Wright Middle School hallway (copy)

Students at Wright Middle School make their way through the hallways of the school Monday in Madison. 

Solving a problem is impossible if you refuse to admit that the problem requires significant attention. This is true of Madison’s long-standing approach to advanced academic achievement. Grade-level proficiency is treated like a finish line, not a benchmark on the way to continued academic growth. This severely limits the ability of schools to find and support academic high potential.

Why is this a problem? Earlier this year, the Wisconsin State Journal editorial board highlighted a concerning outflux of students from the Madison Metropolitan School District. Safety concerns might be partly to blame. But a glaring absence of consistent academic challenge in the typical school day no doubt contributes. Despite common knowledge of this lack of rigor, misconceptions over equity issues have limited progress in this area for decades. This has resulted in little action to address significant disparities at the highest levels of achievement.

In 2016, MMSD signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to resolve a two-year formal compliance review. This investigation focused on racial disparities in advanced coursework enrollment in MMSD high schools. The agreement requires the district to take steps to increase both access to and preparation for advanced coursework for black and Latino students. The OCR has said this must include boosting participation in any foundational courses that prepare students to be successful at an advanced level in high school.

Yet these advanced, foundational courses simply do not exist in most Madison elementary and middle schools. In fact, very little advanced instruction in subjects other than math is available to students in grades K-8. This is despite Madison having students with advanced academic talents in many areas including literacy, science, history, world languages, art and music.

MMSD does have many dedicated, hardworking teachers who want every student to learn something new every day. However, even the best teachers have difficulty meeting advanced students’ needs without the systems, structures, and adequate resources to teach at this level. Therefore, Madison consistently falls short of its state-mandated responsibility to provide systematic instruction for students already achieving at advanced levels and for students with the potential to do so.

How do students develop the academic skills needed to succeed in advanced coursework in high school if foundational courses do not exist in earlier grades? Faced with a lack of challenging instruction during the school day, families with resources look elsewhere to meet their children’s learning needs. This may include tutoring, online courses or academically focused enrichment activities. Students who have similar academic potential but not the same resources therefore miss out on that level of learning. In this scenario, gaps in opportunity lead to gaps in achievement that start in kindergarten and grow through elementary, middle and high school. Blaming parents who provide extras is easier than taking a hard look at how schools in general don’t consistently support high-level learning.

This is the crux of the problem. Without a K-12 advanced learning system built upon a strong academic core, MMSD does not have the capacity to equitably support and grow academic high potential. This includes the talent potential of students currently underrepresented at advanced levels: black and Latino students, low-income students, English language learners, and twice-exceptional learners.

What is the solution? (1) Define advanced academic talent in two ways; students who are achieving at high levels and students who have advanced academic potential, even if that potential is masked due to inequities determined by race, income, language or a disability. (2) Invest in high-challenge instruction for subjects beyond math in every Madison K-8 school and expect that students of diverse backgrounds will be included (3) Couple this instruction with a clear equity strategy and talent development program for students from underrepresented groups.

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Now is the time for MMSD and its educational partners to invest in finding and supporting advanced academic potential during the school day. Otherwise, the disparities found by the Office for Civil Rights investigation will persist as the result of our own continued neglect. Equity is not a valid reason to ignore advanced academic achievement. Instead, racial and economic disparities at this level are the critical reason for public education to take action.

Christina Gomez Schmidt organizes the Madison Partnership for Advanced Learning advocacy network.

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