How to be Honorable

The latest hot issue in the Madison School District is stand-alone honors classes. This morning’s Wisconsin State Journal offered an excellent primer on the controversy, which is well worth reading.

The last few paragraphs of that story did challenge my support for stand-alone honors. My main concern about eliminating the courses, offered to freshmen and sophomores, is that Madison’s public schools are in competition with private schools and public schools in surrounding communities. Anything that gives parents more incentive to flee the district is a bad thing. But the article pointed out that almost none of our surrounding high schools have these stand-alone classes. In particular, Middleton, Monona Grove and Waunakee don’t offer them, though Waunakee does maintain one stand-alone honors class in chemistry.

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But, while that eases my worry about eliminating the classes, the story pointed to another concern. Are kids enrolling in stand-alone honors to escape behavioral issues in mainstream classes? Let me quote at length from the story:

Furthermore, she (an English teacher at Memorial) said, the idea that more problems occur in standard classrooms — which tend to be more diverse — is part of a problematic rhetoric. She wouldn’t say whether she had more trouble in one class or the other because she said she didn’t want to fuel that rhetoric.

“The people who are generating these conversations, these kind of questions, always feel to me like they’re well-resourced and they’re afraid of losing something,” Mead said. “Those people carry with them a particular bias about what the classroom looks like.”

Behavior has a lot to do with the access and quality of education a student receives, she added. “So, the kids who are sitting in honors classes are complying with a system that they benefit from. And students who are ‘the behavior disruptors’ are not benefitting from the same system and are being harmed by the system repeatedly.”

She said disruption comes from parents, too, not just students.

Focusing the conversation on behavior, she said, “is not fair or equitable to what’s actually happening overall.”

This is a remarkable passage. First, it tells me that behavior is, in fact, better in the stand alone classes and that was confirmed by students interviewed for the story. But the even more remarkable thing is the attitude of the teacher. She sees good behavior as a tool of the oppressors, rather than as common human decency and respect for your classmates and teachers.

Did she pick up that point of view in her training? Is it supported by the MMSD administration? is it engrained in the culture of her school? Wherever it originated from it’s a huge problem and my worries about MMSD, eased by the idea that districts we compete with don’t have stand-alone honors classes, were redoubled by that point of view.

Two other points are worth noting. First, 45% of honors class students are non-white. The fundamental reason for eliminating the classes is that they’re not diverse enough, but when almost half the students aren’t white that strikes me as pretty diverse.

Second, that figure is a couple of years old and it doesn’t include more detailed breakdowns. The State Journal requested more recent data, but District spokesperson Tim LeMonds said the paper would have to file an open records request to get the data. This continues a pattern of lack of transparency that I’ve noted in this space more than a couple of times in the past. Why not just hand over the public’s information to the public, especially given the fact that you will eventually have to comply with the FOIA request anyway?

Have a nice weekend.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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