schools to the same curriculum, which seemed like further indication that what makes West special to us won’t be preserved.

    “The school district’s communications to students and families about pathways has fallen a bit short.” — That may qualify as the understatement of the year. I searched both google and my email to see where I could have learned more about this. In my email, “Personalized Pathways” was one agenda item for a parent meeting held at West on Monday, 2/10/14, with no further text what that meant (also that agenda was only sent out the preceding Friday at 5:56pm … but that’s a discussion topic for another time). The next email communications was for the meeting last week — which only happened AFTER parents learned about what was going on through their own means & started asking questions at the Memorial referendum presentation. Searching google, the only mention of public meetings I could find mention of were two held at Madison Baptist churches in early January 2016 (at least this answers a question that was left unanswered last Thursday: Principal Thompson’s presented that parental feedback on PP had been solicited, but when numerous voices asked when & where that had happened, she couldn’t say). The sad truth is that all the parents I talked to ultimately learned about this from our kids, not from any direct MMSD communication. Even though the 8th grade rollout is happening this month!

    Coming at this from a different angle, there was one parent who said her position at UW School of Medicine & Public Health was directly involved with the initial pathway’s “Health Equity for Social Justice” theme. After expressing how wonderful such a program could be, she wondered aloud “but why am I only hearing about this now, why hasn’t SMPH been asked to be involved?”

    Finally, re the comment “I think uncertainty about PP or unhappiness about communications about PP would be poor reasons to vote against the referendum, akin to burning down one of our schools because you don’t like new carpeting that was being installed.” I am certainly sympathetic to this POV. I should be (always have been) a reliable yes vote for school referendums, I have never been as concerned as I am about this one. The somewhat deceptive way the cost is being expressed doesn’t reassure me either. But I think your analogy here is poor. If PP is ultimately implemented “wall to wall,” it is actually THAT side of the argument that is advocating “burning down the school.” Not the parents expressing reservations. What we are saying is “We can see that parts of this school need to be rebuilt. We are not opposed to you “burning down” *those* parts so you can erect something more useful. We are just nervous that *you* (not we) are talking about possibly burning down the whole thing, because we think some parts of this school are fine as they are and shouldn’t be torn down.”

    Whew. Thank you again for your time, as always, Ed, sorry again if my thoughts come across are disjointed and rambling.

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