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Education forum shows divide persists over achievement gap strategy

Education forum shows divide persists over achievement gap strategy

Some big names in educational reform came to Madison this week at the invitation of the Urban League of Greater Madison to hype ideas on making schools more responsive to students of color, but their appearances seem to have ushered in less in the way of new ideas than another round of heated debate over the race-based achievement gap in the Madison School District.

The two-day Educate to Elevate event, at two venues, was part fundraiser (with a $500-a-plate luncheon and private VIP party with headliners Geoffrey Canada and John Legend, part seminar on innovative programs and part call-to-action to demand change.

I was able to make only short portions of the program on each day, but what was said at the podium and by Madisonians in and out of the audience convinced me of a few things. A year after the Madison School Board rejected a controversial Urban League proposal for a charter school aimed at African-American students, the desire in the community to level the playing field for students of color remains deep. The divisions over how to do it are rooted even more deeply.

And for anyone who misses the high-flying rhetoric over student achievement that had the issue on everybody’s lips in Madison a year ago, Urban League CEO Kaleem Caire, the architect of the Madison Preparatory Academy charter school plan, is promising another round of intense debate to come.

That the events this week — which organizers say attracted about 375 attendees on Thursday and 220 on Friday — spoke to some was plain to me.

“It’s a powerful message on the need for us to make changes when it comes to children and education,” Michelle Belnavis, a cultural relevance resource teacher for the Madison School District, told me Thursday.

Anthony Brown Jr., an educational assistant at Crestwood Elementary School, told me that the handful of fifth graders he brought with him were struck by how much people wanted them to succeed in school. “I work with some students whose parents have difficulty getting them to school. We need people in the community to encourage and help each other,” Brown said.

Retired art teachers Henry Hawkins and Gerri Gurman were brimming with enthusiasm after Thursday’s sessions over possibilities to evolve curriculum so that students of color are excited about learning in school. “We have to intervene,” Hawkins said. “I feel a desire to be part of it; I’m thinking about where I can participate more than I have been.”

Gurman thought that the mere fact of the gathering had power. “Anytime you get this many people together — something will come out of it,” she said.

But divisions over strategy, wrapped in ideology, loom as large as ever. The mere mention that the education forum and summit were on tap drew online comments about the connection of school reformers to the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization that generates model legislation for conservative causes.

Conspiracy theorists, opponents retorted.

Democratic state Rep. Brett Hulsey walked out early from the fundraising luncheon because he didn’t like what Canada and Legend were saying about the possibility of reform hinging on the ability to fire ineffective teachers.

Thomas J. Mertz,  a parent and college instructor who blogs on education issues, expressed in a phone interview Friday his indignation over “flying in outside agitators who have spent no time in our schools and telling us what our problems are.”

Mertz said he also was concerned by the involvement of the Madison School District with events delivering anti-union, anti-public education, pro-charter school messages. The school district, for its part, took pains to say that the $5,000 it donated in staff time was for a Friday workshop session and that it had no involvement with the appearances by Canada and Legend.

Madison doesn’t need a summit to whip up excitement over the achievement gap issue, Mertz said when I asked if the Urban League events didn’t at least accomplish that. “It’s at the point where there’s more heat than light,” he said. “There’s all this agitation, but the work is being neglected.”

That’s a charge that School Board President James Howard, who says that the district might decide to mimic some of the practices presented at the summit, flatly denies. “We’re moving full speed ahead,” he said.

But the issue of whether the district is making adequate progress on its achievement gap plan — introduced by former Superintendent Dan Nerad, who left the district in the wake of controversy over Madison Prep — is so contentious that Chief Diversity Officer Shahanna Baldon won’t hazard a comment in the no-win debate.

She does tell me that “eliminating the achievement gap is a whole village effort” and that the school district was excited to partner with the Urban League on Friday’s workshop. “It’s a concrete way to come to come together to have deep conversations and renew commitments to action with an eye towards sustainability.”

Ron Biendseil was hopeful that the school district’s participation was a sign of improved communication. Dialogue between the district, teachers union and Urban League needs to change, he said between sessions Friday. “It needs to move from the institutional level to the human level,” said Biendseil, a retired youth services coordinator for Dane County.  “There’s been a lot of name-calling and vilification, and that’s not productive.”

Caire joked about allegations of his ties to hard-right organizations on Friday, telling audience members whom he was imploring to support the Urban League’s education efforts that “you have all been brought in to the right-wing conspiracy — when you leave here, you have joined the party.”

“Call your school board member,” he told the crowd. “Tell them we need change — and it’s going to be uncomfortable change, because that’s what it takes.”

Caire told me that the school district and teachers union aren’t ready to give up their control over the school system. “The teachers union should be the entity that embraces change. The resources they get from the public should be used for the children’s advantage. What we’re saying is, ‘Be flexible, look at that contract and see how you can do what works.’”

Madison Teachers Inc. head John Matthews responded in an email to me that MTI contracts often include proposals aimed at improving education, in the best interests of students. “What Mr. Caire apparently objects to is that the contract provides those whom MTI represents due process and social justice, workplace justice that all employees deserve.”

If Caire has his way, Madison — and the state — are up for another round of debate over how radically to change education infrastructure to boost achievement of students of color.

He vowed Friday not only to bring back the Madison Prep charter school proposal (“we’re just determining when”), but also to pursue legislation to establish state education innovation funds for schools and school districts.

Caire, who backed a controversial 2011 GOP bill that would have taken control over approving funding for charter schools from local school boards and given it to the state, says the new legislation he’ll ask his board to endorse would target the achievement gap.

“It will address chronically low-performing schools and focus on preparing children for higher education, entrepreneurship and high-vacancy employment in their areas,” Caire told the crowd Friday.

“It’s not about the dialogue we have — it’s about what we do after the dialogue,” he said.

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