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:

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:

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.


FY17 Budget Summary & Reflections

Dear reader: Thank you for visiting my blog, Public School Notes. This is where I post essays, book reviews, and thought-pieces about education, particularly as related to the Cambridge Public Schools.  I also have a newsletter that I use to keep constituents informed about Cambridge School Committee meetings, policy motions, and decisions, which you can subscribe to by going to my website:

Emily Dexter, Ed.D.
Public School Advocate
First-Term Cambridge School Committee Member

Budget Summary & Reflections: A review of the elementary program, class size issues, social workers, art teachers, K-5 world language, CRLS enrollment increases, upper school family engagement

The days are getting longer, more birds, and the school year is wrapping up, with only one more School Committee meeting—Tuesday, June 21st. There will be a summer meeting on Tuesday, August 2nd, 6:00 pm, and an SC retreat on August 16 & 17, both open to the public. Regular meetings resume on Tuesday, September 6.  (School year meetings are the first and third Tuesday of every month.) The new superintendent, Dr. Kenny Salim, starts on July 1.

In terms of the CPS budget for next year ($172 million), the final vote in April was five members voting “yes” and two of us voting “present.” I had reservations about the budget but chose not to vote “no” as a gesture of goodwill to the administration and my fellow School Committee members. I did not vote “yes,” however, because: 1) the budget was almost identical to the previous year’s budget, showing little response to teacher, parent, or community testimony at the budget hearings, 2) staffing is inequitable across the 12 elementary schools, even taking into account demographics, with some schools spending up to half of their School Improvement Funds for supplementary instructional staffing; and 3) the process allowed for too little deliberation about the actual details of staffing and spending.  We had several meetings about our general budget goals at the beginning of the process, but discussed the actual Proposed Budget for only two hours before the day of the vote, even though the budget describes how Cambridge will spend 30% of its municipal budget. (We also had one  two-hour question-answer session with principals.) I hope we will have a much more robust discussion next year about actual staffing and spending decisions as proposed by the Superintendent. See Cambridge Day for some excellent articles on the budget process, including about the final vote: Cambridge Day article final CPS budget vote. The video of the final budget discussion and vote is at:  Budget Vote Meeting Video

There were, however, some positive outcomes to the budget process. The most important was that the administration made a commitment to review comprehensively the elementary JK-5 program, including class sizes and staff allocations. Though the Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education indicated that her ideal is for all 1st and 2nd grade classes to be no more than 20 students, roughly 300 1st and 2nd graders (30%) are projected to be in classes of 21-25 next year.  Some schools have full-time aides in some or all 1st-5th grade classrooms, others do not. The number of intervention teachers per student varies widely across the 12 elementary schools, again even taking into account school demographics. The administration also indicated that they might want to provide some or all elementary schools with math intervention teachers in FY18. The SC also voted to fund, in FY18, full-time art teachers in the elementary schools that currently have only part-time teachers, and indicated a commitment to beginning a K-5 world language program in FY18.

The FY17 budget did add, for next year, two half-time social worker positions to be assigned to two of the elementary schools. (Other social workers in the schools are assigned primarily to special education.)

Another positive was the substantial discussion about the rapidly increasing enrollment at CRLS. The two biggest questions were: 1) Are class sizes getting too large? and 2) Are students able to enroll in most of the courses they sign up for, or are they being closed out of too many classes? In sum, does CRLS have enough teachers? CRLS will hire at least three more teachers for the coming year—two in English and one in History, which should help reduce class sizes in those subjects. The CRLS principal indicated that he would like all required academic classes to have no more than 20 students.

Finally, though the four upper schools were not given family liaisons in the budget, they were given $25,000 each for family engagement.  They can use that money to help pay for a staff person or for other purposes related to family engagement.

Thank you for reading!  Comments welcome!

-Emily Dexter

Why Do We Spend So Much?

The School Committee is coming to the final step in the budget process: reviewing revisions to the Superintendent’s Proposed Budget and then the vote, which is scheduled for this Tuesday, April 5th.  The meeting will start at 6:00 p.m. with Public Comment, the Committee will then discuss the revised version and ask for some tweaks, and, if everything goes as planned, vote on the final version. The public still has the ability to weigh in via email ( or at Public Comment Tuesday night.

The Superintendent’s Proposed Budget is posted at: Budget on CPS Website.

In terms of staffing, the Proposed Budget is very similar to last year’s budget. The total, $172 million, will be about 30% of our municipal budget, which isn’t exorbitant in terms of our city’s resources. (We used to spend 33-34%.) Brookline also spends 30% of its budget on its schools, Boston spends 36%.  Dividing the $172 million by the number of schools we have (counting CRLS as five schools), we are spending roughly $8.2 million per school (school-level and district-level expenses), which is slightly higher than Brookline ($8.0 million per school).  Brookline’s eight K-8 schools, however, are much larger than our 16 elementary and upper schools (an average of 690 students per school vs. 300 in Cambridge), which is one reason their per pupil spending is much lower than ours ($17,200 in  vs. $26,200).*  Large schools are more cost efficient because they have fewer empty seats, fewer administrators and librarians per student, and less square footage per student to heat, clean, and maintain.   Our small school structure isn’t the only reason our per pupil spending is high, but it is one of the main reasons. Cambridge, at the K-8 level, has very small schools relative to most other districts. Research suggests that school size is not correlated with achievement, particularly at the elementary level, but there are undoubtedly other positive student outcomes of small schools that have not been measured. I.e. small schools may have positive effects, just not on test scores as measures of achievement.  Our small school structure, for example, may be one reason we have always had very high graduation rates for low-income students as compared with other districts.  Our preK-5 schools currently range from 258-363 students; our upper schools from 249-270; our high school, with 1,822 students, is divided, at least administratively, into four learning communities of 455 students each.

My main point is that Cambridge’s higher per pupil spending does not mean we are spending $9,000 more per pupil than Brookline on student learning, which happens primarily in classrooms with teachers. Most of the additional costs are for infrastructure.  In terms of spending on Classroom and Specialist Teachers (these categories and data are from the Mass. Dept. of Elementary and Secondary), Cambridge spends only 10% more per pupil than Brookline–$7,700 in Cambridge vs. $7,080 in Brookline. I.e. Cambridge spends only 26% of its budget on teachers while Brookline spends 40%. Cambridge does spend a lot more on “Other Teaching Services” (librarians, paraprofesionals, medical services)–$2,300 per pupil vs.  $1,500 in Brookline, but even for these additional services we spend less as a percentage of our budget–7% in Cambridge vs. 9% in Brookline.  Total these two categories and we spend 33% of our total per pupil cost on teachers and “other teaching” as compared with almost 50% in Brookline.  Limited by Prop 2 1/2, Brookline is very parsimonious.

We do spend more on instructional materials, professional development, and a few other categories (our Athletics budget is triple that of Brookline), but most of Cambridge’s higher per pupil costs are for infrastructure and benefits: Administration (payroll, HR), Instructional Leadership (principals, vice principals, coordinators), Operations (utilities and maintenance), Pupil Services (buses, dining services), and Benefits and Retirement costs.  For Administration and Instructional Leadership–$3,150 for Cambridge vs. $2,110 for Brookline. Operations and Pupil Services–$3,946 vs. $2,230.   If Cambridge spent the same as Brookline on these four categories–Administration, Leadership, Operations, and Pupil Services, our per pupil spending would be only $23,200 vs. $17,000 in Brookline.  But the real killer cost is what we pay in Benefits (health insurance) and Retirement: $6,315 per pupil in Cambridge vs. $2,930 in Brookline–a difference of $3,400.  I haven’t figured out yet if that is due to higher benefit costs per current staff, retired staff, or both, but I hope to find out.

The main location of student learning is the classroom, whether it is a general education classroom, a semi-separate classroom, a resource room, or an art, music, or physical education classroom.  Classrooms are where students spend most of their time, and they spend most of their time with teachers.  Curricula, learning materials, those are important, but  the most important determinant of how much students progress every year is determined by the expertise of their teachers and the amount of quality attention they can receive from those teachers–quality and quantity.  Attention means anything from how much a teacher interacts directly with a student individually or in small groups (this interaction is so important for academic language and vocabulary development), but also how much time a teacher can spend individualizing instruction, observing a student, reviewing each student’s work, meeting with each student’s parents, and discussing the individual student with other teachers.  Teacher time and teacher attention are limited and can be stretched too thin. All else being equal, a teacher with a class of 24-25 students will have less time for each individual student as compared with having 18-20 students. In a classroom of 23-24 students, two co-teachers will, between them, be able to provide each student with more high-quality attention than only one teacher can, assuming they work well together.

Cambridge invests more than other districts in teacher hiring, induction, professional development, and coaching, which should result in having “better” teachers–teachers with higher levels of expertise. (We also receive hundreds, if not thousands of teacher applications every year, meaning we have the pick of the strongest new teachers entering the field or wanting to change districts.)  Those investments in teacher supports, however, are relatively inexpensive compared with hiring and supporting more teachers in order to give students more high quality attention every day in their classrooms.  The combination of a strong teacher support system and lower student-teacher ratios, however, should be the most powerful combination–lots of high quality attention for every student. Right now, our district-wide student:teacher ratio (not the same as average class size) is 10.3 students to one teacher–the same as in Salem and Watertown, a bit lower than Newton, which has 11.6 students per teacher.  In Newton, roughly 11% of students qualify for Free/Reduced Lunch; in Cambridge it is 44%.

I’m currently reading James Ryan’s book, Five Miles Away, A World Apart: One City, Two Schools, and the Story of Educational Opportunity in Modern America (Oxford U. Press, 2010). Ryan is the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and his book contrasts a high school in Richmond, Virginia, with a suburban high school five miles away.  Noting that urban school districts often spend more than suburban districts, Ryan writes:

    “[T]he truth is that no one really knows how much it costs to provide a good education to poor students in high-poverty schools, which places urban schools like Tee-Jay [the Richmond HS] in a difficult bind.  They may receive more money than their suburban counterparts, but it still might not be enough….[But] the prevailing incentive among suburban legislators, whose constituents have no immediate stake in urban schools, is not to increase spending on city schools, but to limit it.  This political dynamic has naturally attracted legislators to alternative reforms that do not revolve around money.  The most important to have emerged over the last two decades are school choice and standards and testing. (Pg. 8.)

(Another low-cost reform is Professional Development.)

We don’t have very high poverty schools in Cambridge as compared with bigger and more segregated cities like Boston and Chicago, but we are not a suburban school system that primarily educates English-speaking, middle class students with college-educated parents and stable homes and incomes.  Almost half of our students have incomes low-enough to qualify for subsidized meals at school; a large percentage live in subsidized housing. So is $170-180 million a lot for Cambridge to spend on our schools? Too much? Not enough?  What would we be willing to spend to give our students schools and classrooms that were even better staffed in terms of number of qualified teachers per student?

Comments encouraged.  Thanks for reading.

*DESE website pages related to teachers per student and per pupil spending can be found on their “Profiles” pages:  DESE Profiles.  Look for the tabs labeled “Teachers” and “Finance.”

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Talking with Ken Reeves about Reading

Talking with Ken Reeves about Reading

In my experience, most people are smart, few are brilliant.  One of my definitions of brilliant is someone who can ask one question that changes completely how I think about something.

I don’t know Ken Reeves personally, but I know he was on the Cambridge City Council for more than two decades, including in the role of Mayor. He came to Cambridge to attend Harvard College and then went on to become a lawyer. He was also instrumental in bringing ideas to Cambridge from the Harlem Children’s Zone, including Baby University.

Last month I chatted briefly with Ken Reeves at a reception for the new City Council.  I described the report that Leslie Brunetta and I wrote about inequitable staffing across CPS elementary schools, which we titled “Unequal Schools.” Discussing the definition of “equity” versus “equality,” I asked him, “If one school with 150 low-income students has one reading specialist and another school with 150 low-income students has three reading specialists, is that equitable?”

Ken Reeves looked at me as if he felt sorry for me that I so missed the point.  “Maybe what our schools each need are twelve reading specialists.”

That pretty much ended the conversation, because my response was to gape like a fish: Why was I thinking so unimaginatively, advocating for just one more crumb?  Instead of asking,  “Do we need another reading specialist at School X or School Y?” (though that’s certainly better than nothing), why aren’t we asking, “How many reading specialists, classroom teachers, and other educators do we need in our schools if we want all children to have the opportunity to be successful in our schools, including being ready for higher level academic work when they leave elementary school?”

Consider this:  In this year’s budget, we have roughly 16 full-time reading specialists distributed across our 12 elementary schools.  Our most recent standardized test results showed that one-third of last year’s 3rd-5th graders scored below Proficient on the MCAS reading tests, with the struggling students disproportionately Black and Latino. (Black students also showed lower 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th, and 10th grade growth rates in reading than White students last year, meaning that MCAS-wise, Black and Latino students are falling  further behind White students each year.)  With a 1st-5th grade enrollment of 2,400 students, that means there are roughly 800 students in our elementary schools who need extra help with reading this year. Fortunately, the research suggests that specialized reading instruction can accelerate progress.  Whether we call it “tutoring,” “intervention,” or plain old “extra help,” it works.  But it must be frequent, intensive, sustained, and of high quality. 

In other words, it doesn’t help to give struggling readers one or two extra sessions of reading per week in a group of 5-6 other struggling readers.  Best practice research suggests that struggling readers should have roughly 30 minutes per day of intensive instruction, either one-to-one or in groups no larger than three.  If we have 800 struggling readers in our elementary schools every year, we need enough reading teachers to teach a minimum of 265 small reading groups, taught in morning when kids are alert.  If one teacher can teach 4-5 individual or small-group sessions per day, that means we need 55-65 reading teachers across our elementary schools, not 16.

Am I claiming that hiring 50 reading specialists will “close the achievement gap” so “Let’s do it!”  No, of course not.  There are very few certainties in education and child development. That’s why it’s important to pilot new approaches and observe the results.  But we need to expand the conversation and our imaginations so that hiring 50 additional reading specialists is one option to think about.  It would cost $4-$5 million, roughly the cost of extending the school day by an hour.   We might also, for the same amount, staff every 1st- and 2nd grade classroom with two teachers or reduce class sizes in those grades to 16 students.  Or we could experiment with all three of those options but in different schools.

One of the most well-known books about the Harlem Children’s Zone is Whatever it Takes, by Paul Tough.  What would it take to teach all kids to read well in CPS elementary schools? Would it take more reading teachers, smaller class sizes, more paraprofessionals, all three combined? How much would it cost?  How would we finance it? Let’s open up that conversation.

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Postscript:  Ken Reeves isn’t the only one thinking this way. In 2010, an organization called Strategies for Children, Inc., commissioned a report by Harvard reading expert Nonie Lesaux entitled, “Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success.” CPS educator Chris Colbath-Hess and current CPS parent/former CPS educator Paul Toner both served on the Advisory Committee for the report.  Noting that many students are still not learning to read well in Massachusetts schools, Lesaux wrote (on pg. 7, emphases mine):

Reaching the tipping point for changing behaviors so as to improve children’s reading outcomes requires a deep, sustained investment of time and effort.  Yet the dosage levels, intensity and depth of services matter—such as how much time is spent in the program, how often it happens, or the frequency of contact with participants.  For many language and reading supports, these increments are too small; consider the weekly tutoring session or the periodic parent education night that never gains enough traction to influence behaviors and, in turn, make a difference to reading outcomes.  Often the basic elements of the program are theoretically sound, research-based, and practically feasible–they make good sense for the population and fit the context. However, the design with respect to depth and intensity is under-powered, or not sufficient to make a difference.

So we may think we need more or new programs when in fact what we may need to do is to increase the intensity and depth of our existing ones and see if that works. When we successfully solve the dosage problem, we may be left with the (good) problem of how to bring the program to scale. With a proven remedy for moving students’ reading outcomes, there should be many viable opportunities to build political will and even pool limited resources to get programs to scale. Investing in these remedies does not necessarily require an increase in spending; it involves recapturing monies we are currently spending on less effective programming as well as on the individual and societal costs associated with reading failure.

Perhaps Ken Reeves and Nonie Lesaux will have a chance to meet in Harvard Square for coffee this winter. I think they’d have a lot to talk about



Lesaux, 2010:  Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success

Dexter & Brunetta, 2014:  Unequal Schools: Unequal Demographic, Staffing, and Neighborhood Challenges that Create Unequal Opportunities for Low-Income Students to Learn in CPS Elementary Schools: FY15




The Next Chapter

CPS has completed one chapter, the chapter about restructuring grades JK-8, and is starting a new one.  At the city level, the City Council and administration are taking a hard look at poverty in Cambridge and unequal access to preschool. Within CPS, parents are asking for schools that are lively, challenging for students of all ability levels, and adequately staffed. Older students, in concordance with Black Lives Matter, are talking about the race segregation they experience at our high school, 62 years after Brown vs. Board of Education.  When the FY17  budget is completed and approved in May, it will be the title and first page of the new CPS chapter.  I know that a lot of people in Cambridge hope it will be the beginning of a fresh start.

What we’re trying to do in Cambridge is difficult. There are not many places with so many different types of people trying to live together productively in such a small area, where wealth ranges from poverty to affluence within a couple of blocks, and that is so rapidly internationalizing. Our students bring all these differences with them to school every day. They are the different types of people, an international generation of diverse children and young people from all over the world, including from Cambridge.  We have to design for that difference, not react to it piecemeal. Now that we’ve restructured our schools, we need to take a good look at what is happening inside them. Is every classroom designed for a multiplicity of students, or for the non-existent average student? Is every teacher and principal prepared for the unexpected? Do they have the resources to embrace diversity in its many forms, or will difference be a problem that needs to be fixed?

We need to make sure that difference is never a problem in our schools.  More than that, we need to take advantage of the many forms of diversity in Cambridge, our diverse diversities. They are truly a gift to our students and integral to their education.  But we need to look, even more carefully than we do now, at what all these diversities require.  Difference doesn’t come for free, it’s not an add-on to average.

The FY17 budget can be the first page of the new chapter, a fresh start at providing our citizens with schools that work for every student and family, schools that are prepared for the unexpected. That’s what we are educating our students for: an unknowable future that will be replete with the unexpected.

Please comment, share, forward, etc!


What We Already Know

Recently I read an article about “real world” educational research, written by Dr. Catherine Snow, a senior professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Far from being an ivory tower academic, Snow partners with classroom teachers to design solutions to actual problems of teaching and learning.  As an example, her team of researchers and teachers designed and tested the effects of a supplementary curriculum called “Word Generation,” which teaches students abstract vocabulary and argumentation skills via authentic discussions about vexing real-life dilemmas.  (I believe CPS uses some Word Generation materials.)

In her article, titled “Rigor and Realism: Doing Educational Science in the Real World,” Snow discusses the evolution of educational research, some of which has been of poor quality.  She concludes her article by noting, however: “Frustration arises not just from the vast enterprise of second-rate research, but also from the existence of multiple unexploited findings about things that work, solid knowledge that is not being used.”  (My emphasis.) She offers five examples of this solid knowledge–what we know:

1) Early childhood programs have positive effects on children’s academic development when the teachers demonstrate “rich language skills.”

2) Students are more engaged and learn more in classrooms that provide regular opportunities for authentic discussion about important real-life issues. (Hence the positive effects they found for Word Generation.)

3) When middle and high schools switch their start times to later in the morning, they see increased attendance and greater student interest in school.

4) Typical professional development programs that focus on general principals of teaching are “largely a waste of time and money.”  Effective PDby contrast, is grounded in specific curricula and their specific teaching challenges; i.e. the pedagogical issues associated with teaching math to 2nd graders are different from those associated with teaching writing to 8th graders.

5) Accountability systems based on standardized testing “almost universally encourage dedication of time to unproductive test preparation rather than real teaching.”

Snow’s five examples of “known knowns” (Rumsfeld, D., 2002) suggest the following about our own public school system here in Cambridge:

1) We should ensure that all of our preschool and early elementary classrooms are “rich” language environments where adults and children frequently engage in sustained conversation and adult-supported discussion. This means examining our early elementary grade classrooms to determine if the 24-to-1 student-teacher ratios in some of our 1st and 2nd grade classrooms provide our 6- and 7-year-olds with enough daily opportunities to engage in authentic, embedded, adult-supported conversation.  I.e. how often, during each school day, do our younger grade students talk one-to-one or in a small group with their teacher vs. talking mostly with peers or with their teacher in a large group?

2) We should ask whether any of our upper schools or our high school have start times that are too early for adolescents.

3) We should ensure that our elementary and secondary curricula provide regular opportunities for authentic discussion and debate, and that their teachers support these discussions by explicitly teaching the vocabulary, critical thinking skills, and discussion strategies that are necessary for respectful argumentation.

4) We should ensure that CPS professional development and mentoring  is grounded in actual classroom teaching, which, by definition, is about teaching specific subjects and skills to specific students, whether those are science skills or socioemotional skills. We should also think very carefully about whether we want to follow one of the recommendations in the recent evaluation of our teacher coaching program, which was to eliminate separate literacy and math coaches in favor of generic instructional coaches. Will we end up with a coaching program that doesn’t help teachers improve either their math or their literacy teaching and is “largely a waste of time and money?”

5) We should not convey to the community that the most important measure of the quality of our schools is test scores, or that the schools with higher scores are “better schools,” those with lower scores”worse schools.” We should also not convey to our principals and teachers that their most important goal is to deliver high test scores.  We do not want precious classroom time spent on “unproductive test preparation,” we want it spent on “real teaching.”

Number Five was underscored for me by the recent comments of a CPS parent at a School Committee meeting about the PARCC assessment.  Talking about an event at her child’s school, she described the principal as presenting “slide after slide”of MCAS scores: “The message for me was that testing and improving test scores was not one of the goals of the school, but the goal of the school, and that my child would spend the next five years improving test scores so someone’s contract would be renewed.” A chilling thought.

As a community, we make small decisions every day that add up to a bigger picture of what we want our students to learn and how, what skills we think are most important, and what we think is the purpose of our public schools. I hope that CPS parents and other members of the community will continue to help the administration and School Committee make good decisions as we move forward.

Emily Dexter
Cambridge School Committee Member Elect

Please note: The text of Catherine Snow’s article appears in the December 2015 issue of the journal Educational Researcher.  It is actually a reprint of a lecture she gave as the invited speaker for the 2014 Wallace Foundation Distinguished Lecture.

Well-Staffed Schools and Classrooms

My comments at the first CPS Budget Hearing on the FY17 Budget:

Thank you for the opportunity to speak about next year’s budget. We are doing a great job educating many of our students, and we have the potential to do a great job educating all of them. But I’m worried about the future of our public schools for two reasons.

First, I’m worried about the charter school cap. We are in a pro-charter state with a pro-charter governor. If the cap is lifted via legislation or a referendum, we could see another 400-500 students leave our district for charter schools. Not only would that cost the city another $10 million, but we would be losing more students and families who could benefit from and contribute to our public schools.

I’m also worried about what I call “pop-up” private schools. Schools like Wildflower Montessori that don’t cost a lot and can be run out of a storefront with the whole city as their campus. We’re going to see more of these schools popping up because the new generation of parents is entrepreneurial. If they aren’t satisfied with our public schools, they will create their own.

How can we compete with charter schools and low-tuition pop-up private schools?  How can we continue to educate 80% of Cambridge school-age children in our public schools?  By making sure that every one of our 17 schools is an exciting and creative place to teach, is well-staffed, has a strong faculty that is as diverse as its students, and that every classroom is a joyful, challenging, and well-organized place to learn.

Last year our elementary, middle, and high school teachers told us they do not have enough staff to teach all their students well. The numbers back them up. The student-teacher ratio for general education teachers at CRLS is higher than at Newton South High School, and our guidance counselors have case loads of 220 students each. We have 30% fewer classroom aide hours per student than we did five years ago, when we laid off paraprofessionals to save money. Our most critical grades for learning to read–first and second grade, have some of the largest class sizes in the system. One parent last year told me her child’s first grade was a “Lord of the Flies environment” because there were too many kids and not enough adults.  Our current class size policy is for kindergarteners to have a 10-to-1 student-adult ratio, but for first and second graders to be in classes of up to 25 students and only one full-time adult; with a classroom aide available a couple of hours a day.  That doesn’t make sense developmentally, and certainly doesn’t make sense if our goal is to ensure that all kids learn to read by the end of 3rd grade.

Parents I’ve spoken to who have left our schools for private schools, which includes white parents and parents of color, left because their child’s classroom was too chaotic and their child wasn’t getting an appropriate amount of attention. When a classroom is chaotic we automatically blame the teacher–“poor classroom management skills.”  The best way to have an excellent teacher in every classroom is to provide excellent teaching conditions in every classroom: small enough class sizes, enough planning time, and enough paraprofessionals, specialists, and other educators in the school to support teachers’ work.

We might be tempted, this year, to say, “No staffing increases until the new superintendent starts.” With the charter school cap being discussed every day in the State House, we should resist that temptation. There is abundant evidence from educational research, from our teachers, and from parents and students that we are understaffed in most if not all our schools. Understaffed relative to our student needs, understaffed relative to the financial resources of this city. According to DESE, we currently spend as much per pupil on classroom and specialist teachers as the Salem Public Schools. Unlike Cambridge, though, Salem is not the epicenter of a global tech boom and has not seen its municipal revenues increase by 70% in 15 years.

We don’t need to wait for a new superintendent to tell us that we need more educators in our schools. Our new superintendent, Dr. Kenneth Salim, is an urban educator. I’m sure he will agree with Richard Milner, Professor of Urban Education at the University of Pittsburg (2015): We need smaller class sizes and more adults in our classrooms.  “Although critics may suggest that reducing class size plays only a small role in raising test scores, it is unreasonable to suggest that class size doesn’t matter from a broader, more holistic perspective–especially for school-dependent students” (p. 54).

I hope the FY17 CPS budget provides enough funding for every classroom to be a joyful, challenging, and well-organized learning environment.  And I hope ten years from now we are still educating 80% of Cambridge students in our public schools. Or at least 70%.

Milner, H.Richard (2015).  Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.


Thank You for Electing Me to the School Committee!


Dear readers of Public School Notes

Thank you for your commitment to our public schools, and for helping me get elected to a seat on the Cambridge School Committee.  I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity and about our schools, and humbled by the challenge and responsibility.

Kids grow up fast, they spend a lot of their time in school.  Those schools need to be places of learning, of care, fairness, and of serious purpose.  Our public schools in Cambridge aspire to those values, that’s what our educators are trying to create. It is the responsibility of the community and their elected representatives to make it possible for our schools to be those types of places. It’s what we want for our own children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren; it’s what we want for all children and young people.

My goal is to work constructively with others on the Committee, with the Superintendent of Schools, and with the City Council, and to use my skills and experience to help create policies that will steer our schools toward greater and greater efficacy and fairness.  However, I will need your help, advice, and continued involvement.  I hope the conversations that were generated during this election, discussions about controlled choice, staffing, budgets, curriculum, parent engagement, and the broader purpose of our schools, will continue.  Please continue to be part of this conversation, please help me and others on the Committee translate good ideas from the community into policies that will make our schools work for all students.

An election is a lot of work.  All of you reading this blogpost did that work, along with many others.  Reading emails, talking about the issues with candidates and friends, hosting or attending a house party, reading news articles and going to forums, canvassing door-to-door in support of a candidate, holding a sign at the polls, donating money, posting on Facebook, sharing your own experiences and your hopes for the future of our schools, it all takes time, energy, and thought.  Thank you for all the work you put into our public school system via this election, and for allowing me to become one of your representatives in governing our public schools.

Schools are also about budgets and being mindful about spending!  To that end, I’ll be gathering up yard signs to re-use, assuming I’ll run for re-election in 2017.  If you haven’t recycled yours yet, leave it posted and I’ll drive around and pick it up tomorrow or Friday.  I was able to keep costs to the bare minimum of about $5,000, and have been able to raise almost half of that.  If you’d still like to contribute, the campaign Act Blue account will be open for a few more weeks, as will the Committee to Elect Emily Dexter bank account, 9 Fenno Street, 02138:

Again, I’m deeply appreciative of all the work you put into the election, and of the opportunity you’ve given me.  Please keep reading Public School Notes, and if you’re not yet a subscriber, you can sign up on the homepage.


Emily Dexter

Cambridge School Committee Member Elect!
9 Fenno Street
Cambridge, MA  02138