Experts sound off on Madison Prep educational model

Although Madison Prep was voted down by the School Board in Dec. and missing from the board’s agenda in early Feb., a number of energetic supporters means the controversial charter school is still in the spotlight.

The Madison Prep educational model planned to educate 120 sixth grade students—60 boys and girls—in single-sex classes over the first year. In an effort to close the achievement gap between African American and Hispanic and white students, the school would primarily have served minority and low income students.

Madison Prep planned to have longer school days and years, and implement the rigorous International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum to prepare students for college.

The school was controversial for a number of reasons, including the decision to educate boys and girls separately, its efforts to hire non-union teachers, and the $17.5 million price tag over five years.

Madison Commons asked three local education experts to weigh in on the pros and cons of the proposed model.

We spoke to Gloria Ladson-Billings, professor at the UW School of Education and board member of Madison Preparatory Academy; TJ Mertz, education blogger and co-chair of the city referendum committee, “Communities and Schools Together”; and John Witte, professor of education policy at the UW La Follette School of Public Affairs.

Here’s what they told us.

Reducing the Achievement Gap

Based on her experiences with a similar charter school, Ladson-Billing is a strong proponent of Madison Prep.

Before Madison, Ladson-Billings worked at Santa Clara University where she researched Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto. Eastside uses rigorous standards similar to those proposed for Madison Prep, as all students take either a College Prep or College Prep Advance curriculum. Like Madison Prep, the school also has longer school days and years.

Eighty percent of the school’s alumni either graduated from college or are attending a four year program, according to the school’s website.

Ladson-Billings said Madison Prep was intended to be an exemplar for the district, as strategies that proved successful could have been shared with other schools to reduce the achievement gap across the city.

She added that too much of the narrative regarding education for young black males is: “No one can do this, they are too poor, they don’t have the right values.” Ladson-Billings thinks a school like Madison Prep could have challenged that notion.

Like Ladson-Billings, Witte said that the Madison Prep model would have allowed researchers to study best strategies for reducing the achievement gap.

According to him, the Madison Prep model would have allowed education researchers to track students and determine if they are doing better or worse than other students in the district.

He added that researchers could study differences between students who did and did not attend Madison Prep by tracking participants from the entrance lottery. If they found a significant difference in students’ performance, they could attribute it to a successful Madison Prep model.

Mertz, however, is less than enthusiastic about Madison Prep’s ability to reduce the achievement gap. He calls the educational model a “strange combination of models” that combines elements of the Urban Prep charter school in Chicago, the Knowledge is Power Program, and the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum.

Mertz is particularly critical of Madison Prep’s drawing inspiration from Urban Prep, which he considers a failed school. 

“[Urban Prep] is only good at three things,” he said. “Getting kids into college, not preparing them but getting them in, they’re good at PR, and they’re good at fundraising.”

Mertz also criticized Madison Prep for planning to implement the IB curriculum, which he said “has some great strengths, but they are not in the areas that Madison Prep claims to be targeting.”

Mertz said IB’s rigorous program leads to high dropout rates after one year. He added that the two most studied low-income IB schools lose between 10 and 30 percent of their students each year.

“Kids are going to be churning, kids don’t survive the program,” Mertz said. “I’m not against change, I’m not against doing things differently. The graduation rate is a genuine problem, but it’s not going to help it.”   

Single-Sex Education

Witte waited two and a half hours to speak in favor of Madison Prep’s single-sex education model before he had to leave the contentious school board vote on Dec. 19. 

In the course of his research, he performed a meta-analysis, summarizing the findings of a number of studies on the effects of single-sex education. According to his analysis, students in single-sex schools have better discipline, self-esteem, tolerance, and test scores than their counterparts in traditional schools.

Ladson-Billings said the reasoning behind single-sex education was to remove all possible distractions from school. Since 90 percent of disciplinary action in schools is directed against boys, separating students allows boys and girls to be held to the same behavioral standards as their peers, Ladson-Billings added.

But the Madison Prep proposal comes with a high price tag: $2.5 million from the district to help 120 students in the first year.  

“The costs would come into line over time,” Witte said, predicting the expense would even out for the district.

“Certainly they would if it was a non-instrumentality school with no union teachers,” he added.

The Way Forward

Although the Madison Prep proposal did not pass the School Board vote in Dec., supporters say it has already had an effect on the district.

Ladson-Billings said Superintendant Dan Nerad’s achievement gap plan co-opted much of the inspiration behind Madison Prep. Thanks to Madison Prep, she said that the district is focused on improving the high school graduation rate for African American boys, which currently stands at 58 percent.

Mertz said he is still studying Nerad’s plan, and likes how comprehensive it is.

“The reality of education is that there’s no quick fixes, and that it takes hard work done on a variety of fronts,” Mertz said.

Mertz wants the district to focus more on problems students face if they move frequently.

“40 percent of African Americans in the district have entered the school they are in now after the third week of school,” Mertz said. “These kids have a special challenge, and we need to provide the support.”



Eastside Prep

Eastside Prep is a private school with an extensive admissions process, no transparency in admissions, achievement, or anything else.  We really have no way of knowing what successes they have achieved and with what sorts of students.  I seems like a very good school, but that does not make it an apt model for Madison Prep's stated mission to “effectively address the educational needs of children who have under-performed or failed to succeed in Madison’s public schools for at least the last 40 years. "

Another thing worth noting is that Eastside Prep has -- according to one source -- a student teacher ratio of 9/1; Madison Prep's proposed ratio was 20/1.

Thomas J. Mertz

Eastside Prep

Eastside Prep in East Palo Alto is a private school and can do and say anything it wants, unaccountable and unaudited. It's entirely unsound and invalid to use it as any kind of model. Anyone who does hold it up as a model is discredited and suspect and should not be trusted. -- Caroline in San Francisco