Looking for Success in all the Wrong Places
Last week, Carlton Jenkins, Superintendent of the Madison School District, announced his “retirement” at the age of 57 after less than 3 years in his role. He was the third superintendent for the district in a decade and had the shortest tenure of any Superintendent in 100 years.
He arrived amid great fanfare over being the first black superintendent of the Madison schools, a distinction liberals find exhilarating, but one that has nothing to do with performance. It was evident from early on he was not the person the district needed. His decision to refer to the students of the district as “scholars” sent me off to the dictionary. I learned that the term does mean student or pupil, though the more common understanding is a “learned person, especially one with a profound knowledge of a particular subject.” This word choice seemed more ridiculous than aspirational, given the average reading proficiency in the district is 41% and average math proficiency is 39%, placing it in the lower 50% of the state.
More concerning were Dr. Jenkins’ early references to systemic racism in the schools. He missed an opportunity when he didn’t make sure the kids knew that, in a city less than 7% black, the school superintendent, school board leadership, president of the Madison teachers’ union, police chief, sheriff, district attorney and president of Madison College are all black. The appropriate message for these kids would have been, “With a dream and hard work, you can do anything and I’m here to show you how.”
Dr. Jenkins was also too focused on money. Inept leaders always believe money is the answer to problems. Money quickly disappears down a black hole unless it’s in the hands of able leaders and tied to measurable outcomes. In his short tenure, Dr. Jenkins won Madison voter support for referendums to spend $350 million on capital projects and operating expenses, spent $5.6 million on a new reading curriculum and secured support from the school board to increase teacher pay from $28/hour to $40/hour for the upcoming summer school session.
This month, the Madison School Board grappled with rising suspensions in the district. During the first semester of this year, there were 785 suspensions of 445 students in grades 6 – 8 and 614 suspensions of 372 students in high school, both well above last year’s numbers. The Board’s focus is on the proportion of suspended students who are black – 242 in middle school and 217 in high school. Changes to the district’s Behavior Education Plan (https://www.madison.k12.wi.us/families/behavior-education-plan) are being considered as the remedy for disparities in discipline. Some possibilities are:
Reconsider the approach to physical force against staff.
Adjust the level for “leaving the school building without permission” for elementary students.
Reconsider expulsion for drug-related behaviors for grades 6 – 12.
Address the approach to excessive physical aggression (more than 3 fights) for grades 6 – 12.
Madison is a growing community, yet the enrollment in its school system is declining. Concerned parents are moving their kids out of the district. In 2020, the school board voted to remove police officers from the high schools. Since then, there have been increased incidents of assault on teachers and students, fights with weapons (including guns) and drugs. Safety is a serious issue. Teachers and administrators are leaving the district in large numbers and kids aren’t learning. Minority enrollment in the district is now 59%. Kids graduate from the system without being able to read and write. Several months ago, there was a movement to eliminate advanced placement classes because minority students are not participating. Today there is a movement to weaken disciplinary standards. Lowering the bar is not the answer.
The bigotry of liberalism is often expressed through an incessant obsession with skin color. Relentless attempts to make the system the problem are robbing kids of the opportunity to achieve. We must speak the truth about the things all kids need – parental guidance, high expectations, a safe learning environment, discipline, and enthusiastic teachers who are good at what they do.
The future of our country will be in the hands of the upcoming generations. Madison is a case study of the worst failures of public education in our state. The image of President Biden, Governor Evers and Madison Mayor Rhodes-Conway, taking a selfie on the Madison tarmac the day after the State of the Union address, is a grim reminder we have our work cut out for us.