As an observer from the rural part of Dane County, I have always been amazed at the perception that Madison's public schools are "bad". Once again we have had a couple of contradictory articles in the media. The first that Madison wants to stop their students from leaving through public school choice because it is a net loss in money needed to run the system. I fault the media and to a lesser extent the school board with a failure to dig at all and answer the question, why are they leaving? This of course generated multiple letters decrying how unfair it is that I will no longer be allowed to provide a better education for my child or that the schools are failing so people are voting with their feet and leaving. The first issue is easy to address, send your kid to private school. You want to take a stand fund it yourself. The other issue not so easy to address until today. New article, Madison schools tops in the state for National Merit Scholarship semi-finalists. Wow, and I was led to believe that they were awful. Doesn't make much sense. National Merit Scholars represent <1%>1% of its students qualifying. You could say that these students succeeded in the face of adversity or just imagine how many we would have if it was a good district. The first is plausible except it is exceedingly rare to have that percentage even in the best of the best private schools. The second is also unlikely for the same reason, and look at how well the districts that kids are transferring to did. No one from Mt. Horeb, Oregon, Cambridge, McFarland, Columbus public, Beaver Dam, or Janesville Parker. Only one from Waunakee and Marshall, 2 from Sun Prairie, 4 from Verona. Waunakee, Sun Prairie, and Verona are big supposedly excellent schools in the burbs and they are not even close to Madison (except LaFollete with only 1). McFarland is a smaller school with an excellent reputation and none. What then? This brings me to the last article, also printed today by Thomas Friedman where he contends that motivation is the problem, kids aren't willing to do the work. I think that he is on to something. I see it in hiring people to work in a cafe. First off the kids that are in the tops of their class aren't looking for jobs, so we're left hiring middle to lower level students. For the most part they don't work hard unless you are always in their face. When I started working most of the hires were the better students so those other kids just didn't get jobs. This generation more than any other expects that everything will be handed to them. They want to get paid big money and not do anything and that is just not how it works. The same in school you have to work to get to where you want to be. If that is college you have to earn the grades to get you there. Obviously some kids in Madison have figured that out and have done well.
I think that the schools need to challenge students before they get to high school. I think that we all know someone who never studied in high school and always got A's. The problem with that is that these same kids struggle in college, no concept of hard work. Teachers know if the kid is putting forth effort or just doing what is required for an A. Let teachers mark that work down especially in the early grades where grades don't matter (you're not trying to get into Harvard or MIT yet). The problem with this approach are the parents, they won't stand for Jonny or Suzy being marked down. It is a rare parent that will tell a teacher to mark down their child. I have done it more in the context of private schools (my kids were there because the public schools wouldn't push them to work harder or push them into a more challenging curriculm.