If you’ve kept up on the local debate on educational achievement in the Madison Metropolitan School District, you’ve probably heard of Thomas J. “TJ” Mertz. If you haven’t heard of him, you probably will soon, since he announced a run for the School Board last week.
A vocal critic of the controversial Madison Preparatory Academy proposal last year that brought the achievement gap back to the top of the schools agenda, Mertz has been involved for years in local school issues. He served on a school district equity task force, worked with the grassroots Communities and Schools Together referendum support group, and still is involved with the state-policy-focused Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools.
But Mertz perhaps is best known for his online presence. His blog, Advocating on Madison Public Schools, and frequent Facebook posts have an influential following. “It’s how you reach people today,” he says.
A well-read, sometimes loquacious student of education history and policy, Mertz is the father of two children attending Madison public schools. An instructor of U.S. history at Edgewood College, Mertz said he became actively involved in education issues in an effort to leave the kind of legacy for his children that his mother, who was involved in open housing campaigns in the Chicago area, gave him.
Capital Times: What’s the most important issue facing the Madison Metropolitan School District today?
TJ Mertz: Trust. There’s a lot of distrust in the community on all sides — between community and the school district, within the school district between administration and classroom staff, between the board of education and the administration. If we’re going to have effective initiatives on the achievement gap, it requires trust.
CT: What can be done about that lack of trust?
TM: The district should be honest about what it can and can’t do, what is working and what isn’t working. It needs to be more open in decision-making and should be more transparent, welcoming and inclusive. There’s some collaborative work going on that’s good, but community leaders need to be more honest, too. If you are bringing in John Legend and Howard Fuller and Geoffrey Canada and say they have the answer, you’re lying to the audience. Look at how they are achieving their “success.” It’s being achieved largely through attrition, and even with that the test scores aren’t that good. Let’s talk about state school finance reform. Let’s not talk about firing teachers — every bit of research shows that as a tool for school improvement, it doesn’t work. People should stop looking for miracles. Hard work, incrementalism — it isn’t sexy — but that is what works.
CT: It was the Urban League of Greater Madison that brought Legend, Fuller and Canada to town recently for a fundraiser and education conference. You were strongly opposed to Urban League CEO Kaleem Caire’s Madison Prep proposal for a charter school aimed at students of color. Why?
TM: The proposed programs of that school did not target the kids who are being failed by the district. Ask anyone who knows curriculum if the international baccalaureate is a way to address students who are grades behind, and they’ll laugh. But that was what he was selling — so who was he targeting? Students below proficiency were the ones used in the PR campaign, which made it harder for them and a lot of other people to work with the school district. It was a bait-and-switch.
CT: You are an opponent of achievement test-based teacher evaluations. Is there any rational way to weigh how students are doing to evaluate how teachers are doing?
TM: When you get down to the classroom level, no. The sample size is too small; the data is all over the place. I’d rather have the professional judgment of peers and supervisors. When you get to the school level, you have enough information to guide you on where to look. But you should never let it drive your decision-making; we’re falling too much into setting ‘data goals’ and doing way too much assessment. If we’re doing it just to compare kids, we’re wasting everyone’s time and money.
CT: What about graduation rates — what do they tell us?
TM: Graduation rates for poor minority students in Madison are shameful. But truancy rates are shameful; we have to find a way to get kids to school. The numbers that are quoted are four-year graduation rates, but about 20 percent of African-American males are continuing to work toward a high school diploma after four years. When we talk about the 48 percent graduation rate for African-American males, those kids are nowhere in there and those kids are success stories. Let’s give the district a little credit for hanging in with them and let’s give the kids a lot of credit for hanging in there. Quoting the absolute worst number you can find all the time doesn’t help anyone.
CT: Are you opposed to charter schools and vouchers, period?
TM: I’m not opposed to charter schools. But all the research shows that charterness and non-charterness is largely irrelevant to school quality. We have non-traditional schools within the district, and we don’t have the Balkanization charters bring. What is good for a charter school is not necessarily good for the district as a whole, but when a charter school becomes a well-organized vocal group, the politics become difficult. It’s already difficult enough to keep the focus on the big picture and charter schools make that more difficult. So, I think they are a distraction. Vouchers are wrong. Public education is a public responsibility; it should not be handed over to private entities. If people want to send their kids to private school I have no problem with that, but we shouldn’t be paying for it. It weakens public education; the accountability and responsibility are a mess. And all the data we have show at best a minimally positive impact on individual students and overall no impact at all.
CT: So you think education “reformers” are at base anti-public school?
TM: There is a core that is and they are strongly influencing the movement. There are people sincerely looking for ways to improve schools, and there are people like Betsy DeVos and the Walton family and the Bradley family who are clearly looking to destroy not just public education but the public sector in general. Other people, I look at their actions and what the effect of what they are doing is.
CT: Were there people here who supported Madison Prep who were genuinely looking for a way to improve education?
TM: Both. There were people who supported it who were desperate to do better by kids who are struggling and certainly there were people who supported it who were looking to destroy public education.
CT: You said that some “school reformers” want to put an end to the public sector. So, is this really a labor issue?
TM: It’s beyond unions. I mean the notion of the commonweal, of communitarianism, collective responsibility. I mean the New Deal. I mean stuff going back to the Progressive era.
CT: It’s that big.
TM: There’s no question that this is what these people are about. They want to roll stuff back to the age of the robber barons.
CT: How deep into this is Scott Walker?
TM: This is where his administration is.
CT: What should supporters of public education be watching out for in the legislative session coming up?
TM: I don’t think there will be a big “bomb,” because the bomb last time attracted too much attention. We’ll see a lot of little things. Performance-based funding for schools is scary because it creates a reverse Robin Hood. If you look at recent state report cards and any metric that will measure “performance,” they will correlate with lack of poverty — even improvement correlates with lack of poverty. So we wouldn’t be putting our resources where the greatest need is.