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MUSD hears student voices loud and clear

For The Madera Tribune

MUSD administrators dive into data from a WestEd audit in search of ways to make classroom instruction more rigorous and relevant.


Bringing more ‘rigor and relevance’ into the classroom

After years of reading statewide reports of achievement and school climate gaps among California’s students, in 2017, Madera Unified School District’s school board decided to feel the pulse of its own students. It ordered an assessment of student perceptions of the relevance of their classroom instruction to their education.

The responses from African American students was alarming, to say the least. They revealed a sense of cultural isolation and feelings that teachers generally did not connect with them or their communities. This led to an attempt to find out why this was the case.

In a subsequent survey, African American students were given the chance to explain their responses. This deeper study reinforced the initial survey. One young, male student, referring to what school meant to him, gave this chilling assessment, “There is nothing here for me.”

It became clear that the students were not finding stories, scenarios, problems, or generalized content that reflected their prior understandings of life. They felt disconnected and couldn’t find a way into the topics or skills they were asked to learn, thus they struggled with behavior and achievement.

At that point, the district turned to WestEd, a non-profit educational research agency, for help. This effort began in 2018, but before it got very far, two significant things happened.

First came the COVID-19 pandemic, and on its heels came the filming of the death of George Floyd. These two events gave urgency to the need to recognize any racial discord and inequities that existed within Madera Unified.

Some of Madera’s own students organized a peaceful and powerful protest called, “Love over Hate.” All of this made the district determined to continue its work with WestEd to “positively change the academic and other outcomes for African American students.”

However, as is often the case when attention is given to one racial or ethnic group, it spread to other groups, as well. The focus on African American achievement led to more attention on the achievement of Native Americans, Latino students, and other groups.

One key finding emerged: “…The racial inequities and conflict in the district affected all students, not just the African American students. The metaphor used to emphasize this point is that the African American students in MUSD serve as the ‘canary in the coal mine.’”

This was especially disturbing because 95 percent of MUSD students are Latino, African-American, Indigenous, biracial or members of other groups.

Because of these concerns, Madera Unified commissioned WestEd to conduct an audit of Madera Unified’s instructional program. The report focused on “rigor and relevance” inherent in the district’s classrooms. In the search for rigor, it looked for challenging instruction, and in the search for relevance, it looked for content that was of personal importance to the students and had real-world significance. The goal was to find out if the students were seeing an authentic connection between the real world and their classroom learning. Where that connection existed, it was felt that students would be “intrinsically motivated.”

WestEd’s “Rigor and Relevance Report” was presented to the district’s administrators in a July 22 workshop, and it strongly recommended that Madera Unified make some changes in the way it addresses the needs of all of its students. It concluded that Madera Unified has some work to do to create a “fair” distribution of educational resources.

The WestEd audit staunchly maintains that MUSD should emphasize equity over equality in order to increase academic rigor for its African-American and other students of color. It went on to insist that cultural relevance is “an essential component of academic rigor.”

The WestEd audit urged Madera Unified to make teaching and learning more rigorous and relevant by adopting four fundamental practices:

1. Advance racial equity in the curriculum.

2. Advance racial equity in teaching by helping teachers to address racism, privilege, and bias in their classrooms.

3. Offer students choice and voice in their learning.

4. Accelerate learning rather than remediation. Teach all students grade-level content.

WestEd maintained that these practices will produce academic rigor and, just as important, cultural relevance. The report urges Madera Unified to train teachers to hone their abilities to build a climate of cultural relevance in their classrooms with the following strategies:

1. Provide students with opportunities to explore and develop their own identities through the histories and contributions of their communities.

2. Provide students with opportunities to explore and develop their own interests.

3. Provide examples of Black, Native American, and other people of color in the fields of mathematics and the sciences.

4. Focus student attention on social conditions and critical, real-life issues in their local communities, the nation, and the world.

5. Identify local resources that can be used to promote cultural relevance.

The bottom line in the audit report is that racial inequities and conflict do exist in the district and they affect all MUSD students, not just the African American students.

As students are preparing to return to school on Aug. 9, teachers and administrators are planning a school year in which instruction for all students is rigorous and relevant, using the WestEd report as a resource.



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