Jennifer Cheatham file photo (copy)

Madison Schools Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham

Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham called for a renewed focus on teaching and learning in the Madison Metropolitan School District Wednesday as she previewed her strategic framework to a warm reception from the Downtown Rotary Club.

Cheatham pointed to the difference in education outcomes among different groups of students in the district — commonly called the achievement gap — and suggested recasting the phenomenon as an “opportunity gap.” And then she invited the community to join in efforts to improve Madison schools.

“I’ve never seen a community more ready to raise the bar for all students,” Cheatham told a filled dining room at the Inn on the Park. “And we have all the ingredients to be successful.”

Cheatham’s strategic framework will be formally presented at a press conference at 11 a.m. Thursday at Leopold Elementary School, 2602 Post Road. The framework draws on themes that Cheatham has already been referencing in talking about the future, and which were detailed in an Entry Plan Report released in June, and reviewed in a draft overview by the school board earlier this month.

Priorities are:

  • A coherent instructional plan with a well-rounded, culturally responsive, common curriculum and assessment system.
  • Personalized pathways to college, career and community readiness through individualized or alternative programs.
  • Renewed engagement of families and community partners.
  • A thriving workforce in an environment that attracts, develops and retains top talent in an atmosphere of accountability at every level and commitment to continuous improvement.

“We’ve got to change the way we work in order to see real results,” Cheatham said.

“Much of what you’re hearing today may not seem particularly new and flashy. I realize that, because it isn’t,” she concluded. “The day-to-day work that makes real change and yields results for all students is not flashy. It’s not about an array of new programs and initiatives and it’s not about a big price tag. It’s about the hard work of staying focused on teaching and learning despite the myriad distractions to pull us from that focus.”

No new strategies for closing the achievement gap were outlined in Cheatham’s framework, but she commented in response to a question from the audience that the factors contributing to the gap are complex.

“I worry when people oversimplify it and immediately equate it with issues of poverty," she said. "There’s a strong base of research that says that quality of teaching has the highest impact on student learning and highest effect on narrowing the achievement gap."

School Board President Ed Hughes said Cheatham’s framework renewing the focus on what happens in the classroom has captured the attention of teachers.

“It is a tangible and energizing set of commitments to common goals among everyone,” he said.

Special education teacher Peggy Coyne, president of Madison Teachers Inc., was part the 60-person team of teachers, principals and administrative staff whose input guided development of the strategic framework. Cheatham’s idea of pulling together such a varied group was “genius,” Coyne said.

There is excitement about the plan among the rank and file, Coyne said, but added that even a call for a return to basics can’t deny the importance of factors like class size and how high student-teacher ratios are barriers to excellence in teaching.

“But we’re finally stopping the blame game, and the name calling,” Coyne said. “People seem to be ready to roll up their sleeves and work with others. That’s the only way a for a good school system to operate – when everybody feels ownership."

Perry Henderson, a retired physician and member of 100 Black Men of Madison and other civic groups, was impressed with Cheatham’s plan and happy to hear her respond to a question about making internet technology more available to all students. He didn’t have time to pose his related question about shifting the focus from teaching content — now readily available at a finger’s touch online — to teaching how to learn. Henderson said Cheatham provided “broad strokes” of an achievement gap plan, and he’s willing to wait a bit to hear details.

Fred Mohs, a former member of the UW System Board of Regents who has been involved in Madison civic issues, said Cheatham’s plan was "very business-like."

"It reminded me of what you might hear in the board room from a new CEO, with lots of good sound practices," said Mohs. "I was impressed."

"I can see why they hired her,” Mohs continued. "She sounds like someone who will be taskmaster, develop goals then demand accountability. I’d be very surprised if she didn’t have some tough talks with people who are not performing."

Does the school district need that?

"Definitely," Mohs said. "Any enterprise needs it, frankly."

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