With goals for school district set long ago, officials decide how to measure success

Ways to measure the success of a “bold” District Plan Framework were taken up by the School Committee last week at the penultimate meeting before newly elected Laurance Kimbrough enters, Richard Harding exits and a new mayor is elected as chair.

The absence of the measures almost kept the committee from voting approval at Superintendent Kenneth Salim’s initial presentation in June, after a yearlong germination period. The five “strategic objectives” – such as “provide engaging learning for students” – were broad. The several supporting “strategic initiatives” – including “expand rigorous, joyful, culturally responsive learning experiences across the district” – were criticized by some as admirable but not specific.

The Framework was ultimately passed with the caveat that the administration and committee would work to identify measures for the outcomes. After months of work by administration and two four-hour committee retreats, the culmination is seven key measures for a public “data dashboard” to look at over the next three years.

The committee voted to approve 6-0-1, with Emily Dexter voting “present” after commenting that she was unhappy with an emphasis on MCAS scores and wanted a more “collaborative effort” with the educators union to develop more meaningful measures.

Educator voice

There was educator concern about how outcomes might “impact what happens in the classrooms on a daily basis,” said Dan Monahan, president of the Cambridge Educators Union. “Most of the educators … have expressed support for the strategic plan framework [but] see a significant disconnect between the plan, framework and the outcomes.”

Monahan, along with fifth-grade Graham & Parks teacher Rose Levine and seventh-grade Cambridge Street Upper School English teacher Betsy Preval, were allowed to make remarks only via the public comment period. Monahan asked if he could speak for seven minutes – public comment is typically three minutes per person – to which Mayor E. Denise Simmons said “the problem is that other people don’t get that same privilege.” After three and a half minutes of rigmarole, Monahan was finally allowed his four extra minutes.

The seven measures were shared with staff only after being developed at two September and October retreats with administration and the committee – at which Monahan was an observer only – and educators felt “that we were being asked to be a rubber stamp,” Monahan said. “It’s not yet clear how our conversations will impact outcomes.” Third- and fourth-grade Graham & Parks teacher Karen Engels was careful to say that in general there is a “much more collaborative culture within in the district” under Salim, though “in this particular instance, we felt there wasn’t a clear appropriate vehicle for discussing the outcomes measures.”

“For any of the proposed outcomes to be achieved, funds must be allocated for more special educators, building-based department coaches, subject-area interventionists, paraprofessionals, school counselors, building-based substitutes, family liaisons for all district schools, mental health practitioners and additional support staff,” Preval said. “When it comes time for budgetary matters to be proposed and discussed, please keep in mind that in order to give all educators and students an equitable and just chance to reach these outcomes, we need more hands on deck in our schools.”

Third-grade literacy and MCAS

A major point of contention was the use of MCAS standardized test scores as the main measure of third-grade literacy.

“Many educators do not believe that the grade-three [English-language arts] MCAS really measures grade-three reader ability,” said Monahan, submitting a multipage document outlining concerns about the test. “You all on the School Committee are in a difficult situation. A bold move for you tonight would be to accept only outcomes that truly align with our values and work diligently toward creating new outcomes that measure the most critical gaps in our existing measures.”

The test does not measure critical elements of third-grade reader ability such as “decoding” of sounds and words, fluency, vocabulary, the educators argued. There are experts, they said, who even question whether the test assesses reading comprehension accurately.

What MCAS does measure, Monahan and district literacy coach Kathy Greeley asserted, is typing and computer skills, test-taking skills, ability to follow directions and “executive function,” spelling, the ability to have “word-calling” proficiencies – “parroting back without thinking critically about the text” – not to mention the stamina for an 8-year-old to write four essays about four different readings in one sitting.

Committee members Patty Nolan and Dexter echoed these concerns and agreed the district already uses an excellent assessment of reading skills: the Fountas & Pinnell benchmark assessment, where the teacher sits with students assessing all levels of ability to read through a passage. Why not use this assessment?

“I agree that the one-on-one is valuable assessment,” Salim acknowledged, committing to continuing to use it and other key classroom evaluations but saying the district also needs consistently gathered data that allow comparison with peers. At this point, the only available measure statewide – and beyond – is third-grade MCAS. In terms of computer use, Salim said, “I wish the state would say, ‘let’s wait three years.’ But we are fortunate to have the computer resources,” he said.

Engels offered an exhausting-sounding description of “what it’s like to get 8-year-olds ready for a computer test – it’s not pretty.” Trying to get students enough typing time to make them less “flummoxed” than they were at last year’s first computer test, she said, involves seeking out computer carts, moving computers off and on, logging students off and on of the Chromebooks (you must be online to operate a Chromebook), and squeezing in time for typing lessons – all significant “impediments.”

Committee Member Manikka Bowman wondered if there could be more time in years leading up to third grade for typing lessons, and “acknowledged the tension around MCAS.” The test was feared, she said, and seen by some as an “indictment.”

“We have to live with the tension the community has around standardized testing,” member Kathleen Kelly countered. “That’s not something that’s going to resolve, because different groups approach it for different reasons. The reality is that students go on throughout their career and take standardized tests.”

Vice chairman Fred Fantini said he was comfortable using MCAS data because the district does not “teach to the test,” though Monahan had stressed in his comments “years of watching MCAS push even our most progressive schools toward test preparation.”

“It’s high time we embraced the reality [of MCAS] and change what we do in the classroom. Some of these decisions have been made for us,” Harding said. “I’m thankful, Superintendent Salim, that you were bolder than I thought you were going to be. I’m thankful that you have decided that you are going to put your neck on the line and look at some real accountability measures.”

Other outcome measures

Monahan said that the goal of increasing advanced-placement class enrollment and test-taking “got many teachers heated” because of concerns it would divide students academically at the high school, but many committee members supported pushing toward every student taking one AP class. The new ninth-grade Level Up program, in fact, ensures that every high school student has had at least one honors-level course. Student committee member Juliette Low Fleury urged administration to explore reasons that many advanced-placement students don’t take the culminating exam – including a prohibitive $90 fee for a test “that most schools don’t accept as credit anymore.”

Decreasing absenteeism, increasing teachers of color and meaningful connection with an adult all got strong support as key indicators from Monahan and committee members. Even MCAS for eighth-grade math was accepted easily; in this case, the test can provide growth measures for individual students from previous years, something not possible with third grade, the first year of MCAS.

Several members joined Monahan in viewing a school climate survey as all-important, but the survey instrument has not been developed. Salim’s handout said administrators are identifying a “survey provider” and “hope to have a new partner” by this winter.

How is this different?

Some members wondered at expecting improvement when MCAS measures have shown essentially the same patterns for years, including the often very wide gaps between black and white students. Dexter objected to goals that seem both aggressive (targeting levels of change in three years) and unsatisfying (even at the targeted levels, it will take 18 years to reach 100 percent proficiency in some areas).

But Salim assured members that the seven “dashboard measures … are not the sole driver of our efforts,” and the district will continue to use and provide other actions and assessments aimed at changes such as “increasing joyful, rigorous learning.”

The district has had targets before, he said, but “the difference here is we have undergone a district planning process.” Salim said work across the district is being aligned with the five strategic objectives and 22 initiatives meant to move the needle on the outcomes. All school-based improvement plans are also aligned with the framework.

The purpose of the public-posted outcomes “is to provide focus.” There should be a small number of specific goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound – SMART, Salim said. The outcomes will provoke continuous improvement and necessary changes. “It’s not about narrowing the curriculum. It’s not about focusing on a specific data point in time,” Salim said. “The outcomes are a way to give us a snapshot in time to measure progress.”

Fruit juice, chocolate milk and postage

The committee spent a half-hour discussing whether schools should continue serving low-fat chocolate milk and 100 percent fruit juice at lunch and breakfast. The issue was raised in the Dec. 5 meeting by a parent who pointed out that pediatricians recommend severely limiting both in children’s diets. Dexter raised it to a motion level, and district Food Services Director Mellissa Honeywood was brought to the committee to discuss it.

“Discussing food and nutrition is a very emotional and contentious topic,” Honeywood said, “because everybody has intrinsic expertise.”

The committee illustrated that by debating the balances between finding something kids will eat with maximizing nutrition, and between providing healthy calories and fighting obesity. The motion ended by being put “on file” again, with a planned revisit on reestablishing a food advisory group. Chief Operating Officer Jim Maloney said it had died from lack of interest when Honeywood took over and made significant, welcome changes to menus.

Another 26 minutes went to debating the best way to distribute a pamphlet developed by Bowman and Nolan on school budgeting and other key issues, also discussed at the last meeting. Simmons reported unanimous consent from the City Council to include a school mailing in annual tax reports. The committee eventually passed a cobbled-together amendment to mail this year’s version to families eligible for the kindergarten lottery, and to “backpack-express” copies to district parents.

Other business

Putnam Avenue Upper School parent Michelle Hicks, appearing with parents Kimberly Mancino and Bill Boehm, read a statement repeating a now-regular, urgent call for help for their school’s “significant underperformance” since its inception in September 2012. Almost one year after a Harding motion to develop a plan addressing issues landing PAUS’ test performance among the bottom statewide, “no plan has materialized,” Hicks said. “Dr. Salim,” she said, “we believe your direct involvement is critical. We look forward to working together with you.” The topic was not on the agenda, and although the parents were allowed to comment, there was no discussion by members.

A motion dating back to Nov. 21 to televise all budget-related meetings, as well as provide child care and interpreters and hold at least one meeting on a Saturday in a community location, was again set aside without comment, this time by Simmons.

Passed unanimously without comment were second readings of motions to reestablish school-based kindergarten enrollment caps and priority for siblings in immersion programs; a Fantini motion directing the superintendent to work with the athletic director to “provide a written process on how” open sports coaching positions will be filled; a Dexter, Fantini and Kelly motion to get a report on demographics and MCAS scores for Cambridge students enrolled in charter schools, as well as communications between the district and these students; a Harding motion to get an update on the creation of Parent University; and a Dexter motion to thank district staff for persevering in an “unusually difficult year.”

Also passed without comment were revisions to policies on weapons and assaults on school staff and criminal offender record information; contracts of $94,000 for two out-of-district tuitions, $33,000 for tuition and transportation for two students to an out-of-district vocational school, and $30,000 for HVAC supplies; and acceptance of about $10,000 in miscellaneous gifts and fundraising and $1.2 million in Federal Title I funds.

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