In one key way, the Madison school district is no different than any other urban school system in the country -- poor kids and kids of color just aren't learning as much as other students.
Interestingly, both see early education as part of the solution, but both also stopped short of endorsing the introduction of 4-year-old kindergarten in Madison.
We ended our five-week series of questions for the candidates with an open-ended query on what they felt were an overlooked issue in the schools.
Both gave thoughtful responses.
Passman suggested the schools needed to do more about the pervasiveness of substance abuse among teenagers, while Hughes said the district needs to pay more attention to why parents pull their children out of the Madison schools.
The persistence of the achievement gap that separates poor students from middle-and-upper class students and black and Hispanic students from white students remains as perhaps the most important issue facing the Madison school district.
To give one example, in 2006, slightly more than 80% of white tenth graders were reading at the proficient or advanced level, while less than 50% of black and Hispanics students were. Other subject areas show similar gaps.
What more can the schools do to address the achievement gap? And is it acceptable for the gap to still be so evident by high school?
We must focus on the gap in learning experiences that children face before they even enter kindergarten. We can increase teacher training, provide smaller classes, and set high expectations. But we have to look at the total picture for those children who are not succeeding.
Public schools should be the "great equalizer" in our society, but they cannot do it by themselves. What goes beyond an educational response?
Certainly, one has to deal with the socio-economic, cultural and environmental causes of low achievement, namely: culturalism, racism, poor health, inadequate housing, unsafe streets, and lack of job training.
Our schools cannot succeed unless the city, county and state work together to take on the insidious nature of poverty and its resultant effect on the most vulnerable members of our society -- the children of poverty.
The Schools of Hope Project in Madison is a great example of community involvement in closing the achievement gap. It started as a civic journalism project by Channel 3, the Wisconsin State Journal, and the United Way.
Over the past ten years, it has evolved into a major contributor towards closing the third-grade reading gap. Currently the three main players remain involved, the UW School of Education has added its expertise, and both Madison Teachers Inc. and the school district are enthusiastic. A Vista grant and hundreds of community and Vista volunteers have supported the project, which now also has a middle school math component.
Our school district must plan for the future by starting at the early grades, but this does not mean that we can abandon our efforts at the middle and high schools.
Many low achieving students enter our schools at the higher grades, so we must provide high-quality learning experiences with appropriate intervention for all students, including those who struggle, regardless of age.
I don't think there is a silver bullet solution to the disappointing academic performance of poor students and students of color, probably the most significant challenge confronting the district. But with focused efforts, we can make progress a step at a time.
Many children enter kindergarten already behind. Our teachers need to do all they can to help bring them up to the level of other students. The district's consistent emphasis on students learning to read in the early grades seems to be the right approach.
Next, kids have to be engaged in school. We need to provide a welcoming environment that pulls kids in and creates a climate where they want to learn and succeed. We need to provide appropriately challenging work for all our students so as many students as possible can move from minimal to basic, from basic to proficient, and from proficient to advanced on their test scores.
I would like to see the expansion district-wide of the AVID program introduced this year at East which provides structured support to help students become among the first in their families to attend four-year colleges.
Parents should view themselves as partners with their children's teachers in helping their kids succeed. We would benefit from effective outreach strategies and community partnerships to encourage families who may not have had positive school experiences in the past to support their children's learning.
Ultimately, as students grow older they need to commit to the hard work of mastering new skills and learning new material. If students don't care, there is a limit to what the schools can accomplish.
If students do make the necessary commitment, however, the schools and the community need to demonstrate that we will support their efforts however we can and celebrate the successes that follow.
The achievement gap starts early. Research shows that many poor kids and kids of color start kindergarten lagging substantially behind other children in vocabulary and other skills.
Two-thirds of Wisconsin's 426 school districts have instituted four-year-old kindergarten in an effort to better prepare these children. The Madison district has not.
Cost and labor concerns appear to be the major stumbling blocks in Madison. The state wouldn't fully fund the four-year-students for three years. The teachers union, meanwhile, warns that its contractual rights would be violated if the school district hired the non-profit childcare centers to provide four-year-old kindergarten with their staffs.
On the other hand, if the school district directly ran a four-year-old program, it would be a financial blow to those centers because they need those four-year-old students to offset the higher cost of caring for toddlers and infants.
What should the Madison school district do about four-year-old kindergarten?
We need to do what we can to boost the school readiness of those preschoolers who may not have received the level of stimulation and enrichment at home that would best prepare them for what kindergarten has to offer. I don't know the most effective and efficient way to do this. Maybe it is four-year-old kindergarten. I look forward to learning more about the issue.
Expansion of the district's offerings in this way is not a decision to be entered into lightly. Four-year-old kindergarten would put a significant strain on the district's budget over the first three years of the program as state funding slowly ramped up.
If it makes sense to offer the program, we'll have to figure out if there is a prudent way to address the budgetary impact. I may be nave, but I don't think collective bargaining issues would pose an insurmountable barrier to whatever seems like the best approach to the issue.
Some 2,100 kindergarten children entered Madison schools in 2007, with 42% of them living below the poverty line. Of these, 525 came from family/friend daycare, which is not regulated and does not properly prepare these youngsters for school.
The sooner we reach these children with quality early education, the sooner they will be able to attain grade-level expectations in our K-12 classrooms.
Children of poverty enter school with less than one-tenth the vocabulary of their middle-class peers. Today's research overwhelmingly indicates that the earlier we reach children, the better chance they have to succeed. Education should begin at age 4.
United Way's funding for high-quality preschool programs is certainly important. So too is the recent innovation of the "Play and Learn" and pilot projects like the one at Vera Court, that include credentialed teachers working with day care providers.
The little known Family Literacy Program is working with children from birth to age 5, and with their families. Parents enroll in programs that boost literacy and parenting skills, while working with their children. Severe federal cuts necessitated the recent citywide Scrabble tournament fundraiser for this program.
Asking the Madison school district to inaugurate a completely public 4K program under the current constraints of revenue caps is not realistic.
At best, we must work towards a quasi public/private implementation. This will be something that has not been tried before, and many people will have to come to the table in order for it to work.
If we all keep in mind the needs of our children, perhaps certain predisposed notions, about what can or cannot be done, will be left at the door.
What is an overlooked or seldom-discussed issue confronting the Madison schools?
Substance abuse by a sizeable proportion of our students is an issue that has no cultural or racial bias -- all ethnic groups and economic classes are involved. Yet we never hear about it. At the very least, we must set up drug free campuses in all our high schools.
Right now, there is only one place in Madison that parents can turn to for help, the private Horizon School. Minnesota is light years ahead of us in setting up Recovery/Sober Schools to help these young people. We need to look to them for innovation in this area.
I think we need to pay more attention to families who withdraw their kids from our schools. Our goal is to keep our entire community invested in our schools.
When families believe that our schools are failing their children, we need to know why. I'd like to see the district send a questionnaire to the family of every withdrawing student asking why the family is leaving.
If there are problems at individual schools that are of such concern that they are driving families away, we should know that as soon as possible so we can address what needs fixing.