Madison Public Schools Fail to Address The Achievement Gap

By Margaret Szczykutowicz
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

In the Madison Metropolitan School District 2012-13 Budget unveiled this month, $4.4 million dollars was allocated to initiatives intended to narrow the achievement gap between white students and students of color in the district. The plan, Building Our Future, is a scaled-down version of a much more detailed and expensive one outlined by outgoing superintendent Dan Nerad in February. The program is largely in response to the conversation generated by the Madison Urban League’s failed attempt to open Madison Prep, a charter school aimed at college readiness for low-income students and students of color.

Building Our Future contains 17 recommendations organized in six categories that broadly intend to improve achievement through reforming curriculum, instruction, the school environment, and parent and community engagement. Those who have been watching this issue closely will likely greet the plan with a big shrug. It does nothing more than pile on to an already bloated and ineffective system and does not offer any examples of immediate institutional change.

The pile includes multiple new faculty and staff posts such as the Chief Diversity Officer, Culturally Responsive Coaches, Behavior Response Assistants, Restorative Practice Facilitators, and other equally inane-sounding positions. We should hope that these soon-to-be-hired educators’ accomplishments will be less empty than their titles, but that may be hoping too much. Adding more people, more procedures, and more so-called “professional development” to the existing system will not fix it. It never has. Trying new systems, such as those offered in school choice models, is what will build our future.

Milwaukee, for example, boasts the oldest and largest voucher program in the United States. It has much larger low-income and minority populations than Madison, but a narrower achievement gap. Tenth grade reading scores in Milwaukee from 2011 show a 27.7 percentage point gap between black and white students at the proficient or advanced level. This is certainly drastic, but nowhere near as extreme as Madison’s 44.6 percentage point gap.

Even more telling are graduation rates, which many argue are more important indicators of college and career readiness than test scores. In Milwaukee, only 10.5 percentage points separated black and white students in 2011; in Madison, these students’ graduation rates are separated by 34 percentage points. Granted, white students graduate at a lower rate in Milwaukee (with many more low-income white students in the district), but at the same time, black students are actually graduating at a higher rate than in Madison.

Vouchers are designed to empower students and families with the freedom to choose the education which suits them best. At the same time, they support effective schools and encourage struggling schools to improve. It is not a perfect model, but it certainly has the potential to create lasting improvements from the bottom-up rather than from the top-down. Success stories in Milwaukee can serve as models for ineffective schools to follow: the HOPE Christian Schools, for instance, provide a rigorous-but-encouraging atmosphere for voucher students to learn and achieve.

And achieve they do: the HOPE schools reverse trends of failure in math and reading and students consistently score above the peers on state tests.

Although it may be impossible to replicate the exact environment created in the HOPE schools, the idea that families should be able to choose to send their children to effective institutions can exist in any environment. If the marketplace of ideas is allowed to thrive in education the way it does in other sectors, over time we will witness innovation and growth.

Market-based practices are not only effective; they are efficient as well. HOPE schools educate students for half the cost of a traditional public school. Vouchers and other non traditional school models (such as the Madison Prep charter school) represent an inherent change in the system which has for so long failed so many.

Speaking of failure, let’s return to Madison’s future. It won’t be built up by diversity officers or restorative practice facilitators; it will be built up by children and families. Should we give power to untested bureaucratic figures, or to the students and families themselves? Will parents and community members engage with a culturally-responsive coach, or with the information and opportunity to choose their own path?

Instead of shrugging our shoulders, we should be embracing with both arms a plan which enables families to build their own futures. This will not happen through a scaled-down collection of initiatives designed by administrators, but through a budget and a plan which changes the system to give parents a choice of where and how they and their children will best be able to close the achievement gap.