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advanced learning

Although MMSD is identifying less advanced learner students overall, the district reports increased numbers for underrepresented groups. 

Though the Madison Metropolitan School District revised its advanced learner program in recent years, some schools are still struggling to provide tailored classroom instruction for qualified students.

The district defines advanced learners as students who demonstrate, or have the potential to demonstrate, high performance in one or more areas.

MMSD contracted with the consulting firm RMC Research to evaluate its advanced learner program for students in kindergarten through eighth grade during the 2015-2016 school year. That included surveying teachers, advanced learners and their parents about the effectiveness of the program.

Laurie Fellenz, interim director of advanced learning, and Lisa Kvistad, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, presented survey findings to the Madison School Board on Monday night.

The evaluation found that the district's new process for identifying advanced learners decreased the number of students eligible for the program but provided enrolled students a more tailored experience. At the same time, the survey found an increase in the percentage of advanced learners from underrepresented populations, including African-American and Latino students.

Out of the nine principals and 11 teachers who returned the survey, only half said their school provides differentiated instruction to advanced learners in classrooms. Most advanced learning students are “tier one,” meaning they are in classrooms with traditional students but should receive tailored assignments to meet their learning needs. The survey also found that teachers, students and parents are still unclear on the factors used to identify an advanced learner. 

Only 31 percent of advanced learning female students and just over 40 percent of male students surveyed said their teachers “frequently” or “always” gave them assignments that were challenging.

School Board vice president Mary Burke asked if the survey data was representative of the district as a whole, given the small sample size. About 200 of the district’s 3,200 advanced learners — and more than 700 parents — completed the survey.

 “Is it representative of the overall student body?” Burke said. “If I am using the data to form conclusions, I’d like to try to understand whether it's biased."

Fellenz pointed to administrative changes at the time the survey was given as a reason for the small number of participants. She said the small sample size was also “called out as a limitation” in the data by consultants.

MMSD is in the third year of its six-year plan to revamp the advanced learner program. The board will consider consultant feedback, revise the plan as needed and implement recommendations in the next school year.

School Board member Ed Hughes asked what the district can do to ensure that all students are served appropriately in the classroom.

“Everyone sees the need for providing services to kids with disabilities or English language learners, but there is more of an ambivalence, at times, with regard to advanced learners,” Hughes said. “What kind of accountability systems are there in place, such that, if a school isn’t providing the sort of services to advanced learners that we want them to, something is done about it?”

Kvistad said monitoring advanced learner progress and providing dedicated staff at each school for advanced learners could improve results.

“I do think we have improved because we actually have a plan now and we are actually reporting out on the data around advanced learners,” Kvistad said. “I think that has helped a lot to illustrate both the need and the importance of our advanced learning (instructional resource teachers) and the work they do in the buildings.”

In 2014, MMSD began the process of reworking its advanced learner program. Changes included hiring full-time instructional resource teachers for every school to coach classroom teachers on differentiating instruction for advanced learners; a systematic approach to identifying advanced learners using a combination of grades, test scores, student work samples and teacher observations; and providing multiple kinds of support for educating advanced learners, including one-on-one interventions.

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The same year, the Department of Public Instruction also mandated that school districts create a process for identifying and supporting advanced learners in areas of leadership, creativity and the arts. Although MMSD has the greatest number of advanced learners in math and English, other areas include science, social studies, music, theater and visual arts.

Three parents and community members provided feedback to the board about the advanced learner program on Monday night. Vicki Bier, professor of engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said while the district has made strides in advanced learning, it needs to do more to ensure students are supported.

“The goal is to meet students where they are and give them what they need,” she said. “I don’t think the district yet has a method in place to know which identified students are and are not getting their needs met.”

Christina Gomez-Schmidt organizes the Madison Partnership for Advanced Learning, a group of MMSD parents, teachers and community members. In an interview with the Cap Times after Monday's meeting, Gomez-Schmidt said the district should use RMC's report to improve outcomes for advanced learners overall, and underrepresented groups in particular.

"The report highlighted a lot of challenges that (the advanced learning) department has faced over the years," she said. "I think with the recommendations made around identification and communication, professional development and instruction, the district can use that as a road map going forward for improving advanced learning and including students from all backgrounds."

Gomez-Schmidt said MPAL expects "the district will hold every school accountable for providing advanced instruction to students who are ready for challenge beyond grade level standards."

"This must happen at the same time schools do the critical work of bringing other students to grade level proficiency," she said.

"We also know that the district is dedicated to identifying more students from diverse backgrounds who can benefit from advanced learning and MPAL will support the district in those efforts," she said.

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