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:
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.
TOP 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.
SCHOOL 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.
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.
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.
The 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.