How Does Math Acceleration Relate to Our Equity Goals?

Under the new MMSD strategic framework, the AL department takes a look at how the current math acceleration policy relates to Black Excellence and our focus on thriving schools for all.

Equity means working to give every student what they need to succeed. Accelerated math classes are determined by demonstrated student need. They are not an “enrichment” or something “extra” given to kids. Through accelerated subject placement, students can access core instruction at the right level of challenge, without teachers needing to provide multiple levels of core math instruction at once. Full-grade accelerated classes are open to anyone who demonstrates a compelling need, and MMSD offers summer bridge courses and compacted sequences at the middle school level for students showing strong potential to move forward at a faster pace.

Tightening the range of a class enables teachers to better address each student’s needs. Taken to the extreme, this sounds like tracking. On the contrary, it is important to have heterogeneous classes with a mix of students who are performing at above-average and below-average levels in every class (rather than having homogeneous “low” “middle” and “high” classes, which is the premise of tracking). With acceleration, we prioritize and work to maintain our diverse classrooms, while also ensuring that all the students in a class are getting core instruction that fits their needs. We believe that if we are able to ensure that students who are performing at more than a full year above grade level in literacy or math are able to accelerate to the next level of instruction, it narrows the range of individual needs within the grade-level class so that teacher time can be utilized more equitably. Experts in gifted education (Scott Peters, Marcia Gentry) have observed that when the highest outliers are removed from class, the “above average” kids benefit greatly by having to rely on their own thinking, and by taking on more of a leadership role in the classroom.

Showing leadership for our students.

If we send a message that the “smart” kids “get to” go to a higher grade, kids will feel “special” or “left behind” depending on which cohort they are in. However, when we are clear with kids that their class placement isn’t a reward or a punishment - that it’s simply one of many ways we, as teachers, help all kids get what they need - it sets the tone for students to feel secure that whatever they need is okay.

We also try to help all kids to feel safe and comfortable saying “I don’t know” or “I need help,” and to support each other in learning without judgment. Knowing that we all have something to learn from one another, and we all have room to grow, is equity work that will benefit struggling learners, advanced learners, and everyone in-between. Developing a growth mindset and a respect of one another’s strengths is essential to a positive school experience. Kids mirror what they see from adults, so it’s vital that we show them (with both words and actions) that everyone is a learner, and everyone has unique knowledge and experience to share.

Together, we can ensure that all students have the opportunities they need to learn and grow at school.

Foundations of Leadership

MMSD Graduate Vision

Students from across six Madison high schools are gathered in one space. The chairs are arranged in a circle, but students have arranged themselves comfortably, some in chairs, and others spread out on the floor in the center or standing in the back. A student is with an enthusiastic hand in the air is called on, and asks the panel, “How do you handle it when a well-intentioned relative outs you to other members of your family without your permission?” Classmates snap their fingers to show their connection to the question. Several students offer up a word of encouragement before the members of the panel relay their own experiences for the consideration of the group. The students lean in, listening fully. The panel is comprised of five adults, several of whom are people of color, and all identify as LGBTQ+.

This brief, but powerful moment in Foundations of Leadership, (a high school course offered through collaboration between the Advanced Learning Department of the Madison Metropolitan School District and GSAFE) is illustrative of the work these students engage in each week. The course is intentionally designed to provide a safe space for students to learn about the experiences and leadership of people of color, and those who are LGBTQ+. Students here explore their own voice and identity while drawing on the work of historical figures (often those marginalized or erased in traditional classroom texts) and the example of current community leaders (such as the mentors on the panel described above), especially those who are representative of the identities of the students enrolled in the course.

Foundations of Leadership students

Questioning and critical analysis are commonplace in Foundations of Leadership, but always through a lens of accepting one another’s truths. Vulnerability and trust are staples of this instructional space, and open conversation is the norm. Students are also engaged in sharpening their core literacy skills as they read and respond (both verbally and in writing) to challenging social justice-oriented texts. MMSD is proud to have the opportunity to develop and promote the powerful voice of our rising young leaders, and we see Foundations of Leadership as a template for this crucial work in our district.

Elementary Math Fest

Advanced Learning Math Competitions

A decade ago, the MMSD Advanced Learning Department began creating opportunities such as Elementary Math Fest and Middle School Math Meets to provide an opportunity for students across the district who share a passion for challenging mathematics to meet and interact. Last week’s events, the Eastside and Westside Elementary Math Fests, were attended by 4th and 5th grade teams from nineteen MMSD elementary schools. In all, 152 students participated in the individual and team Elementary Math Fest competitions that took place at the Goodman Community Center on March 13th and March 15th. Top placing individuals from each division will take part in the district wide Middle School Math Meets on April 25 (for grades 5 and 6) and on April 26 (for grades 7 and 8).

What Are The Math Competitions Like?

AL Math Fests and Math Meets are inspired by and made in the tradition of traditional math olympiads such as those at universities such as Purdue and nationwide competitions such as Math Olympiads for Elementary and Middle Schools. Children are encouraged in their love for math and to pursue challenge. They explore their boundaries in mental math, problem solving, creativity, ingenuity, and flexibility in an environment that engenders individual excellence and growth in teamwork. Our competitions feature timed individual rounds of mental math and calculations, as well as a longer team problem-solving round. Students are exposed to the competitive environment that is essential to many future experiences in a way that is fun and builds relationships.

Paying it Forward

MMSD Advanced Learning Math Fests and Math Meets are made possible in part by the Ted Widerski Fund and the Foundation for Madison Public Schools. Math Fest and Math Meet 2019 will benefit from the generosity of many who contributed to the Foundation for Madison Schools, Advanced Learning, in memory of Ted Widerski. Ted Widerski, who founded the first Elementary Math Fest, was a dedicated member of the Advanced Learning department who died unexpectedly during the summer of 2008. He was a math teacher who knew how important it was for students to meet and interact with others with the same passion for math. If you would like to contribute to the ongoing Ted Widerski Memorial Fund to host other Mathfests in the future, you can find directions on how to donate a gift to the foundation by going to and specifying that the gift go to the Advanced Learning department in memory of Ted Widerski.

January 31, 2018

As first semester draws to a close, the Advanced Learning Department is gearing up to try out new practices in identifying students in need of AL services and supports in the domains of Creativity and Leadership.

Students using devices

Changing the criteria for when we explore students’ potential AL needs has helped us to make progress in identifying students from traditionally underrepresented groups, it has not yet helped to broaden our practices in connecting students to AL opportunities outside of Literacy and Math.

The TOPS (Teachers’ Observation of Potential in Students) assessment is one way we will be working toward identifying students with advanced potential in creativity or leadership, and opening up conversations about how we might better connect those students to opportunities to explore these areas of strength throughout their school day. This year, we are using TOPS as a screening tool at grades 1, 4, and 6.

TOPS is not a test students take. It does not require any interruption of student learning to complete a task. Instead, your child’s teachers will work with the Advanced Learning Specialist (ALS) to set up times where the ALS can come and observe students engaged in their regular daily learning tasks in several different environments (e.g. PE, music, science). The ALS will be looking for particular behaviors that show strong student potential in creativity or leadership. They will compare their noticings with feedback from classroom teachers, who have more contact time with the students and may have noticed recurring behaviors over the course of the year that didn’t show up during the TOPS observations.

This focused observational data will be used to spark discussions around creativity and leadership across schools. We look forward to hearing your feedback around how to connect more students with intentional learning opportunities that foster creativity and leadership skills. Thanks for reading!

October 20, 2017

student writing

Attention all passionate middle school writers! There are three opportunities for passionate writers to develop their craft in middle school:

  1. Young Playwrights for Change competition is sponsored by the Children's Theater of Madison (CTM) and coordinated through the AL Department. Students are asked to write a 10 minute play. The theme for this year is: Rise Up: Fighting for Love and Inclusion in the face of Hatred and Bigotry. Events may include a writer's workshop hosted by CTM, feedback on each individual play, and a trip to the Overture Center to view the top three plays performed by CTM in a reader's theater format. The winning play will be submitted to the national competition. Deadline for participation is October 31.
  2. Yahara River Writers Anthology Project is sponsored by Greater Dane County Advanced Learner Network. Students from all over Dane County, grades 5-8, are able to compete in this event. The four categories include poetry, editorials, cartoons, and short stories. Students who love to draw can also submit cover art and anthology section divider artwork. In each category, five top entries from each grade level at each school move on to the district level. A district ALS team chooses the top 10 entries from each grade level and each category for submission to the Dane County judging team. Finalists are announced in the spring and invited to attend the Yahara River Writers Top Ten Workshop at the University of Wisconsin. Submission Deadline is December 15.
  3. NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, which is in November. Students interested in writing a novel work with the middle school ALS to sign up for this international event. Students prepare their novels in October, write daily during the month of November and use the winter months to edit their novels. In the spring, students who have completed their novels will work with the ALS in their school to publish their novel. The AL Department will purchase one novel for each student. Parents are able to order more copies if they choose. In May, we invite all of the published authors to attend a Writer's Conference sponsored by the AL Department at the Central Madison Public Library. Please contact ALS prior to November 1.

Please contact the ALS at your middle school if your student is interested in participating in any of these events. Please note the deadlines.

October 9, 2017

Hello from the Advanced Learning Department!

We are off to an exciting start this school year! The Board of Education recently approved a new one-year Advanced Learning plan. This year, we will try out new approaches for equitably identifying and serving students with Advanced Learning needs. Our department vision brings clarity to the work ahead:

The vision of the Advanced Learning (AL) Department is to create and implement systems and structures that fully support the identification and development of all students, and in particular African American and Hispanic/Latino students with potential advanced learning needs. It is critical that the AL Department not only identify and support students who are already achieving at high academic levels, but also students who have the potential to do so when provided with both support and opportunity. (Advanced Learning Plan, MMSD, 2017)

We have also hired several new staff members. Check out the advanced learning website to get to know our new and returning educators. The role of our staff in schools is evolving. Formerly AL-IRTs (advanced learning instructional resource teachers), now Advanced Learning Specialists (ALS), we work with students and families directly, and we also prioritize supporting and coaching teachers to ensure they have what they need to meet the diverse learning needs in their classrooms.

Students working with a teacher

In October, one way we are supporting the development of enthusiastic young scientists is through Science Cohort. This is an interactive field trip for fifth graders (3 from each school, selected through lottery) to try their hand at experiments with scientists at the UW Institute for Discovery. We had a great time building microscopes and examining squirmy nematodes, dragonfly wings, blood cells, and even our own fingertips!

November is National Novel Writing month, so we’ll have more to report soon about how our young authors are coming along.

Thanks for reading!