Five priorities for the School Committee in the next 2-year term

Screen Shot 2017-04-14 at 2.20.38 PMA city can only be great if it has a great public school system. That requires a School Committee whose members work hard, understand the issues, have a demonstrated record of accomplishment, and want to move the district forward without needless delay. That’s what I did as a parent activist before I was on the School Committee, it’s what I’ve done in my first term on the Committee, and it’s what I will do if I’m re-elected next Tuesday. To be re-elected, I need you to rank me #1 for Cambridge School Committee when you go into the voting booth on November 7th. But your #2 and #3 votes will not be wasted. They will help elect the other candidates you also have faith in. Whomever you elect, we will work together.

What are the issues the School Committee needs to address in its next term?

Obviously, early childhood education. Cambridge is one of the richest cities in New England, yet we don’t have a system that guarantees that all Cambridge children can attend a high-quality, affordable preschool program. The School Committee, which is charged with closing the income-based achievement gap, must take leadership on this issue and make sure there is a viable plan in place by the end of the next term. In the meantime, we can’t maintain dozens of unfilled Junior Kindergarten seats when we have a preK waitlist of 300 families. We need to use that unfilled capacity and also create additional capacity.

Small education is freedomOur high school. Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School has many wonderful, unique learning opportunities. Now they need to be linked into coherent pathways that give every student a chance to pursue their own interests while also getting a broad education. The Somerville Public Schools just won a $300,000 grant from the Barr Foundation to work with the Center for Collaborative Education to redesign Somerville High School to emphasize personalized in-school learning, apprenticeships, and college and career readiness. Last year, Somerville won a $10 million grant from the XQ Super School Project to create a project-based alternative high school in Powderhouse Square. We need to learn from and with our neighboring public school districts.

The middle schools.  The four new upper schools all have some delightful characteristics, but the promised increases in achievement for low-income students have not yet materialized. With  teachers asking for “more hands, hearts, and minds in the classroom,” and many 6th-8th grade class sizes exceeding the target class size of 22 students, this is not surprising. We need to staff these schools in ways that support the achievement of all students, which means more co-teachers, more skilled paraprofessionals, and more specialists in the schools.

The elementary schools. Cambridge has 12 high quality elementary schools, but they’re not adequately or equitably staffed to meet the needs of Cambridge children. In 2014, I co-authored a report titled “Unequal Schools: How Unequal Staffing, Demographics, and Neighborhood Characteristics Create Unequal Opportunities for Low-Income Students to Learn in CPS Elementary Schools.” Analyzing the FY15 budget, my co-author and I showed that staffing across the 12 elementary schools was inequitable. There have been some improvements since 2015, but we need to do more. In particular, CPS needs to provide small class sizes or team teachers for all 1st-3rd grade classes, both of which are verified best practices.

Books

Measuring quality. We actually don’t know how good our schools are in terms of multiple criteria.  For two decades, Cambridge has followed the national mandate to use high-stakes tests as our main measure of school quality. The result has been a restricted curriculum, increased standardization, too many worksheets, and not enough time for recess and lunch. For the foreseeable future, Cambridge students will continue to take state-mandated tests, and the School Committee will continue to use those results to guide improvement decisions. But we also need to do what many forward-thinking districts are doing: adopting robust, reliable measures of: school climate, instructional quality, leadership quality, extracurricular learning, family engagement, and, most important, measures of postsecondary success: graduation from college or career training programs, satisfying employment, and participation in civic life in young adulthood.

Please vote for School Committee candidates who work hard, understand the issues, and want to move this district forward without delay. And of those candidates, please VOTE  EMILY DEXTER #1. Cambridge deserves a great public school system, and there is no reason we can’t have one.

Election Day is next Tuesday, November 7th. The polls are open until 8:00 p.m.

Biz Card Photo

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My 2017 platform

Dear readers of Public School Notes: The November 7th election is less than 2 weeks away. As usual, it will be very close, and determined mostly by #1 votes.  If you’d like to keep me on the Committee for a second term, I’ll need your #1 vote. Give your #2 and #3 votes to other candidates you’d like to see on the Committee. As a new candidate last term, I gained a seat with a combination of #1 and #2 votes, so #2 and even #3 votes can help elect other candidates you support. Please go to my website and sign up for my newsletter: www.emilydexterforcambridge.com.

Recently, all School Committee candidates were asked to write about a list of topics for the Candidate Profiles page of the Cambridge Civic Journal Below are my responses, which should give you a sense of my current thinking about our schools. My ideas have evolved this term, including as a result of discussions I’ve had during the campaign.  If you haven’t had a chance to attend any SC candidate forums, here are links to the two that were televised:

Ward 6 SC Forum, and Margaret Fuller House SC Forum.

MY BACKGROUND
Originally from outside Washington, D.C., I grew up in a family of civil servants, teachers, librarians, and secretaries. My spouse and I have lived in Cambridge since 1990, and we sent our two daughters to the Cambridge Public Schools, K-12. One graduated from CRLS in 2010, the other in 2014.

In addition to having been an activist CPS parent for 17 years, I have worked in the education field for 25 years, including as a language specialist for five years at an out-of-district special education school for Deaf students in Framingham, and as a literacy researcher for fifteen years at Harvard and Lesley University. I have a doctorate in child and youth development from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and extensive training in research, program evaluation, and data analysis.

MY 1ST-TERM ACCOMPLISHMENTS
In collaboration with parents, students, other Committee members, and civic leaders:

> I pushed successfully for more staff who work directly with students: more 1st grade paraprofessionals in schools with the largest class sizes; more high school guidance counselors to reduce student-counselor ratios; more CRLS teachers to reduce class sizes for Leveled Up 9th grade English classes; additional social workers to expand mental health supports; and additional art teachers so every elementary school has a full-time art teacher.

> I pushed for a comprehensive review of our elementary school staffing and programs, which is being conducted this year.

> As a CPS parent, and then as a School Committee member, I pushed for an elementary school language program, which is being piloted in two CPS elementary schools this year. In one school, the program is partially combined with a social studies class, providing an immersion component. (Spanish)

> My motion for an analysis of chronic absence data resulted in a district-wide effort to support families and get all kids to school regularly.

> As chair of the School Climate Subcommittee, I met with high school student leaders and supported their efforts to have more student voice in CRLS policies.

> I had motions passed to have childcare at CPS budget hearings and to send all parents information about the role of the School Committee and how to contact Committee members.

> I raised new questions, such as: Is it fair to have a publicly funded Junior Kindergarten (JK) program that, by design, serves only half of all 4-year-olds? Is staffing equitable across our 12 elementary schools? Should class sizes for 1st-3rd graders and English Language Learners be as high as 24-25 students? Do all students have equal access to extracurricular activities at CRLS? How much of our high per pupil spending goes directly into the classroom?

MY TOP PRIORITIES

> Giving teachers and principals the autonomy and resources they need to individualize and personalize their teaching while also creating “communities of learners” in their schools and classrooms. District-wide, this means more collaboration time for teachers and access to coaching and feedback. In some schools and grade levels, this means more trained co-teachers, paraprofessionals, and specialists to reduce adult-student ratios and help teachers truly meet the needs of all students in their classrooms, whether those needs are for more remediation, more enrichment, or more advanced learning opportunities.

> Ensuring that the elementary school curricula and student assessments are developmentally appropriate in grades JK-5. (JK=Junior Kindergarten.) There is current concern among some parents and teachers that there is too much emphasis on teaching formal academic skills in the earliest grades, and not enough emphasis on the hands-on, open-ended exploration and “language rich” environments that children need in order to develop complex language, literacy, cognitive, and social skills.

> Working with the Cambridge Department of Human Services to create a comprehensive system of Early Childhood Education that provides all Cambridge 3- and 4-year-olds with access to affordable, high quality pre-kindergarten education. Currently, not all Cambridge children start kindergarten with basic school skills such as the ability to sit in a circle, share scissors, or ask for help. In addition, the current junior kindergarten (JK) program that serves only four-year-olds born between September and March is egregiously unfair to taxpayers in that it provides an extra year of public education to some children but not others, based on an arbitrary birth date cutoff.

> Continuing to improve the 6th-12th grade pathway so it engages and prepares all students, including those disengaged from school. This means continuing to make the upper school and high school programs more student-centered and civic-centered, so they can better prepare all students to be independent, positively-engaged young adults as soon as they graduate from high school. Our 6th-12th grade schools have many wonderful characteristics, but I’d like them to focus even more on the authentic skills, knowledge, and dispositions that students need to be successful adults: the ability to solve novel problems, to be lifelong learners, to work with people from different backgrounds, to find satisfying and remunerative work, and to participate actively in a democratic society. Among other things, the high school needs a system whereby all students, not just some, participate in well-designed internships and apprenticeships that help them explore career and personal interests.

> Creating a comprehensive and efficient data system and a sophisticated program of research so the administration, educators, School Committee, and the public can get detailed information about student experiences, opportunities, and outcomes. The school department collects a lot of data, but most of it is never analyzed and therefore can’t be used to inform policy or practice. We need an efficient data system, closer connections with the research community in Cambridge and Boston, and a sophisticated program of research and evaluation. In particular, we need to start collecting more data on long term outcomes for our students, such as whether those that start college actually graduate within six years, and whether our students find remunerative work after high school or college.

Screen Shot 2017-04-14 at 12.54.25 PMTOP CHALLENGES FACING OUR DISTRICT
Like many districts around the country, our schools must meet following challenges:

> The large percentage of students whose families are economically insecure or living in poverty, and the correlation between poverty and race/ethnicity; and income inequality in our school city and school communities. We know that poverty and income-insecurity are damaging to a child’s development, unless a child has protective factors such as a very attentive adult in their lives. The City’s 2013 report, “Poverty in Cambridge,” reported that 2,100 Cambridge children under the age of 18 lived below the poverty line, which was $23,000 for a family of four. The census estimates that one-third of single-mother households in Cambridge live below the poverty line. Latino and Black families were 3-6 times more likely to live in poverty (30% and 25% respectively), as compared to Asian and White families (8% and 5%). These rates do not include the many families whose incomes are above the poverty level, but are considered “low-income” or income insecure. In the educational equity literature, students who lack financial resources at home are referred to as “school-dependent” students, because they rely much more on school to acquire academic knowledge and skills, as compared with middle- and upper-income students, who have educational resources at home.

(Beyond the struggles of individual students, we know that a high level of income inequality is not good for communities. Via the Gini Index, Cambridge has been rated the 11th most unequal city in the U.S. (Boston is 10th). Though the full range of household incomes is not represented in our student body, there is still a high level of income inequality, both at the student level, and at the adult level of parents, teachers, and other CPS staff.)

> The increasing numbers of students who exhibit mental health and behavioral challenges, including serious depression, anxiety, and trauma-based behavior. Not just in Cambridge, but nationally, educators are becoming more aware that there are many children and young people who are at risk for serious mental health, socioemotional, and behavior problems, some of them stemming from traumatic experiences in their families, communities, or, in the case of immigrant students, their home countries. Aggressive behaviors, such as bullying or aggression against particular groups of students, can be symptoms of underlying emotional distress. We need to look at mental health and socioemotional well being comprehensively in our schools, and ensure that classrooms provide a safe and positive learning environment for all students. We must also be sure there are more intensive supports, including therapeutic counseling, for the students in our schools who are most at risk.

> The fact that roughly 60% of our students are students of color, but 80% of our teachers are white, along with lack of enough male teachers. All U.S. students need more access to adults of color in positions of authority, and need to learn from diverse adults with different life experiences. Students of color, particularly those who do not have many family members with college degrees or remunerative careers, need more adults and teachers of color in their schools and classrooms.

> The lack of knowledge that most Cambridge residents have about our schools, and the many negative myths that circulate as a result. School systems rely on support from the larger population of taxpayers, but the majority of Cambridge residents have little contact with the schools. Many hold negative views based on inaccurate information.

> The transience and mobility of Cambridge and the school population. Teachers and students can only teach and learn effectively if there is a baseline of stable enrollment and attendance. According to DESE, roughly 700 students leave our district mid-year every year, and 450-500 students enter the district mid-year. In terms of attendance, DESE reports that one of every seven CPS students misses more than three weeks of school. This instability is stressful and disruptive for students and teachers.

> The separation of the school department, governed by the School Committee, and the Department of Human Services, governed by the City Council. Schools, nationwide, are broadening their focus from just academics to that of supporting family engagement and students’ social, cultural, and emotional development. As this happens, the goals of school departments overlap more and more with the goals of Human Services departments. In Cambridge and elsewhere, the administrative separation in the face of overlapping goals can result in more comprehensive services. It can also result in uncoordinated services provided to the same students and families, confusing overlap or redundancies in some services, and some students falling through the cracks when it comes to early childhood, afterschool, and summer programs, as well as internships and apprenticeships. When systems are confusing and not universal, students with the most skills will take the best advantage of the taxpayer-funded resources, so “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” Another term for this is “middle class giveaways.”

INNOVATION AGENDA/HYBRID MIDDLE SCHOOL PROGRAM
In the 2012-2013 school year, CPS switched from a predominantly JK-8 system to a system of JK-5 schools feeding into four small middle (“upper”) schools. The JK-8 Amigos school is the only exception.

The four upper schools, now in their sixth year, are well established, and each one has some unique, delightful characteristics, as well as unique challenges. The same is true for the Amigos 6th-8th-grade program, which is coordinated with the upper schools. Now that the new structure is established, the job of the School Committee is to support all the existing CPS schools in their current grade configuration, and to ensure that all 17 schools have enough resources, including teachers and other staff. The middle school grades should not be considered unto themselves, but rather part of a 6th-12th grade pathway that transitions students from early adolescence to early adulthood.

Though my own two children were already in high school when the Innovation Agenda was decided, I played a very active role, as a high school parent, in supporting the new district structure. In 2012, I joined the newly formed parent group, the Cambridge School Advisory Group (CSAG), as a CRLS parent representative; and became a member of the group’s Steering Committee. With parent representatives from every CPS school, CSAG met monthly for roughly three years, with parents exchanging information and advocating for needed resources. I also worked with upper school parents to advocate, successfully, for additional staff to be added to the upper schools, such as additional intervention teachers and full-time librarians. We have not yet been successful at persuading the district to add family liaisons to the four upper schools, which are the only schools in the district without family liaisons.

SCHOOL DEPARTMENT ADMINISTRATION AND SUPERINTENDENT
We are fortunate to have a new Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Kenny Salim, who joined the district in July, 2016. Though he only has three years of previous experience as a superintendent, he seems very systems- and data-oriented, which CPS needs. He also understands the importance of staff morale, and of developing shared goals to focus district efforts. After starting in Cambridge last summer, Dr. Salim immediately hired a well-qualified Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, Dr. Anda Adams. Dr. Adams hired an experienced researcher/data analyst, which is a start toward having an ongoing program of research and evaluation.

Because Dr. Salim has been working in our district for only one year, and is a relatively inexperienced superintendent compared with our previous superintendents, he needs support, feedback, and guidance from other administrators, teachers, the School Committee, and parents, students, and community members. With this support and guidance, he will quickly learn as much as possible about Cambridge and our school system. Though our district is small compared to major urban districts like Boston, the complexity of Cambridge, the extreme diversity of our students and wide range of incomes, combined with the rapid changes happening in the city, make the school system complicated to administer and govern.

Biz Card PhotoSCHOOL DEPT. BUDGET AND OVERSIGHT, CAPITAL NEEDS
The CPS budget is the district’s most important statement of policy and values, since it specifies where the district will put resources and where it will not. Helping to create the budget, approving the budget, and reviewing and approving expenditures during the year are some of the School Committee’s most important responsibilities to Cambridge students and families, as well as to all Cambridge taxpayers. Reviewing and approving the CPS budget is also one of the City Council’s most important responsibilities, since the school department constitutes 30% of the total City budget. I have been extremely attentive to the CPS budget over the years, and have spent dozens of hours analyzing the CPS budgets, comparing them to budgets in other school districts, and publishing budget analyses on my blog, Public School Notes. The School Committee is also responsible for ongoing budget oversight, and must evaluate and approve all expenditures of more than $25,000. If the Committee approves every expenditure proposed by the administration, it is probably not exercising enough oversight, because it would suggest that the administration is in perfect synch with the values of the Committee and community, which would be impossible. As a Committee member, I have voted in favor of most, but not all of the contracts proposed by the Superintendent.

It is also important for taxpayers to know that although Cambridge has a very high per pupil spending as compared with other districts, Cambridge spends a substantially smaller percentage of its budget on teachers—the most important professionals in education. For example, according to DESE data for 2016, our total per pupil spending is 45% higher than Brookline ($26,600 in Cambridge vs. $18,400 in Brookline), but our per pupil spending on classroom teachers is only 6% higher than Brookline ($6,480 for Cambridge vs. $6,100 for Brookline). Salem, Waltham, and Medford all spend roughly the same as Cambridge, per pupil, on classroom teachers ($6,300-$6,900 per pupil).

That said, Cambridge does fund many amenities that other districts can’t afford, such as more mental health professionals in our schools, a well-funded high school extracurricular program, and community partnerships. We also have very high health insurance costs and very small schools, which is expensive. There are, however, some places where we could trim our budget and direct more of our dollars to student learning rather than infrastructure.

In terms of capital needs, we are building four state-of-the-art schools that will each hold an elementary and middle school. We are not building these schools primarily because of the Innovation Agenda, but because Cambridge conducted no major school renovations between the 2001 renovation of the Peabody School and the beginning of the 2010 renovation of CRLS. As a result, some of our buildings seriously deteriorated. Cambridge also needs to build more city spaces for the arts, early childhood education, afterschool programs, and adult education, which should be factored into any new city construction.

ACHIEVEMENT GAP/MEETING THE NEEDS OF ALL LEARNERS
Diversity makes people smarter, because they are exposed to more perspectives. The meaning of “diversity” is not that we have students with different amounts of melanin in their skin, but that we have learners from families with a wide range of income levels, parent education levels, home languages, students with an array of different academic, physical, social, or mental health challenges, newly-arrived immigrant students, and students with different interests, talents, academic skills, knowledge, and so on. Since our schools are so small, there is no “normal distribution” of skills at each grade level in each school. Instead, students can be all over the map in terms of skills, and cohorts can differ substantially from year to year and across schools. In addition, new students are constantly coming into our schools from other places in the U.S. and other countries. That means teachers have to differentiate instruction much more than in schools in more stable and homogeneous communities.

If we truly want teachers to be able to teach all their students well, we have to give them adequate resources. We’ve emphasized professional development in this district for two decades, but that is only one resource. We also need to take into account that we hire roughly 100 novice teachers every year. CPS teachers in some schools and grade levels have told us that they need smaller class sizes and/or other trained adults in their classrooms, such as co-teachers, skilled paraprofessionals, and more reading and math specialists. Teachers also need more time to plan and confer with their colleagues, which requires more staff to cover classrooms. In particular, investing in more evidence-based practices in the early grades, such as having smaller class sizes in grades K-3, should increase the average achievement of low-income students, and save the city money in the long run.

ADVANCED LEARNING
We have students, at all grade levels, preK-12, who are working way above the level of their peers in one or more academic subjects. We also have students who show precocious talent in art, music, movement, advanced levels of empathy, or who have very mature social skills or leadership abilities. Meeting the advanced learning needs of our students requires school-level expertise in advanced learning, and enough trained adults in the classroom so students don’t end up bored, having to learn too much from a computer, or perennially serving as tutors or role models for other students. At minimum, every school should have a staff member with training in advanced learning and enrichment, who can work with teachers and students. It’s also important that students have easy access to peers working at the same level in their domains of strength, which might include students at higher grade levels or in other schools.

Socially and emotionally, all students need to accept diversity of ability in various domains, and not stigmatize students for being too advanced or too behind in various skill areas. It’s also important that schools have mental health staff who can recognize issues, such as depression or acting out, that might be more prevalent amongst students who are far above their peers, or students who have unrecognized strengths. We should also ensure that we use assessments that are capable of measuring high levels of student ability in various subject areas and domains, and give teachers the resources they need to learn, from parents, about their children’s interests and abilities.

CONTROLLED CHOICE, STUDENT ASSIGNMENT
Controlled Choice is the original name of the voluntary desegregation plan developed by Cambridge to avoid court-ordered desegregation in the 1970s. Cambridge schools, today, however, offer much less choice than when the current system was originally designed. For this reason, our system is really one of “Controlled Neighborhood Schools” rather than “Controlled Choice.” It needs to be revised and improved in response to particular problems, and there are several ways to do that.

The original structure of Controlled Choice was a dual system of: 1) neighborhood schools open primarily to students in the neighborhood (via “proximity preference” in the lottery), and 2) a parallel system of magnet schools open to any student in the district. The magnet schools were designed to attract higher income, mostly white students, to schools in lower-income, mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods. Until the late 1990s, Cambridge had magnet programs in almost every elementary school, which integrated the schools, but not necessarily the classrooms within the schools. Most of these magnet programs were eliminated in the early 2000s, so most schools now have “proximity preference.” This means that it is almost impossible for families to attend popular programs if they do not live within the proximity boundaries of those schools. The most popular schools tend to be those in more affluent neighborhoods.

Though our Controlled Choice policy was reviewed only four years ago, (I served on the community advisory board), very few changes were made at that time. The main conclusion that there are many families living west of Harvard Square, but the majority of schools are located east of Harvard Square. I.e. not all families living on the west side of Cambridge can fit into their popular neighborhood schools. Even of CPS did not try to balance schools by income, there is need for some students from the west side to attend non-neighborhood schools on the east side.

Since the kindergarten lottery is the entry point for families joining the public schools, it is essential that we review and improve the Controlled Choice policy and process, which can be very negative for parents. Potential changes, some even suggested in the 2013 review but not implemented, include:

> Change the lottery algorithm to one that doesn’t invite gaming the system. Right now, parents might be penalized if they put down their actual first choice of schools, if their first choice is a very popular school. For this reason, parents have to “game” the system by trying to decide where they are most likely to get a spot, not which school they most prefer. This puts the Family Resource Center in the difficult position of having to advise parents, subjectively, on which schools they might realistically get into. It also advantages parents who have the ability to access the most information about how the lottery works.

> The administration needs to do a better job recruiting socially isolated or marginalized families to participate in the lottery process. A disproportionate number of low-income families do not enroll during the first lottery period, when they have the greatest number of options. This could involve working more closely with community centers and community leaders. In addition, the names of our lotteries are confusing. The lottery for preschool programs admitting students ages 3.0-4.5 is called a “3-year-old lottery.” The lottery for Junior Kindergarten (ages 4.6-4.0) and Kindergarten (ages 5.0-5.11) is called only a “Kindergarten” lottery. These misleading labels can easily be changed.

> The School Committee should limit the distance that a student would be required to travel. Right now we have families living near the Arlington line that are assigned to the furthest east school in Cambridge. This could be fixed via zones or maximum home-school distances.

> The Committee and administration should create more specialized magnet and public school preschool programs in the most under chosen schools. The most under chosen schools are all located in lower-income neighborhoods. Many parents are willing to send their child to a school across town if the program is specialized or they would be provided with two years of taxpayer-funded preschool for all of their children.

FAMILY ENGAGEMENT AND COMMUNICATION
For decades, U.S. public schools have served as a way for students and their families to learn citizenship skills and become part of the mainstream American civic body. CPS very much needs a structured parent education and training program that would parallel their children’s education. We already have pieces of this, some provided by the school department, by the Department of Human Services, or by community non-profits. This would be similar to the “citizenship” classes that immigrant parents used to be provided with when they arrived in the U.S. and their children enrolled in urban public schools. A structured parent program would help narrow achievement gaps by narrowing the income-gap in parent skills and sense of empowerment.

We need to think of Family Engagement in terms of a hierarchy of needs and stages of parent development, similar to the Head Start model of Family Engagement. Parents, particularly those not from civic mainstream, need: 1) Frequent communication from teachers and structured opportunities to work with their children on school-related projects at home, so they understand what and how their children are learning at school. 2) Structured and informal opportunities to come to the school building to interact with the teachers, principal, and with other parents. This helps parents feel comfortable in the institutional environment of their child’s school, and helps them become part of a parent community. 3) Leadership opportunities within the school, such as to organize fundraisers, serve on the governing body, etc., which helps parents increase their leadership skills and sense of empowerment. 4) District-level advocacy opportunities in order to engage with the district administration and School Committee, which they, in theory, help elect to set the policies that affect their children. Across all income levels and categories of race/ethnicity and income, some parents come into the school community with the ability to engage at all these levels, some enter with fewer school-engagement skills. Our schools should not just be “welcoming” to all families, they should be parent learning environments that result in all families feeling more empowered as Cambridge residents.

Four Kids walking into CRLSSTANDARDIZED TESTING
Standardized testing is a good way to monitor the basic academic skills of the whole student population, and for comparing academic skills across student groups, defined, for example, by race, income, gender, disability status, English language proficiency, or combinations of these categories. However, CPS needs to make clear and specific efforts not to place too much emphasis on standardized test scores, which can result in narrowing the curriculum to subjects that are tested, reducing authentic learning opportunities such as field trips, spending too much time teaching test-taking skills, and creating excessive stress for teachers and fragile students. Excessive emphasis on standardized tests can also lead to a narrow definition of “student achievement,” with schools overlooking the complex strengths that low-scoring students have, and the complex needs of high-scoring students. Complex student strengths and needs can be measured with diagnostic tests designed to give detailed and actionable information, curriculum-based tests that show how well students are learning what their teachers are trying to teach them, and performance assessments that give teachers a chance to see how well students perform when faced with complex tasks.

Though standardized tests can provide valuable information at the group level, it requires considerable expertise and knowledge of the tests themselves to properly analyze and interpret standardized test score data, particularly for a district that has very small schools and small cohort sizes. Cambridge currently has only one full-time data analyst, and in the past had only a part-time analyst. As a result, the district, historically, has conducted very little analyses of its test score data. The result has been that administrators, the School Committee, and the public have often drawn erroneous and damaging conclusions about what our achievement data does or does not say about students’ academic abilities, teacher effectiveness, or school quality. CPS needs a robust research program in which clear research questions are explored through iterative, expert-level data analysis.

As is frequently noted, the problem with standardized testing in Massachusetts is not the test, but their high-stakes nature. Because schools are rated by the state on their test scores, there is tremendous pressure on principals, teachers, the Superintendent, and students to improve test scores quickly, which is not a good way to improve instruction and increase student learning. The community and School Committee can unwittingly exacerbate this non-constructive pressure when we emphasize test scores as the only measure of school or district quality, and ignore data on graduation and college-going rates, attendance and enrollment, or data on student participation in out-of-school or school-funded extracurricular activities. As every statistician knows, a construct such as “student achievement” is multifaceted, and needs to be assessed using multiple measures if we want a valid and reliable picture of student learning and abilities.

ROLE OF THE SCHOOL COMMITTEE
The School Committee has multiple responsibilities and a lot of responsibility. As the governing board, the Committee is ultimately responsible for everything that happens in the schools, primarily by directing, supervising, and evaluating the Superintendent.

The first responsibility of Committee members is to know what is going on in the schools and in the community. This requires asking for information from the administration, attending school and community events, and getting to know parents, students, teachers, administrators, staff, and community leaders. It is impossible for Committee members to ask good questions and make good policy if they don’t know what is working well and what is not.

Their second role is to supervise, evaluate, and provide direction to the superintendent. School Committee members, because they are elected from the community, have knowledge about the schools and community that the superintendent does not have. In addition, in theory, it is the School Committee that is accountable to the public via the ballot box, not the superintendent. The Committee must use the collective knowledge of the members to guide the superintendent to fulfill the will of the public, while also observing state and federal requirements and sound educational practice. At the same time, the Committee must engage the superintendent’s expertise when trying to solve difficult district problems. The relationship between the Superintendent and Committee should be collaborative and collegial, but ultimately it is the School Committee that is responsible for the schools via their supervision of the Superintendent, their monitoring of data, and the process of assigning resources to the schools via the budget process. The Committee hires, evaluates, and directs the Superintendent, not vice versa.

On a year-to-year basis, the Committee is responsible for articulating a vision and setting goals, which should come primarily from the public, which funds the schools via their taxes and elects the School Committee as their representatives. The ongoing work of the Committee is to bring issues from the public to the administration, which is why the Committee meets publicly at least twice per month. These meetings give Committee members the opportunity to bring public issues forward, and give parents, students, and other community members a chance to speak publicly about improvements they would like to see in their schools.

School Committees, in Cambridge and in other districts, are often criticized for getting “too deep into the weeds” rather than sticking to “policy.” However, schools are supposed to be cultivated farms and gardens, not wild fields. If there are too many weeds that are not being pulled out by the administration and educators, it means the School Committee policies aren’t effective at preventing the weeds from growing. It is the School Committee’s responsibility to make sure weeds get pulled out, via policy or changes in practice. Otherwise, the schools can’t operate smoothly and focus on their mission.

ROLE OF TEACHERS IN SHAPING PROGRAMS AND INFLUENCING POLICIES
Teachers must have a substantial voice in program and policy decisions, since they are trained in the education profession and are the ones who are in most contact with students and families. The more control teachers have over what and how they teach, the more satisfaction they will get from their work, and the more joy of learning they will be able to communicate to their students. It is essential that the Committee and administration give teachers enough autonomy that they can experiment, design, try new things, and pursue their own interests within a framework of students’ academic needs. The key to more consistent quality of teaching across the district is not in standardizing curricula and practices (though some standardization can help), but in ensuring that teachers feel part of a cohesive professional community, that their schools are well-managed so they can focus on teaching, that they have enough resources to do their job without undue stress, and that there is open communication between teachers, administrators, the School Committee, parents, and the community. Teachers also need well-designed opportunities to collaborate with colleagues within their school, within the district, and within the wider educational professional community. Teachers should be encouraged to take leadership roles in their schools, and to communicate regularly with the administration and with the Committee about effective policy and practices. The new Design Lab, a problem-solving space for CPS professionals, is a step in the right direction. It will be effective if teachers are given the time to take advantage of this new problem-solving space.

Often overlooked is the need for there to be direct trust between parents and teachers, and between the community and teachers. Trust cannot be mandated, it must be developed through contact and positive experiences. The Committee needs to set policies, and the administration needs to employ practices, that provide teachers, parents, and the community opportunities for trust-building experiences with families.

CURRICULUM AND PROGRAMS
Cambridge teachers, principals, and schools, historically, have been in the forefront of curriculum development and adaptation, and we need to give teachers and principals the freedom, time, and other resources to create and seek out innovative curricula. Decades ago, some CPS schools adapted innovative school-wide programs, such as Core Knowledge at the Morse School, and language immersion programs. The three officially “alternative schools” (Graham and Parks, King Open, and Cambridgeport), originally based their JK-8 curriculum and pedagogy on concepts that were the innovations of their time, such as project-based learning, combining students in multiple grade levels in the same classroom, authentic assessment, multidisciplinary curricula, cooperative learning, culturally relevant and anti-racist curricula, and so on. Some of the best curricula developed decades ago by forward-thinking CPS teachers working in all the schools are still being used today in updated formats. At the high school level, the former Pilot School within CRLS also pioneered interdisciplinary, problem-focused curricula.

In terms of adopting new curricula, CPS was one of the first districts in the country to teach “Facing History and Ourselves,” a middle school curriculum that emphasizes critical moral reasoning. The district currently is piloting a new curriculum called “Discovering Justice,” created by a Boston-based non-profit. CPS has had a long-standing relationship with TERC, a Cambridge-based math-and science-oriented research and curriculum development organization that develops curricula for a national market, often with NSF funding. The King Open and King School were the original sites where Bob Moses developed the Algebra Project, now scaled up nationally.

It is the differentiation of the curriculum in each classroom that is the challenge, which requires that teachers have enough planning time, enough adults in the classroom, and enough feedback on their teaching to support the learning of diverse students.

The JK Program: A School Committee priority should be to change the unfair JK policy by which half of all four-year-olds, by an arbitrary birth cut-off, are granted a taxpayer-funded pre-kindergarten year of education, as well as two opportunities to enter the lottery (first, as four-year-olds applying for JK, and, if they choose not to enter at JK, they can apply again as five-year-olds applying for K). I.e. some taxpaying City residents are guaranteed 14 years of public education, others only 13 years. This is akin to if the city said it would pay for the first year of college for half of the graduating senior class. CPS should either expand the junior kindergarten program to cover all 4-year-olds, pay for students not eligible for JK to attend other preschool programs, eliminate the JK program and have all children start in CPS school as kindergarteners, or offer the JK program only to low-income children in order to ensure they have pre-kindergarten school experience.

Immersion and Other Elementary Language Programs: It is very important that all Cambridge children have access to language learning opportunities when they are young. Learning another language has multiple benefits, including increasing students’ metalinguistic skills, which are necessary for first-language literacy, and increasing critical thinking and cultural empathy and perspective taking. Language immersion is not an either-or approach, nor is teaching language via more formal classroom experiences. Both require opportunities to learn and interact in the target language, combined with structured lessons in vocabulary, grammar, and culture. An explicit, 21st century learning goal for the School Committee and administration should be increasing elementary school language learning in all our elementary schools, via both “immersion” opportunities and more structured lessons. To accomplish this, CPS and the Committee must do more to educate parents, teachers, and the public about the value, to all students, of gaining some proficiency in another language. Our non-immersion programs, such as the Ni Hao non-immersion Mandarin program at the King School, and the Spanish non-immersion program at the Fletcher-Maynard, serve a disproportionately low-income student population, while the opposite is true of our official immersion programs. The quality and quantity of language learning opportunities in both types of schools needs to increase, as does the economic diversity of both types of programs.

I am committed to expanding and improving the quality of the CPS full-immersion and more structured elementary school language programs. While still a CPS parent, I organized petitions, wrote columns for the local newspapers, and spoke at public comment in support of an elementary school language program, which was explicitly envisioned as part of the Innovation Agenda. This year, as a result of my advocacy and that of other Committee members and parents, a 4th grade Spanish program will be piloted in two CPS schools. The programs will be combined with some form of arts instruction, which would provide an immersion component.

Overview CRLSThe Upper Schools and High School Programs: At the national level, models of middle school and high school education are moving away from the 20th-century students-sitting-in-classrooms model, and emphasizing more active and complex learning via large-scale, multifaceted problem-solving projects. Whole school programs such as Expeditionary Learning, based in Portland, Maine, and High Tech High, created in San Diego by two former CRLS teachers, are inspiring models we can look to as we continue to develop our middle school and high school programs. We have the potential to have a vibrant 6th-12th grade pathway that prepares students for post-secondary education, meaningful work, civic engagement, and positive social relationships. The question is how quickly we will see this pathway develop and what will it look like? Creating a more innovative high school program will drive change at the middle school level, but not necessarily vice versa.

The core of our current high school curriculum is a traditional program of standard high school subjects—American History, Chemistry, Geometry, 10th grade English, etc., many of them well-designed and well-taught, but still designed around the traditional students-sitting-in-classrooms model. At the margins of the high school program, however, are some fascinating non-traditional learning opportunities. These include many of the electives, extracurricular activities, off-campus internships, the RSTA career-technical programs, and the HS Extension School for non-traditional learners. Examples include an English elective in “Immersive Journalism,” the Kimbrough Scholars program, in which a small group of students work with lawyers to investigate unsolved crimes committed in the Jim Crow South; the STARS class (Students Teaching About Respect) in which students design community action projects; the Marine Biology elective, many of the hands-on technical and career courses; the Enhanced Senior Year option for independent study or internships; and the new and little known “Life Sciences Concentration.” At this point, the core, non-career CRLS academic program offers a fairly undifferentiated array of opportunities. Students themselves have to impose coherence on the options. If the school can shape these opportunities into more coherent core pathways, such as the Life Sciences Concentration and the vocational-technical concentrations, more students could experience the focused education that the more knowledgeable and savvy CRLS students are about to pursue at CRLS. Other pathways might be an Arts Concentration, a Community Service and Politics Pathway, a Humanities Concentration, etc. All pathways should have an off-campus component, and be structured around problem-solving activities supplemented by formal classes. CRLS also needs a stronger guidance program to ensure that students have help making choices and navigating opportunities.

Hand-in-hand with the need to create more coherent pathways for grades 9-12 is the need to give HS students far more responsibility and freedom, which the students themselves are demanding. As chair of the School Committee Subcommittee on School Climate, I’ve worked with the CRLS Student Government leaders to support their efforts to spend more time working on school policies, and less time organizing talent shows, which could be done by student clubs. My subcommittee has also been charged with drafting a revised “Rights and Responsibilities Handbook,” essentially the district’s disciplinary policies. Our current HS discipline policies are framed in terms of traditional, offense-punishment terms. Our goal, as a subcommittee, is to reframe the policies to align with the district’s commitment to restorative justice practices such as conflict mediation and resolution.

SCHOOL CLIMATE AND SOCIOEMOTIONAL LEARNING
Learning happens within relationships between students, teachers, and peers. Students also learn within school and classroom communities.

We also know that learning has to have an emotional component in order to be meaningful. Those emotions include pleasure, frustration, excitement, satisfaction, anxiety, relief, pride, and so on. It is essential, if students are to become “good learners,” that they learn to regulate their emotions (for example, not to get too positively excited or too frustrated), and that they learn how to interact with peers and teachers.

To its credit, CPS has put much effort, in the last few years, into providing professional development for teachers about how to support socioemotional learning and a positive school climate. It also has a social worker program by which two elementary schools share a full-time social worker, who supports teachers and provides clinical support to students with mental health issues. During the past two budget seasons, I successfully lobbied to have the initial program expanded from two schools to six schools, and would like to see that model expanded to cover all 12 elementary schools. We also need more mental health professionals in our middle schools and high school. It is important that every CPS school has professionals with different types of expertise and training. Most of the people working in our schools are trained in education, but we need more people trained in mental health, family engagement, community-building, and so on. With the number of students we have who are at risk for poor achievement or poor social skills development, and with the number of students who show signs of serious depression, anxiety, or who have experienced trauma, we need to take a wrap-around approach to education in our schools. Socioemotional learning supports must be explicitly incorporated into all aspects of the school experience.

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CPS Strategic Planning: Next Steps for the School Committee

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At the laScreen Shot 2017-07-11 at 6.51.33 PMst two School Committee meetings in June, Superintendent Salim presented the Committee with a framework for creating a multi-year strategic plan for the district. It’s a great framework with five broad objectives, and resulted from a community process led by CPS Chief Planning Officer Dr. Lori Likis.  The next step is for the School Committee to turn this framework into a policy document that includes goals set by the School Committee. (It’s a little unclear whether strategic planning is primarily a School Committee function or an district administration function, but let’s assume it should be a collaborative process.) From there, the Committee and administration can work together to create a strategic plan with specific goals within each of the five broad objectives, actions toward those goals, and measurable outcomes matched up to goals and action steps. Some very broad goals and outcome measures are already included in the framework document, so it provides a great launching point for the Committee’s goal-setting work.

GETTING ON THE SAME PAGE: The Committee also has to discuss the document to ensure that Committee members agree with the goals that are listed in the framework (it’s hard to disagree with most of them!), and that everyone has a similar understanding of what the abstract terms in the document mean. For example, one broad goal is to Support the Whole Child as an Individual. What does that mean? Does this mean only the child’s social and emotional development? What about the child’s creative, artistic, physical, moral, and cultural development? If it’s only about socioemotional development, why not label the goal Support the Socioemotional Development of the Child? If it’s more than that, what are the initiatives to support these other aspects of our students’ development? Certainly developing a sense of justice and a moral compass should be a goal of Cambridge schools.

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STRUCTURE OF THE PLAN: The five broad objectives that structure the framework are: 1) Provide Equity and Access to Increase Opportunity and Achievement; 2) Provide Engaging Learning for Students and Staff to Strengthen Instruction for All Types of Learners; 3) Support the Whole Child as an Individual; 4) Expand and Strengthen Family Partnerships and Community Partnerships; and 5) Improve Implementation and Progress Monitoring.  Within each of the five objectives, the framework specifies 4-5 strategic initiatives.

STRENGTHS OF THE PLAN: To my mind, the Superintendent’s framework is a strong foundational document because most of it articulates what all school systems should always be doing. Looking at the 22 strategic objectives, I’d say that half or more imply or refer to continuing, expanding, or improving what we already do or already try to do, such as “expand integrated, hands-on, real world learning opportunities…,” “continue to develop multi-tiered systems of support…,” “pursue and expand partnerships…,” and “provide targeted support to schools…”  Hopefully our teachers, coaches, and administrators have always been trying to expand real world learning opportunities, etc. Rather than initiatives, I consider these more like ongoing, foundational activities.  But the framework is valuable because it makes explicit what good educators do naturally, and what most of us take for granted our schools are doing. There are also good managerial-evaluation practices listed, such as “create a common evaluation process for partnerships…”  This document gives the administration a framework to tighten up systems or practices, what in edu-speak is called “continuous improvement.”

THE SCHOOL COMMITTEE’S ROLE: Now that the administration has generated this framework, the task for the School Committee, in addition to discussing thoroughly the framework, is to fit our short- and long-term goals into the final framework. While parents, students, administrators, educators, staff, and community members each have their own perspective on the schools, our job, as School Committee members, is to have a 360-degree view of the school system–to see all aspects of its functioning, and to view them from the multiple perspective of “the public.” That’s the nature of elected representatives and the reason elected officials are not a “stakeholder group.” Our job is, between us, to represent all stakeholders. That’s why there are seven of us–so that our overlapping perspectives will represent the entire public.  How well we do that is a separate question, but that’s the theory of how democracy works. Though there were three Committee members on the community planning team, no subset of the School Committee can represent the public in the way the entire Committee is designed to do. That’s why our most important work–goal-setting and budgeting–is done as a “Committee of the Whole.”

DISTRICT GOALS: What exactly are the School Committee’s goals for the district? We generated a list of them at our goal-setting retreat last summer, and this year’s budget process was also one of goal-setting for next year. There are also goals conveyed to us by parents, students, and community members that we, as School Committee members, hear in our daily interactions with the public–in the grocery store, at formal school meetings, via emails, at the playground. An off-the-top-of my head list of goals is below, some short-term, some long-term.  These are not goals the School Committee has officially agreed upon, but are certainly candidates for Committee goals.

  1. Collaborate with City departments to create a comprehensive system of early childhood education. (An explicit goal of almost every city in Massachusetts and beyond.)
  2. Collaborate with the City’s Office of College Success to increase college completion rates of CRLS students who attend two- and four-year colleges.
  3. Strengthen the early grade literacy program.
  4. Ensure that all CPS teachers are knowledgeable about the needs of students with disabilities. (Brought to our attention by members of the Cambridge Special Education Parent Advisory Committee, C-PAC.)
  5. Eliminate unnecessary assessments and develop alternative assessments in addition to MCAS. (Teachers have been asking for this for several years!)
  6. Encourage and support student agency, leadership, initiative, empowerment, and entrepreneurship at all grade levels, and find ways to evaluate student skill and growth in these areas. (This was suggested by our student representatives to the School Committee.)
  7. Create a Parent University that will teach parents skills such as how to advocate for their child, etc. (A long term goal of Richard Harding.)
  8. Decrease racial segregation in high school classes and extracurriculars. (The latter suggested by the student reps.)
  9. Strengthen the extracurricular programs in the middle schools.
  10. Create a more equitable distribution of staffing and other resources across the 12 elementary schools. See: See Dexter-Brunetta “Unequal Schools” report.
  11. Strengthen the K-8 math program and ensure its alignment with the 9-12 math program.
  12. Decrease gender differences in CRLS sports and athletics participation. (Another goal suggested by CRLS student reps.)
  13. Develop a high school intramural sports program as an alternative to Varsity opportunities. (A priority of Fred Fantini.)
  14. Expand the Kodaly music program and the World Language program to all elementary schools.
  15. Increase the attractiveness of schools that are less chosen in the kindergarten lottery.
  16. Increase the number of low-income families applying to CPS language immersion programs.
  17. Increase the number of low-income families who apply to the 3-year-old lottery and first-round kindergarten lottery.
  18. Work with families to increase student attendance and reduce chronic absence.
  19. Develop effective approaches to instances of racism, sexism, and other forms of intolerance, discrimination, or hate-related behavior within CPS schools.
  20. Improve mental health services in the schools, K-12, possibly expanding the social worker program that will be implemented in a total of 6-7 CPS elementary schools next year.
  21. Create a clear process for providing advanced learning opportunities to students working substantially above grade level.
  22. Create a comprehensive system of summer programs to reduce summer learning loss.
  23. Find more space for the Amigos middle school program.
  24. Respond to the high demand for the Mandarin immersion program.
  25. Review building needs and plan for enrollment growth associated with new housing construction.
  26. Continue to adjust Controlled Choice to meet the needs of all students and families as effectively as possible.
  27. Continue to improve responses to bullying, sexual harassment, cyber-bullying, and other forms of harassment.
  28. Build a comprehensive system for maintaining easy-to-access longitudinal records on each student so teachers can easily get information about each child’s educational history.
  29. Ensure that technology is used effectively in the classroom.
  30. Etc., etc.

This is the level of specific goal-setting that we need to get to if we’re going to generate an effective strategic plan. In my opinion, we need to put all the goals and needs of our district on the table, organize them into the categories suggested by the framework, and create a timeline and set of action steps around these specific goals.

Dr, Salim, Dr. Likis, members of the community planning team, and all the members of the CPS professional community have done a great job with their part of the strategic planning process.  Now it is the Committee’s job to do our part.

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All CPS Planning Documents

SC June 20 Discussion about Framework

Thanks for reading! Comments welcome!

-Emily Dexter

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Defense of the Superintendent

Salim Library Podium alteredDear reader: If you would like to sign up for my School Committee newsletter, please do so at emilydexterforcambridge.com.

Those who follow Cambridge politics are abuzz about the recent June 20th School Committee meeting. This is the meeting at which the Committee postponed a vote on the Superintendent’s Strategic Plan Framework in order first to have a roundtable discussion about the ideas in the Framework.  (See links below to a ppt of the Framework itself, to a video of the meeting, and to the Cambridge Day article about the meeting.) Apparently, by postponing the vote, the Committee showed disrespect or lack of confidence in the Superintendent.

What I would say is, “Please, give Dr. Salim more credit than that.”

(For those unfamiliar with Dr. Salim’s planning process, he convened an outstanding team of 31 Cantabrigians—parents, teachers, students, three School Committee members, school and district administrators, and community leaders, all of whom participated in a visioning exercise about the future of our schools. In addition, well over a hundred people attended meetings, agreed to be interviewed, or showed up at a Town Hall Meeting in order to share their views. Plus, a team of district administrators also engaged in the visioning exercise, as did school councils and other stakeholder groups. It sounds like a fabulous exercise and a must-do for the full School Committee and the full City Council.)

I’ve only worked with Dr. Salim for a year now, but I know for certain that he’s not made of glass. I’m pretty sure that a single School Committee vote–up, down, or sideways–isn’t going to offend him or push him off track. For goodness sake, the man was raised in New York City by immigrant parents, attended prestigious Brown University, and then taught Biology at Brighton High School.  Later he earned a doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, one of the most selective education doctoral programs in the country. Even more impressive, he worked as an administrator in the Boston Public Schools, not a system that favors the fragile. I, as a School Committee member, have confidence that he’ll always look at the big picture, focus on student success, and not sweat the small stuff like whether a vote is taken or postponed. That’s why Cambridge pays him a quarter-million dollars to run a district of only 7,000 students.

Cambridge hired Dr. Salim to manage our schools in a way that our students deserve. We wanted someone “low-ego,” not a prima donna who confuses disagreement with disrespect. Good managers don’t try to bulldoze, divide and conquer, or set up power struggles. They don’t say there is only one way to do things, and they lead with flexibility, responsiveness, and a sense of humor. Cambridge hired Dr. Salim because we wanted someone who understands that discussion is crucial for deep understanding and for good working relationships. It can’t be hurried or by-passed.

I encourage the people of Cambridge not to underestimate our Superintendent. Give him a chance.  He’s doing good work, but he doesn’t need a cadre of babysitters worried that his feelings will get hurt. And neither do the seven members of the School Committee. If we did, we wouldn’t choose to work in the field of public education. It’s not a profession for the faint-of-heart.

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Here’s a link to the June 20th SC meeting video.  The discussion about the Superintendent’s Strategic Plan Framework starts at ~32:00: June 20, 2017, School Committee Meeting.

Here’s a link to the Superintendent’s Strategic Plan Framework: CPS District Plan Framework

Here’s a link to the Cambridge Day article about the meeting: Cambridge Day article about SC postponing vote on Superintendent’s strategic plan framework.

As always, thanks for reading, comments welcome, please share.

Emily Dexter, first-term School Committee Member, running for re-election

To sign up for my School Committee newsletter, please do so at emilydexterforcambridge.com.

 

 

 

$Cha-ching: The SC votes on the FY18 budget

When people ask me what it’s like to be on the Cambridge School Committee, I reply, “The School Committee is a group of seven people trying to agree on how to spend 183 million dollars. It gets intense.”  The budget is the most important policy document of the year, and our biggest responsibility.

The fact that School Committee members don’t kill each other every budget season is a testament to the human capacity for restraint.  This year’s budget process, in fact, was pretty civil; we came to a unanimous YES vote. Last year, when Jeff Young was still superintendent, two of us voted PRESENT rather than YES, indicating our dissatisfaction with the budget that his administration produced.

Below is a version of the comments I made before this year’s vote, including my reasons for voting YES and the concerns I had.  A video of the discussion can be seen at Budget Discussion & Vote, 4/4/2017.  Superintendent Salim, Mayor Simmons, and all SC members made comments. My own comments run ~1:01-1:07 on the tape.

Below: Superintendent Kenny Salim, Mayor Denise Simmons, and School Committee members: Richard Harding, Kathleen Kelly, Emily Dexter, Patty Nolan, Manikka Bowman, Fred Fantini.

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My comments: First, I’d like to thank City Manager Louie DePasquale and former City Manager Rich Rossi.  In the 2000s, CPS was getting budget increases from the City of only 1, 2, or 3 percent. In 2015, however, the CPS increase was 4.6 percent, in 2016 it was 5.4 percent, and this year it’s 5.9 percent. That shows that the City administration and City Council understand the challenge of providing equitable learning opportunities in a city with one of the widest income gaps in the country. Cambridge’s GINI index of .54 ranks us as the 11th most unequal city in the U.S.  Our income gap is only slightly smaller than than the gap in Rio de Janeiro.

I’m voting YES on this budget for two reasons. One is that there are several things I like; the other, more important reason, is that this is Superintendent Salim’s first budget. The positives include funding for: 1) a long-awaited start of an elementary world language program, 2) additional paraprofessionals for our largest 1st grade classes, 3) a comprehensive review next year of our elementary programs, 4) full-time art teachers in schools that have had to share art teachers, and 5) an additional guidance counselor at CRLS. I’m particularly pleased about the addition of 1st grade paraprofessionals because it’s an acknowledgement that some of our early grade classrooms are too large.

What I don’t see in this budget, but hope to see next year, is a focused strategy for closing the income-related opportunity gaps that result in academic ability gaps.  On state standardized tests, we are still seeing 20, 30, even 40 percentage point proficiency and advanced learning gaps, which, across the country, are associated with income inequality.

Every year we increase what we spend on upper grade remediation–after school tutors, summer school, etc., but we don’t substantially increase resources in our early grade classrooms, where we have the most potential to influence children’s learning trajectories. Our class size “target” for 1st-2nd grade is 22 students, which most experts say is too large. Even with that target, one-fourth of all 1st graders this year–120 children–are in classes of 23-25 children with only one full-time teacher. You would never see that at Shady Hill!  In terms of support for struggling readers, some of our elementary schools are assigned only one reading specialist but have 70-80 students reading below grade level.  Former Cambridge Mayor and City Councilor Ken Reeves once suggested to me that we might need twelve reading specialists in every school. (See my blog post, Talking with Ken Reeves about Reading.) Trying that in two of our elementary schools, that would be a bold experiment!

Every year we try something new and inexpensive, hoping to get different results without spending more. We keep thinking that if we add something flashy—Chromebooks, a new science curriculum, a design lab, professional development from an expensive consultant, the Common Core standards–we’re going to close the income-based achievement gaps that are seen in every diverse district.  We love innovation in Cambridge, but we don’t focus enough on the basics—making sure all students get to school every day, keeping high school students off their cell phones during class, having enough trained adults in the classroom, having small enough class sizes for students to get the attention and close relationships with teachers they need to thrive in school, and conducting well-planned research and evaluation to ensure that our resources are distributed effectively and equitably across students.  It’s as if we have a house built on sand that is being eroded by the waves–more students, greater need, but instead of strengthening the foundation, we decorate the house.  We love our diversity, but we staff our schools as if they were suburban schools serving advantaged students whose parents all have advanced degrees and stable incomes.

What I sense in this budget is too little commitment to the central mission of our schools–classroom teaching and learning.  We say we’re going to try to provide more co-teaching in the upper schools, but we aren’t increasing the number of special educators. We say we’re going to try to have 9th grade English class sizes of 18 or fewer for the first year of the Leveling Up initiative, but are only hiring one additional English teacher, practically guaranteeing that many of those classes will have more than 18 students; i.e. will be larger than the maximum class size desired by the school’s principal!

We’re always trying to improve learning conditions for our students but at the lowest cost possible. That’s not a recipe for success. Increasing the instructional attention students receive by increasing the number of teachers and other educators in our schools would be expensive–we’d have to make substantial cuts somewhere or get more money from the City.  Professional development and Chromebooks, however, are relatively cheap.

I am, however, voting YES on this budget because I want to encourage our new superintendent, and because of the review processes in place.  I hope the elementary review will result in more elementary staff and more equitable staff assignments across schools.  I also hope the district planning process will result in a detailed preK-12th grade plan to close income-based opportunity gaps and to allow teachers to personalize instruction enough to meet the very diverse needs and academic abilities of all CPS students.

Comments welcome. Thanks for reading.  The final budget step is that it goes to the City Council for their approval.  That will take place on Tuesday, May 9th, 6:00 pm, at City Hall. It starts with a public hearing at which parents, students, and other members of the public can comment on the budget, followed by a presentation from Superintendent Salim, then councilors ask questions and make comments, and then they vote on whether to approve the budget or not. The advantage of parents and others speaking at the City Council CPS budget hearing (vs. the School Committee budget hearing) is that the Council members are closer to the purse strings: If CPS needs more resources ($$) to make substantial inroads in opportunity gaps and to educate all students well, it is the City administration and City Council that will make that happen, not the School Committee.

Next year’s “leveling up” at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School meets key criteria for public school initiatives

Four Kids walking into CRLS
Photo by CRLS parent Romana Vysatova

High quality public schools have an R&D mindset, carefully trying new things each year. Next fall, with the leadership of the new superintendent of the Cambridge Public Schools, Kenny Salim, and Damon Smith, principal of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, CRLS English teachers will try something new: “leveling up” the required 9th grade English classes. This means all 9th graders will be enrolled in the high challenge Honors English 9 class, with an extra “Honors Access” support class for students entering with below average reading and writing skills. In the following year, 9th grade history will also be leveled up. It’s an initiative that has been carefully planned, prepared for, and budgeted for.

At the start of this year’s budget process, Superintendent Salim articulated five guiding questions about new initiatives, including: What are the expected results and how will they be measured? As a School Committee member, I have a few additional questions: Has the initiative been tried in our schools in the same or similar format before we commit a large expenditure to fund the project? Will the teachers be prepared and experienced enough to do a good job in the launch year, without too much fumbling and learning on the fly? Will there be enough staff and institutional bandwidth to ensure that the first year won’t over stress the system, has the best chance of succeeding, and won’t have to compete with other initiatives?

In terms of guaranteeing success, nothing is certain with homo sapiens, particularly the teenage variety. I’m reasonably satisfied, though, that the administration has met the above criteria for the 9th grade leveling up initiative. The goals are clear: 1) increase and enhance learning for all 9th graders, whether their entering skills are weak, average, or advanced; 2) decrease racial segregation in CRLS classes; and 3) increase the number of students who take advantage of Cambridge Rindge and Latin’s dizzying array of extracurricular activities. Why the third goal? Because when young people feel connected to their school and other students, they seek out extra opportunities to learn in the school setting. That self-initiated learning multiplies the effect of the initiative.

To prepare to teach the leveled up classes, CRLS English and history teachers have been working with a national expert on how best to teach an honors level class to students of varying ability. Not content with teacher preparation alone, CRLS principal Damon Smith has also set a goal of smaller-than-usual class sizes: 17 to 18 students for the honors English class and 13 to 15 for the support class. These small classes will increase teachers’ ability to get to know their students and to develop their classes into communities of readers and writers. Teachers will be able to assign more writing and students will have more opportunity to participate in discussions.  Talking is critical to learning, but giving all students a chance to talk in class every week gets exponentially harder with each additional student.

Every English class will also have a special educator who will co-teach with the English teacher for half of each class period. If 9th grade enrollment is higher than expected, the Superintendent has included “reserve teacher” dollars in the budget that can be used to hire more teachers. As a School Committee member and former CRLS parent, I’m extremely invested in the success of this effort. I would have preferred a formal cap on the class sizes rather than just numerical goals, but if Damon Smith is committed to his own vision and does everything to meet his own goals, I can live with a couple of sections having an extra student.

Detracking the 9th grade English and history classes at CRLS is the right thing to do. Along with students, teachers, and other parents, I’ve pushed to have untracked humanities classes in students’ first year of high school since my older daughter started at CRLS in 2006.  That the Cambridge Public Schools are taking this on with care and planning bodes well. Good school districts don’t respond to new ideas by listing the reasons they can’t be done. Nor do they grab at brass rings. Our new superintendent seems to understand that initiatives need preparation, resources, and the full attention of our school leaders. It’s a good start.

Overview CRLS
Photo by CRLS parent Romana Vysatova

Emily Dexter is a first-term member of the Cambridge School Committee and a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do Class Size and Student:Teacher Ratios Matter?

Dear reader: Thank you for visiting my blog, Public School Notes.  I also have a newsletter about Cambridge School Committee policy decisions. You can subscribe by going to my School Committee website: www.emilydexterforcambridge.com.

Emily Dexter
First-Term Cambridge School Committee Member

Do Class Size and Student:Teacher Ratios Matter?

Honestly, are we still debating this issue? How many parents, if offered a choice between a 1st grade class with 18 children and one with 22 would choose the one with 22?  Or if offered a class with 22 students with only one teacher and 22 students with two teachers would prefer the classroom with only one teacher? How many middle or high school teachers would prefer to teach an English class with 24 students vs. 18? How many expensive private schools advertise that their classrooms have 24 students and only one teacher? Those that do, don’t stay in business long.

And yet, whenever I mention reducing class sizes or hiring more teachers to reduce teacher:student ratios in public schools, someone will inevitably protest that the research on class size isn’t conclusive (true of almost all research), or it’s “teacher quality” that counts—quality, not quantity, as if I want to pull people off the street to teach in our schools. screen-shot-2017-02-23-at-6-21-28-pm

At a state and national level, the question makes some sense: large-scale class size reduction is expensive, and it can be, in some regions, hard to find lots of good teachers in a short amount of time. (Which is not to say that large-scale class size reduction can’t and isn’t being done.  It can and is.) But in a small district like Cambridge, where we receive more than 1,000 teacher applications a year, and where, for example, decreasing 1st and 2nd grade class sizes to 18 students would increase the CPS budget by less than 1%, it can’t just be money and concern about teacher availability that prompts class size resistance and denial. It has to be something else.

I think it’s a conceptual problem: 1) difficulty viewing teachers as skilled professionals, in part because most public school teachers are women; 2) difficulty viewing children and young people from low-income and poor families as complex individuals with unique needs and personalities; and 3) a holdover industrial era attitude that “production costs” will increase if we assign fewer “students per teacher.”

This is the opposite of the thinking shown in the private schools that cater to affluent parents, who pay a lot of money to guarantee that their children are treated as valued individuals.  What these schools offer are carefully crafted learning environments in which rich, high quality teacher-student interactions are the norm, not the exception.  Students get lots of individual and small group attention every day, even if that attention sometimes means the teacher just observing the students working on their own. In fact, small class size is often the most important feature that private schools advertise.  The classroom, not the school district, is viewed as the site of learning.  High-quality teacher-student relationships are viewed as the medium of learning, not a nice-to-have  by-product.

screen-shot-2017-03-03-at-2-15-07-pmIn public education, unfortunately, it’s different.  Imagine a top flight law office where the lawyers (mostly men) say they have too much work. Do the bosses bring in consultants to provide professional development so the lawyers can learn to work faster? Do they tell the lawyers, “If you were skilled lawyers, you would be able to handle all these cases?” Or do they presume the lawyers are competent and so they hire more lawyers and paralegals to help with the workload?  Teachers, though, are not treated like professionals. They are unavoidable service delivery units, the fewer the better. Who wants to bring in even more empowered professional women when the goal is to reduce the role of teachers in schools? Easier to build a better gym.  

Does class size matter? Ask the professionals. Ask the students.  And ask the parents who pay top dollar to send their kids to private schools.