Wednesday, May 22, 2024

School Committee member Richard Harding takes notes Tuesday during the first part of a goal-setting retreat. (Photos: Marc Levy)

There were so many goals proposed last week by members of the School Committee that at the end of a three-and-a-half-hour retreat, it was decided that a smaller team would have to sift through them to find the priorities among the goals.

That team — Mayor David Maher, Superintendent Jeffrey Young and committee vice chairman Marc McGovern — will recommend a course of action at the school board’s May 18 meeting.

The retreat was proposed back on Jan. 19 by member Nancy Tauber to set goals and improve communication. It was coincidence that it arrived Tuesday, almost immediately after Young decided to delay plans for a middle school and in the meantime “step back and make sure we preserved and extended what’s really good and fixed what needs to be fixed.”

The retreat was held over chips, soft drinks and sandwiches in a meeting room deep in the new Cambridge Main Library with the committee, staff members and facilitator Glenn S. Koocher, a committee member himself from 1973-86 and now executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

“The commissioner’s looking very aggressively at underperforming schools,” Koocher said. “And in Massachusetts, congratulations, you have the highest-performing schools in the country but you also have the highest number of schools in some kind of No Child Left Behind sanction, because the goals are set so high — higher than anybody else.”

With that prompting, the discussion homed in on the achievement gap, and for the first hour, the discussion was energetic and affirming and seemingly building to an inevitable conclusion, with members chiming in to support what the others were saying to the point they were nearly finishing each other’s sentences.

It started with Young recalling a poetry event he’d gone to at a school with committee member Fred Fantini where he found lifeless, rote delivery instead of the joy and passion poetry and learning can and should bring — the kind of passion found at other such events in other schools.

“We both walked out of there feeling it was a little mechanical and dry, plain, and we both had the sense it could have and should have been more than it was,” Young said. “It has to do with a cultural issue in the schools having to do with expectations.”

Specific goals

What the conversation boiled down to was that Cambridge students are being dragged down by low expectations. In response, the committee vowed early in its retreat to come up with a set of specific goals to boost achievement.

That’s not synonymous with high scores on standardized tests such as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, the members agreed.

“When the superintendent talks about that poetry event, that’s not about high-stakes testing. Hopefully, if you did it well, you’d see results in your MCAS scores, but it’s not teaching to the test,” Alice Turkel said.

“We wouldn’t have to focus on MCAS scores, the MCAS scores would take care of themselves,” Fantini said. “We should have our own measurement, and it probably ought to be much tougher than the MCAS.”

Teachers who approached the goals with cynicism or can’t keep up should leave, and new hires should come in embracing those goals.

By the end of the three-and-a-half-hour retreat, the brainstorming had become more complicated.

“We’re going to be instilling high expectations for everybody. The new people in the door have to get it … they need to know you’re in a great city, we have high expectations, this is really what’s expected of you,” Fantini said.

“If you’re not with us, you should leave,” Harding said.

Member Patty Nolan had a view that was slightly more generous. “Some teachers are not going to be up to snuff. We dance around that a lot,” Patty Nolan said, putting herself in the place of a Cambridge instructor. “We’re going to provide every support we possibly can if I’m an ineffective teacher, and you know what? If in another year I’m still ineffective, you don’t want me in your classroom.”

Behind the tough talk was committee members’ experiences talking to students and their own children. McGovern gave an example of his son’s papers being heavily marked up with corrections and his son being told by teachers they expected more of him — but that the papers of the kid next to him in class, with the same mistakes, weren’t marked with the same intensity. One child faced high expectations, and the other was, for whatever reasons, let off the hook by teachers.

Tauber told of teachers who didn’t want to “push” kids too hard if they were struggling, and who didn’t even recognize their expectations were low.

Maher noted obstacles faced by some students — poverty, lack of parent involvement or language difficulties — can’t be downplayed, and that teachers dealing with 24 other students can’t flatten those obstacles to make a level playing field. But Young countered that the answer still lay in expectations, in never questioning that the student will succeed.

“Kids are going to rise and fall to the level of expectations,” Young said.

Teachers do not ask enough of the kids. That’s just what I think it is. And what’s amazing to me is how the kids themselves are amazingly, astoundingly honest in telling you that. You don’t have to probe deeply to hear students here say things like, ‘I know I could be working harder. I know I could be learning more. I know I should be doing something better than I’m doing it.’ And they feel a little sheepish about it. They feel like they want to be asked to do more, or so that’s what they express to me. Which by the way does not translate to piling two more hours of homework on them, it’s not 20 more worksheets to take home. It’s about the way teachers interact with kids in classrooms. What they expect.

After an hour of talk, though, Koocher broke in to indicate it was halftime (he was significantly off; the meeting went on until the library closed). It broke the spell. In an attempt to form an approach to pursue specific goals, the thread of the conversation unraveled into debates about such things as whether expectations, achievement and accountability were one thing; whether the committee’s goals and superintendent’s should be the same; and what underlying issues led to achievement.

For instance, Turkel believed addressing and improving controlled choice, the system by which parents select schools and the district assigns them, would lead to stronger achievement. Fulfilling the long-imagined strategic plan could also, members said. But the goals were too big to all be accomplished within the committee’s two-year term.

The easel on which Koocher charted the discussion grew more complicated, with notes written above and beside the term “achievement” instead of neatly springing from it with arrows. Question marks appeared by some words. Other terms were underlined, with debate emerging about their relationship. Another two hours passed without a clear plan materializing.

“The more targeted, measurable goals we can work to with a resolution in sight, so we can say, ‘This is where we want to be at the end of this term,’ would help us,” McGovern said.

Ultimately, the committee broke for the night to await a report from Maher, Young and McGovern.

“A great deal of passion and energy was displayed,” Young said the next day. “The challenge is to develop a sharp enough focus.”