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.

Links:Screen Shot 2017-07-12 at 10.32.28 AM

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.

CPS Budget Priorities for FY18

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, Ed.D.
First-Term Cambridge School Committee Member

CPS Budget Priorities for FY18

It shouldn’t need to be said, but the CPS budget priority for FY18 should be to strengthen our staffing infrastructure. By that I mean teachers, special educators, family liaisons, classroom aides, school social workers, guidance counselors,  intervention specialists, and other school level staff who work directly with CPS students and families.  Not only do we need the right professionals in our schools, we need enough professionals. This is particularly true at the transition grades of 1st-2nd, 6th, and 9th-10th. These are the grades where we should be front-loading resources to set students up to succeed.  Enough staff means, at minimum:

Family liaisons in every school, including the upper schools. Family liaisons are a unique component of the Cambridge Public Schools.  Currently CPS has liaisons in the elementary schools and at the high school. Adding family liaisons to the upper schools is essential if we want families to feel connected to their child’s CPS experience from preK through high school.  Liaisons don’t just give tours. They forge relationships with families and serve as the point-person for community-building. (4 liaisons +0.4 for Amigos * $40,000 = $176,000)

Smaller class sizes for all 1st and 2nd graders.  Educators don’t agree on a lot, but they do agree that children in the early grades should be in classes of 18 or fewer, PARTICULARLY in schools with low-income children. That’s because young children need a lot of adult attention and, for academic language development, a lot of opportunities to talk to adults.   With our 1st-8th grade class size cap of 25, some of our youngest children end up in classes that are 40% larger than is developmentally appropriate. First and 2nd grade are THE CRITICAL grades for learning foundational reading and math skills.  If we want to close opportunity gaps that are rooted in poverty and family stress, this is the place to start. Reducing 1st and 2nd grade class sizes would require only 2 additional teachers per school. If we can’t find the extra classrooms right away, those teachers could co-teach with the current 1st and 2nd grade teachers.  (2 teachers * 12 schools * $65,000 = $1,560,000)

Special education co-teachers in all upper school math classes and all 6th grade ELA classes.  When the Innovation Agenda was first discussed, School Committee members asked for co-teachers in every math class, 6th-8th. What they got was 6th grade only.  Upper school students, during their 6th-8th grade careers, take 15 academic classes in English, math, social studies, science, and world language, but have a special educator as a co-teacher only in 6th grade math.  With increasing upper school enrollment, class sizes are getting larger. Having co-teachers in all upper school math classes and  6th grade English classes would require three more teachers per school. It would be worth it.  (3 co-teachers * 4 upper schools + 1 co-teacher for Amigos * $65,000 = $845,000)

An additional reading specialist in every elementary school.  There’s good evidence that one-to-one or very small group reading lessons accelerate the learning of students reading below grade level, but only if that intensive teaching happens every day.  Once or twice per week does nothing for struggling readers.  Most CPS elementary school principals use School Improvement Funds to hire  extra part-time reading teachers, which is NOT what School Improvement Funds are for.  At minimum, we should give every elementary school one additional full-time reading specialist, which would total 12 additional specialists.  (12 reading specialists * $65,000 = $780,000)

School-wide social workers in every elementary school.  Every school in Cambridge has an on-site school nurse responsible for students’ physical health, paid for by the City’s public health department. Why don’t our schools have on-site mental health specialists, such as school social workers?  If we’re going to educate the whole child, we need professionals in our schools who are trained in mental health and school climate. We currently have four schools with half-time school-wide social workers, which is a great start. To have a full-time school-wide social worker in every elementary school would require 10 more social workers.  THIS IS A COST WE COULD ASK THE CITY’S PUBLIC HEALTH DEPARTMENT TO TAKE ON.  (10 social workers  * $65,000  = $650,000)

Smaller class sizes in all 9th and 10th grade English and math classes. The state’s Foundation Budget is based on a presumed enrollment of 17 students per high school class. The average class size in BB&N’s high school is only 12 students.  Imagine how much more CRLS students could learn if their 9th and 10th grade math and English classes were capped at 18 students. Front-loading resources — investing more in students when they are in 9th and 10th grade — would prepare them for more rigorous study in their 11th and 12th grade classes.  This would require, at most, 3 addition math teachers and 3 additional English teachers. (6 HS teachers * 65,000 = $390,000)

Smaller caseloads for high school guidance counselors.  CRLS has 1,900 students and many curricular and extracurricular opportunities. It’s a resource-rich high school for students who have enough systems know-how to navigate complex environments.  Students who don’t have that know-how, and whose parents don’t have that know-how, get much less out of our high school. That’s why we need a strong guidance program with counselors who can get to know their students’ interests, connect them to opportunities at CRLS, and help them plan their post-high school futures.  Guidance counselors can’t do this with their current caseloads of 240 students.  Reducing caseloads to a more manageable 160 students–40 per grade–would require only four more counselors.  (4 guidance counselors * 65,000 = $260,000)

[Already decided upon: Full-time art teachers in every school and elementary world language program.  During budget discussions last year, the School Committee passed motions specifying that in FY18: 1) CPS would provide full-time art teachers in every elementary school.  Currently several of the schools have only part-time art teachers.  2) CPS would begin an elementary world language program.  Both these motions require funding for additional art and world language teachers.]

To bring CPS to the level of staffing suggested above (not including the art and world language teachers) would cost an additional $4,661,000.  If the City picked up the cost of school-wide elementary social workers, it would add only $3,881,000 in salaries and $1,087,000 more in benefits to the CPS budget — a total increase of $4,968,000. That’s only 3% more than what we spend now.  With commercial property owners paying two-thirds of Cambridge’s taxes, that’s less than $40 extra per household.

Before we try the fancy stuff — new curricula, new data systems, new professional development initiatives, let’s ensure that every CPS school is well-staffed.  In FY19 we can turn to the fancy stuff.

For more on the CPS budget, see previous posts, including “Why Do We Spend So Much” and “Well-Staffed Schools and Classrooms.”



Comments welcome.

Is teamwork important when it comes to elected school boards?

leander-football-game-16I hear a lot, in school reform discussions, about teamwork and the importance of school boards and school committees acting “as a team.” I’m not sure where this emphasis comes from, but I suspect it’s from the contemporary idea that public schools are essentially businesses that deliver products to clients, that superintendents are CEOs, and school boards are like corporate boards of directors or product-development teams.

Or maybe this emphasis comes from the way Americans love to discuss complex ideas through football metaphors. Either way, elected bodies are not teams, and the public should be concerned when school boards start talking more about teamwork than they talk about the issues. Here’s why:

rivalryThe quintessential team is the sports team. They have owners, coaches who pick the players for their athletic skills, designated roles for every player on the team, and a clear goal: to beat the other team and win games. Similarly for corporate teams, the CEO hires employees with particular professional skills, can replace team members if they aren’t working out, and their goal is to create products that are better than the products created by other teams. In both sectors, members of the team don’t vote to make decisions, there are no explicit rules of discussion to protect unpopular or minority views, and the boss or coach always makes the final call. Teams are not democratic entities.

Elected bodies, however, are a different type of organization–they are democratic entities. No one selects the members except “the public,” their skills are not necessarily complementary, and their goal isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, to win a game or be the best.  (Does any school board, for example, really want other districts to provide a worse education to their students?) In fact, the goals of elected bodies are never clear and can’t be: circumstances are always changing, the public is always changing. As is said in postmodern parlance, the goals are “always being contested.”

Far from coming from the same athletic or professional background, elected officials come together with different experiences, different values, and different mandates from those who voted for them. The more diverse the city they serve, the less they will have in common. If their city has ethnic, race, language, gender, economic, and other types of conflict–which every city has, the elected officials will include representatives from communities that are in conflict with one another.  Fundamentally, those conflicts will be over values and resources. The officials will bring those conflicts to the task of governing, and in fact, that’s what they are elected to do. If individuals and groups weren’t in conflict, we wouldn’t need government because everything would just fall into place in one big love-fest.

Government is the social organization of conflict and competition for resources.  Though not always successful, government is designed to keep us from killing each other.

citlewcommittee1p081815Group conflict is a good and necessary thing because it brings diverse people together to find solutions to problems their group can’t solve on their own. In a lot of sectors, including businesses and the arts, heterogeneous work teams have been found to be more creative and productive than homogeneous teams. Why? Probably because they are less team-like than homogeneous teams, the members are more independent of one another, they can act more as individuals rather than as members of an in-crowd, and their primary commitment is to solving a problem or creating something new, not to getting along with each other or making sure the team always appears unified.  Whenever groups of people start worrying more about appearances than what they are actually accomplishing, it’s a problem.

Disagreement and difference are essential for problem solving. Too much agreement, too much focus, narrows the field of what’s possible. We learned that back in the 1950s when psychologists discovered “groupthink.” The Best and the Brightest who brought us the Vietnam War were a great team, everyone heading in the same direction,  focused on the same goal–stopping the spread of communism. Except it was the wrong goal because they missed the bigger picture–their focus was too narrow, their knowledge too limited. What we’ve learned since then is that one of the biggest threats to good decision-making is the suppression of conflicting information and alternative viewpoints, i.e. groupthink.

Another crucial way that school boards are different from teams is that elected officials represent the public. That’s their most important feature because otherwise school districts would appoint their own boards of directors, which is what private and charter schools do. When those boards of directors convene, they are not obligated to represent the conflicting interests of the people in the community or to be responsive to constituents.  They aren’t required to function as a democratic institution in which decisions are made by majority vote. They are free to make decisions by consensus or tacit agreement, i.e. to be undemocratic.

play-american-football-step-10When elected bodies start saying the most important thing is teamwork, they risk losing sight of the obligations they have to the public and its diverse constituencies. Elected bodies that function as a “team” can mean that the elected officials are on the team and the public is not.

Or, even worse, that the public is the opposing team. One of the quickest ways to create team solidarity is to have a common opponent.