John Roach: Madison’s approach to achievement gap feels like a ‘ball of confusion’

Caught in the middle of what's best for students and what's best for teachers
John Roach: Madison’s approach to achievement gap feels like a ‘ball of confusion’

By John Roach

I feel like my head is going to explode.

As a Dem-leaning, Urban League board member; fiscally cautious, small business-owning product of both private and public education; and a native Madisonian proud of our city’s progressive past, why do I feel caught in a remake of the Temptations’ old-school classic “Ball of Confusion”?

Maybe it began December 19, 2011. That’s when I heard Madison School Board member Marj Passman painfully explain why she was going to vote against Madison Prep, the initiative designed to get more of Madison’s black students college ready.

In artfully prepared notes, an emotional Passman, who is a former teacher and proud Madison Teachers Inc. member, echoed her earlier op-ed for the The Capital Times defining her view of public schools, including the important and noble benefits of equal opportunity and the responsibilities of preparing students to be economically self-sufficient and improving social conditions.

Yet Passman voted against the sentiment of black parents that night who eloquently described an experience in Madison’s schools that ran counter to the very goals she listed.

Passman was caught in a progressive conundrum of the first order. Vote for current educational models and justice for teachers unions, or listen to the voices of a community asking for new ideas and justice for their struggling kids? A tough call for any progressive.

The head spun more during a conversation with MTI leader John Matthews. He offered his view on teacher accountability. A champion of union rights, Matthews maintained teachers shouldn’t compete against each other for pay, but rather work together collaboratively to create better schools. Yet, at a later meeting, Matthews was put on his heels when Urban League president and native Madisonian Kaleem Caire asked why, in 2010 with less than fifty percent of young black males in Madison graduating from high school, not one of Madison’s 2,700 teachers was dismissed for any reason, including substandard performance.

Our kids compete for grades and are held accountable for performance. Yet teachers shouldn’t compete, and accountability for them is a word rife with conflict? So a champion of Madison’s black poor challenges the champion of teachers. The head spins.

The spinning continued last month when state Rep. Brett Hulsey walked out on a panel discussion featuring nationally recognized education reformer Geoffrey Canada. Since when do Democratic leaders in Madison walk out on respected national black leaders?

Then Mayor Paul Soglin, a man I like and admire, invoked the “outsiders” argument regarding Madison’s gap stats. Regardless of Soglin’s contention on the debatable point that poor black Chicago kids markedly affect gap stats for our schools, it doesn’t alter the fact that we have an embarrassing racial achievement gap. But I can’t get mad at Soglin. In fact, I chuckled because I remember a time in Madison when many locals, instead of examining the morality of the Vietnam War, simply blamed the anti-war demonstrations on “those Jewish kids from New York.” Or Chicago.

My head spun completely off my shoulders when watching the state MLK, Jr. Day remarks of Professor Margaret Rozga, wife of the late civil rights activist and priest James Groppi. She chastised Governor Walker on his treatment of public union workers. Dems chortled at Walker’s discomfort, forgetting that Groppi was a champion of Milwaukee’s black poor, not public unions. Anyone around during the Groppi marches of the ’60s can tell you his take on the appalling racial achievement gaps of both Madison and Milwaukee would not prompt giggles.

And that is why things are so confusing.

The core constituencies of the ’60s progressive battles in Madison and elsewhere are now engaged in a Civil War of the Left, feuding among each other in an ugly battle. The old coalition of union activists, Jewish Americans, blacks and women is now eating its young.

Any community suggestion of system improvement and accountability is labeled an attempt to scapegoat teachers or privatize public education. At the same time, Black Madison grows weary of white progressives bulging with master’s degrees, not hearing yet claiming understanding, while maintaining tight-fisted control on the levers of power and money.

And every day good teachers, overwhelmed and unappreciated, work to reach kids with deficits never before seen in Madison, hoping to make our public schools live up to the standards described by Marj Passman.

And yet, we can’t.

A ball of confusion.

That’s what Madison is today.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at

Find more of his columns for the magazine here.