The Madison School District has the resources and expertise to close the achievement gap, a new review finds. It just needs to focus on priorities.

The Madison School District has the money to improve low-income and minority student achievement but needs to reorganize its central administration to put more resources in the classroom, according to a group of local and national education experts who conducted a district review.

“We’re recommending the system turn on its head,” said Robert Peterkin, the former director of Harvard University’s Urban Superintendents Program who led the review team.

New Madison schools superintendent Jennifer Cheatham, a graduate of the Harvard program, organized the team of experts as part of her transition. She plans to consult their recommendations before releasing next month a set of specific strategies and 2013-14 budget proposal.

According to the team’s analysis, students need to be at the top of the “power pyramid” rather than district administration, with the focused goal of turning out graduates ready to attend college or start a career.

Central office administrators need to spend more time in the classroom and cut down on new programs that contribute to what teachers call “initiative fatigue.”

Principals should have more input into hiring a more diverse staff. Teachers need more focused professional development. And all district employees need specific goals that can be measured and used to hold them accountable.

Students also need “demand parents” who take an active role, not only in school bake sales and sports, but in understanding the curriculum and educational goals for their students.

“Resources even in this environment can be brought to bear from existing dollars to your more focused set of goals and activities, rather than supporting proliferation of those activities,” Peterkin told the Madison School Board on Monday night.

Cheatham said the review team had not taken a deep enough look at district finances to conclude that funding is available, but based on her assessment of the budget so far, she said the conclusion was “fairly accurate.”

“The recommendations from the transition team warrant a deep look at the central office organization and our allocation of resources,” she said.

The organizational changes might not happen right away. Cheatham said she plans to conduct a zero-based budgeting process for the 2014-15 school year in which departments must justify every dollar spent.

Cheatham’s own review of the district also found consistent complaints at all levels about too many initiatives and a lack of focus.

To illustrate the problem, she noted how elementary teachers have had to implement a new literacy program, social and emotional learning standards, and a new support system for student behavior. Though teachers complained about the initiatives, they had a harder time identifying which programs to cut, she said.

Peterkin, who has conducted similar assessments in 20 other districts around the country, said Madison “is one of the most prepared districts to change into this vision that’s emerging here.”

He said Madison’s teachers expressed eagerness for a new direction, whereas in other districts he encountered teachers who were entrenched in the status quo.

Peterkin said Madison can close its wide disparity in test scores and graduation rates between white and minority students by addressing the problems his team identified.

He said the expert team, which included UW-Madison education professors Allan Odden and Gloria Ladson-Billings, disagrees with the rationale that poverty is the root cause of the achievement gap.

“We are looking at things that schools control and say we are not doing enough to organize ourselves behind all those things with force to break the cycle of academic underachievement,” he said.

School Board president Ed Hughes said the district’s work to raise student achievement comes at a critical time because public schools are “under attack.”

“One of the key takeaways for me is there aren’t any structural impediments to us being a successful urban school district,” Hughes said. “There really is a need for a demonstration that models we have, where we actually collaborate with teachers, can actually lead to better outcomes.”


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