Standing in front of a giant projection screen with his wireless remote control and clip-on microphone, Madison School Superintendent Art Rainwater on Monday unveiled his grand vision for Madison's four major high schools. But the real backdrop for his presentation before the Madison school board was the criticism of changes implemented last year at West High and proposed this year at East. Both involved reducing course offerings in favor of a core curriculum for all students, from gifted to struggling.
Rainwater stressed his intention to start from scratch in overhauling all aspects of the education provided at West, East, Memorial and La Follette, whose combined enrollment tops 7,600 students. The move follows consolidation of practices in the city's elementary and middle schools. But it may prove more challenging, since the high schools have a longstanding tradition of independence.
Over the next two years, Rainwater would like a steering committee of experts to study best practices in high school education. Everything, Rainwater stresses, is on the table: "It's important we don't have preconceived notions of what it should be."
Heterogeneous classes, which until last week were the district's preferred direction for high school changes, are, said Rainwater, "only one piece" of the redesign. But curriculum changes are clearly going to happen.
"It's not acceptable anymore to lecture four days a week and give a test on Friday," Rainwater declared. Teachers must learn how to teach students, rather than teach content.
The 50 parents and teachers in the audience reacted coolly, judging from the comments muttered among themselves during the presentation and the nearly two-hour discussion that followed.
Tellingly, the biggest applause came when board member Ruth Robarts said it was "high time we as a board start talking about high school curriculum." Robarts chastised Rainwater for not including teachers and parents on the steering committee, which will "reinforce a perception that is not in our favor." She said the district was giving critics only two options: accept the changes or "come down and protest."
On Nov. 16, East Principal Alan Harris unveiled plans to eliminate several courses in favor of core classes in ninth and 10th grades. Attendees said the plan was presented as a "done deal." In e-mails to the board, parents called the plan "short-sighted and misguided," and one teacher warned: "Don't do it."
Rainwater, apparently recognizing the damage to parent and teacher relations, sent a memo to principals last week.
"I am asking you to cease any significant programmatic changes at each of your schools as this community dialogue progresses," he wrote. "We need a tabula rasa mentality that will allow for a free flow of ideas, an opportunity to solidify trust in our expertise, and a chance at a solid, exciting product at the end."
The four high schools will remain under their current programs until the steering committee gets to work. Chaired by Pam Nash, deputy superintendent of secondary schools, it will include several district administrators as well as experts from the UW-Madison, Edgewood College and MATC.
Rainwater sought to assure board and audience members that teachers and parents will have ample opportunity for input. His plan calls for three separate periods of public comment, after which subcommittees will make revisions. The school board will then vote on the recommendations after additional hearings and debate.
"You get better input if people have something to react to," Rainwater said, adding that involving teachers in all stages would be impractical, because it would be difficult to cover their teaching assignments. That comment drew a collective groan from teachers in the audience.
Rainwater's call for a revamping of the city's high schools suggests the current approach isn't working. And that poses a dilemma for school officials. The district likes to tout its record number of National Merit semifinalists and state-leading ACT scores as proof that its high schools are successful. Many parents worry that those high-end benchmarks are under attack.
But Madison's schools continue to fail countless kids - mostly low-income and minority students. This is a profound challenge hardly unique to Madison, but one that deserves more attention from policymakers.
Research in education, the starting point for Rainwater's steering committee, offers promising solutions. But the district risks much in excluding teachers from the start, since inevitably they will be on the front lines of any change. And excluding parents could heighten the alienation that has already prompted some middle- and upper-class families to abandon the public schools.
While struggling over details, most board members conceptually support the study. During their discussion Monday, Lawrie Kobza cut to the chase.
"What is the problem we're trying to solve?" she asked. "And is this how we solve this problem?" Kobza professed not to know the answer. But these are the right questions to ask.