Madison School Improvement Plan: Insufficient Accountability

Earlier this week, Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham held a press conference touting the progress which the district has made after one year under her leadership.  The basis for her claim was the progress made by many schools as set forth under her First Annual Report.  To make sure that MMSD parents were aware of how each school is doing under what she has dubbed the Strategic Frameworkshe e-mailed MMSD parents with links to the Annual Report, and encouraged them to examine the results of the children’s schools.

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To that end, I have examined the results at Madison East High School, and despite the fact that my son gets a good education there, the results reveal significant academic problems, huge racial disparities, and simply no information about school discipline issues.

First, it is worth examining the demographics of East High, which interestingly are found in the accountability link.  In the 2013-14 school year, East High had:

  • 55.4% low-income students;
  • 24.7% English Language Learners;
  • 21.5% Special education students; and
  • a minority white student, with 59.3% of its students being non-white.

Next, the academic achievement results as shown in the School Improvement Plan which provides no data for any minority groups other than African-Americans and students in special education reveals that:

  • While there was some improvement with 33% of 9th graders having 2 or more course failures compared to 38% the prior year, this is still a very high rate of failure and is magnified by significant racial and disability disparities with 49% of African-American 9th graders having 2 or more course failures, and 45% of students in special education having 2 or more course failures;
  • Once again, there was some improvement with 36% of 11th graders having a 3.0 grade point average or higher (compared to 31% the prior year), these rates plummet to 11% for African-American students, and 10% for students in special education;
  • Reading and math scores show similar improvement, but once again striking racial and disability disparities with 45% of students at a college ready reading level, but only 22% of African-American students and 18% of students in special education reading at that level; and 40% of students at college ready math level, but only 12% of both African-American and students in special education reading at that level;
  • Finally, the 4 year graduation rate has improved overall to 83%, but it is only 70% for African-American students and a mere 49% for students in special education, which unfortunately suggests that many students are graduating without college ready reading or math abilities.

Sadly, given all the attention paid to the school district’s significant modification of its Behavior Education Plan earlier this year, there is no school discipline data provided to parents or the public, which means there are no goals, nor any accountability for this area which is so critical to improving student achievement and shutting down the school to prison pipeline.

In sum, while some improvement is worth bragging about, the high level of racial and disability disparities which remain, and complete lack of data and goals around improved behavior mean that MMSD has a long way to go if it School Improvement Plan will result in a quality education for all of its students, preparing them to be productive adults upon graduation.

_________________________________________________________________________________________ For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

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When Right and Wrong are not the Answer

As I watch with dismay the deteriorating situation in Gaza and Israel, I am further dismayed by the deteriorating level of discourse between those who support Israel and those who support the Palestinians.  As one author recently wrote:

there’s also an especially pernicious kind of tribalism that pervades the Israel-Palestine debate within the US-one that turns issues of fact into tests that determine whether or not you’re the right kind of person.

I have watched this kind of debate play out in my nearly 3 decades as a systems change civil rights attorney where one or both sides in litigation is more interested in vilifying the other side and making it pronounce its mea culpas than it is in resolving the dispute at hand.  In these cases, I need to remind my clients that civilized systems of justice were developed to replace vigilante justice and that they should keep their eye on the prize of solving the problem at hand rather than securing their pound of flesh. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I am Jewish.  I made my first visit to Israel in 1976, volunteered on Kibbutz Ein Gev (pictured below on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee at the foot of the Golan Heights which prior to 1967 allowed Syrians to literally drop bombs from the hill above it on the kibbutz below) working side-by-side with Israeli Jews and Arabs and non-Jewish volunteers from around the world during the winter of 1979-80, and have returned many times since to visit family and friends and attend 2 cousins’ weddings.

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I am also the Vice-President and one of the founding members of my synagogue, Congregation Shaarei Shamayim (Gates of Heaven), and the chair of J Street‘s Madison chapter.  With both of these hats on, I have successfully helped to create safe space for meaningful dialogue in my community about this issue and continue to work to expand that dialogue.

But despite my efforts and those of many other peace loving individuals around the world, the debate remains largely unproductive at best and vicious at worst while Israel and Hamas continue to lob bombs at each other.  Historians and diplomats may one day be able to judge why this battle has remained so pernicious for so long but one thing remains clear: peace will not come to Israel and the Palestinians because one side convinces the other side that its version of history is right and its opponent’s version is wrong.

Indeed, perhaps because both sides insist that the other side capitulate to its version of history, the battle rages on.  The question, then, is how can this vicious cycle end?  After all, the killing and recrimination has gone on for decades and no solution seems at hand.

So, too, was the situation in Northern Ireland for decades where religious and nationalist warfare raged for decades killing thousands of people.  Ultimately, it was civilian mothers who founded the Community of Peace People in 1976 ultimately leading to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which brought an end to the decades known as the “Troubles.” One thing worth noting is though the ongoing terrorism in Northern Ireland has ended, not all the conflict is over.  But despite the remaining disputes, overall peace presides in this once troubled land with significant economic benefit to the people in the region.

Resolving the Troubles in Northern Ireland did not resolve the historical debate over who was right and who was wrong.  Nor did it make Catholics & Protestants all love and forgive each other. So, too, peace will only come between Israel and the Palestinians when their people demand it from their leaders and both sides let go of insisting that they are right and the other side is wrong.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Law as Preventive Medicine

In my nearly 3 decades engaging in systems change, legislators and other policymakers often ask 2 questions when advocates ask them to support proposed legislation or policy change:

  1. Will this bill solve the problem?
  2. Will this bill create more litigation?

While these questions appear to have surface level legitimacy, they are often interposed as excuses to avoid supporting legislation.  It does not take deep analysis to understand that mankind has yet to find the law that is universally followed and therefore solves the problem.  Indeed, even the most fundamental universal law, Thou shalt not kill, is sadly violated on a daily basis.  Needless to say, there is not a civil society that has rid itself of its laws against murder because they have not solved the problem.

Regarding increased litigation, that question depends in large part on the nature of the proposal.  Some bills specifically set forth a litigation framework to provide for their enforcement, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which just celebrated its 50th anniversary.  Other bills, such as Wisconsin Act 125, prohibiting the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint, are framed more at the level of guidance and best practices, but do not envision litigation to enforce them.

For its nearly 40 years of existence, federal special education law, now known as the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), has been vilified by many school district officials and politicians as too litigation oriented.  True, the law has always empowered parents to sue school districts when their children do not receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE). However, any reasonable analysis of the numbers of cases litigated under the IDEA demonstrates that the fears of excessive litigation are greatly exaggerated.

For example, during the 2013-14 school year, there were 122,654 children eligible for special education in Wisconsin.  Yet, only 6 administrative due process hearings were filed that year, with only 2 of those hearing requests proceeding to a full hearing.  In percentage terms, these negligible hearing requests are less than 5/1000% of students in special education.

With litigation in such minuscule numbers, it is puzzling why the aura of over litigation in special education continues to hang over the IDEA.  I learned a satisfying lesson about the power of the IDEA and other civil rights legislation to act as preventive medicine during Gov. Scott McCallum’s brief term as Wisconsin governor from 2001-03, which coincided with the Congressional and state debate over the last reauthorization of the IDEA.  Gov. McCallum surprised many when he hired retired teacher’s union director, Morrie Andrews, to lead an effort to build a consensus for state level education reform.  Andrews started that effort by meeting with key education leaders, including me.

During my meeting with Mr. Andrews, he made it quite clear that he felt there was too much special education litigation.  I relayed the paltry numbers of special education cases that were being litigated at the time, which truly surprised him.  He then provided me with an important lesson on the power of law as preventive medicine.

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After conceding that I knew the numbers better than he did, he informed me that school districts obeyed the law because they were afraid of being sued.  As I let that sink in, a big smile came across my face as I came to the realization that over 100,000 children with disabilities in Wisconsin were receiving a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment because the law was acting as preventive medicine.

My conversation with Morrie Andrews helped me realize that systems change happens in many ways.  Of course, for law to impact behavior, it must provide both guidance and an enforcement mechanism.  But there truly are not enough lawyers (or people who can afford them) to enforce the laws on the books.  That is why successful systems change must include use of the media to magnify the impact of laws on the books and the handful of cases which are litigated to enforce them, so that those who must obey the law understand that the risk of failing to obey the law is simply not worth taking.  

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

55 Years: 5 Life Lessons

Yesterday, I celebrated my 55th birthday amongst family and friends.  Even the IRS considers this an important life milestone as it no longer penalizes early retirement withdrawals at my age.  While I am not quite ready for retirement, this occasion feels appropriate to share 5 life lessons that have helped me in my personal life & during my nearly 3 decades as a public interest civil rights attorney.

  1. To be human includes making mistakes:  Too many people are unnecessarily hard on themselves or others due to mistakes that they or others have made. Our system of justice is predicated on the premise that people make mistakes and justice is found by balancing the scales to address the ramifications of the mistake which was made.  On a personal level, finding that space in one’s heart to acknowledge one’s mistakes and to forgive other’s mistakes is absolutely critical to avoid staying mired in misery and pain in order to move forward and make progress.
  2. It can always get better:  It is easy to allow inertia to allow one to become apathetic and remain stuck in life as usual, despite its shortcomings.  However, the trajectory of mankind involves constant progress.  At times, what this means is finding inspiration from others to create the personal or systems change one seeks.
  3. It can always get worse:  This lesson is important to maintain perspective in virtually every bad situation short of death.  Once one realizes that any given situation could actually be worse, it then becomes necessary to maintain focus by keeping your eyes on the prize to obtain what one truly needs in order to make progress.
  4. Build community whenever possible:  It is rarely possible to make personal or societal progress by yourself.  Building community can be done with friends, family, neighbors, religious affiliates, co-workers and others. These communities sustain us in difficult times and help us make progress when we work together in concert.
  5. Be a life long learner: At 55, it has become abundantly clear how much I do not know.  Learning from those around me allows me to continue to improve myself. Learning from the world at large allows me to continue to engage with others by improving the world through systems change.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Don’t Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

When seeking systems change, idealists typically march down a path seeking their desired outcome, rigidly holding true to their ideals.  While ideals are certainly important, those who hold onto them without examining a realistic view of the variety of challenges that may stand in the way of matching those ideals with an achievable outcome, will likely end up accomplishing nothing but disappointment.

Voltaire is credited with the aphorism from his poem La Bégueule,

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good (Dit que le mieux est l’ennemi du bien).

While many have written about how personal perfectionism can be a barrier towards accomplishing personal goals, for those trying to accomplish systems change, avoiding the pitfalls of systemic perfectionism is critical in order to obtain a successful outcome.

On numerous occasions in my career, I have encountered this dilemma.  In fact, those opposing one’s desired outcome may often utilize a strategy of labeling advocates’ idealistic vision as unrealistic in order to kill the possibility of any incrementally positive outcome completely.

A good example is the battle to pass laws at both the state and federal level to prevent the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint on children in schools.  As I have reported previously, I worked with many individuals and organizations for 12 years to finally achieve our goal of having Wisconsin pass such legislation. However, the bill that passed was not a perfect bill from the perspective of those who had been advocating for its passage for so many years, as it contained many gaps such as the failure to cover private school students or the use of seclusion and restraint by police officers in schools, among others.  Indeed, even the bill’s implementation has demonstrated that despite strict reporting requirements contained in the law, there is inadequate reporting of the use of seclusion and restraint in school.

But does this mean that children in Wisconsin’s schools would have been better off without a law on this important topic because the bill we could pass was not perfect?  Of course not.  In fact, the primary argument for passage of a federal bill on this topic is that so many states continue to fail to have any law protecting school children from the dangers of inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint.

Dubbed the Stop Hurting Kids campaign, the effort to pass federal legislation recently held a Congressional briefing to urge passage of the Keeping All Students Safe Act which I wrote about here.  The effort to pass such legislation is now 7 years old, so deeper questions must be asked about why Congress keeps failing to pass this important bill.

As reported in the Stetson Law Review,

Several groups, such as the American Association of School Administrators and the National Conference of State Legislators, argue that since thirty-one states have regulations regarding restraint and seclusion in place and fifteen more states are developing legislation in this area, the issue should be left to the states.

As a result of interest group opposition, the bill continues to stall.

In Wisconsin, 4 critical factors changed the dynamic to allow the legislature to pass a seclusion and restraint bill unanimously after 12 years of failing to bring the bill to a vote:

  1. A well attended state Senate hearing in 2010, which did not result in the bill’s passage, but left those opposing the bill appear as if they actually supported the inappropriate dangerous practice of secluding and restraining school children;
  2. State Superintendent Tony Evers made a personal commitment to bring the various interest groups together after the failure in 2010, to try to craft a bill which all interest groups would support;
  3. Advocates for children agreed to support what became Act 125even though it was not perfect, because it was good enough; and
  4. The willingness of children’s advocates to compromise away from perfection enabled other education interest groups, such as the teachers’ union, school board association, and school administrators’ alliance, to join the effort to pass the bill.

The lesson is clear.  Coalition building amongst one’s allies is generally insufficient to pass meaningful systems change legislation.  Passage requires compromise to build a full cross-political spectrum of allies.  Of necessity, such compromise requires following Voltaire’s dictum:

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

The question for the Keeping All Students Safe Act is who will lead the charge to bring the necessary coalition together to pass a compromise, but nevertheless effective legislation?

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.