Essay: Keep eyes on the prize during middle-school debate
I can say with sympathy to the current School Committee that school politics is about as grueling and difficult as it gets. The passion and razor-sharp focus of an active parent protecting what they believe is in the best interest of their children pales in comparison with even the most challenging political issue.
Ideally, school leaders try to satisfy the most vocal consumers — parents of kids now in city schools — while keeping in mind that what is demanded today may not be what’s good for the long-term success of our school system.
History proves that those who dominate the debate will generally favor the status quo, making the path of least resistance typically the chosen path. Ironically unfortunate is that tax rates in Cambridge stay so low that there is little interest from the broader community of caring, resourceful and educated residents to think much about the long-term health of the schools. If they do notice the challenge at hand, they are hesitant to get in harm’s way of such ferocious debates, which are typically weighted down by underlying race and class issues.
Having served as mayor and chairman of the committee during some critical but divisive reform issues, such as adding socioeconomics as a school desegregation factor, maintaining Cambridge Rindge & Latin School as a choice-free high school and rebuilding and creating a permanent place for technical education there, I know firsthand how difficult and consuming reform can be. During each of these debates, as with the current process valiantly undertaken by Superintendent Jeffrey Young and Mayor David Maher, we worked extremely hard through workshops and dialogues with the community so we would be able to act as an effective and credible board even after the votes were taken.
All of these issues were in some way rooted, as with the middle school plan, in increasing resources and creating educational excellence for all children across the school system. Even in their purest forms, though, these reforms are merely the foundation, the catalyst or footprint to implementing educational accountability and excellence. None is an end-all tool for success, but merely a guiding principal and value set.
‘The real work’
I remember after all those divisive and exhausting reforms were completed thinking, “Okay, now we can get down to the real work of evaluating, recruiting, retaining and fostering a uniquely skilled and qualified group of teachers and leaders to lead our more balanced and less segregated school system. Cambridge has a history of self-segregation and we must face this and self-monitor ourselves in a way that acknowledges these tendencies.”
Even after we added socioeconomic status, with a fairly tight balancing formula, policy leaders amended the formula to allow a far wider variation between free and reduced-lunch and paid-lunch students, undermining the principal of the policy. There have also been consistent attempts to exempt certain programs from balancing requirements completely. The middle school plan has also evolved in a way that, as former committee member Joe Grassi warns, could easily create a two-tier and imbalanced middle school system.
We must keep our city’s history in mind and resist temptation to lessen our prioritization of balance and the inherent equity that flows from it. Imagine if we created a middle school plan that, when implemented, put even more pressure on school choice and led to even more imbalance in our schools with even fewer resources?
We must also keep in mind that desegregation alone will not close educational disparities amongst our young people. I have seen so many cycles of educational reforms, innovations and accountability measures. Debates over standardized testing, innovative curriculums, small school vs. big school, advisory systems, class size and length of school day — these debates are cyclical and will not go away.
The one timeless issue I have found that makes the ultimate difference in the progress of our children’s education is the quality of instruction and administrative leadership in our schools.
Keeping in mind that we as a community have probably done more than any other to maintain housing and promote social policies fostering a sharp diversity of incomes and cultures, we therefore require a uniquely qualified set of educators that can teach to and inspire such a diverse population of students. Is it shocking to conceive that average teachers and principals could do fairly well with middle-class students but struggle when it comes to students of lower socioeconomic status with far less support and more challenges at home? It should be no surprise that to teach to such a diverse group of students, to teach to them generally and individually, and to allow them all to advance in the same classroom and school is a skill that is not easy to find. When we do find it, it should be cultivated and treasured.
Hiring and retaining the best is not a sexy issue for school politicians. In fact, current school leaders are usually far gone when these investments come to fruition. It’s no surprise, then, that school leaders (present company included) look for the opportunity to enact historic reforms. We look for the legacy moves to fix a system while we are alive and part of the solution-making process.
The substance of educational excellence
Near the end of my term, I began to realize that while these reforms were necessary and critical, we had not even gotten to the substance of educational excellence. We had been so immersed in building a foundation and correcting the mistakes of the past that the work around evaluation, accountability and recruitment was pushed aside. We knew balance and confronting race and class issues was necessary and that spreading active parents across the system had to be part of the foundation. We also knew, though, that the real impact happens in the classrooms with teachers who can inspire and teach to a diverse group of students and principals who can similarly manage and inspire those teachers as well.
Look at our own examples, such as Joe Petner, Jim Cody and Lynn Stuart — all principals who through amazing and unique management styles created sought-after schools regardless of the size or how fresh the paint was on the walls. These school leaders recruited the best, retained the best and managed their school populations with a standard of excellence and attention to detail that nurtured success.
We all know the famous mantra in real estate: location, location, location. Well, in my view, in the education world the mantra should be equally simple: personnel, personnel, personnel.
I know it is boring and very labor intensive, but it pays huge dividends for years to come. As we debate hot-button structural reforms: Who is recruiting the next Petner? Who is encouraging the best managers and teachers in the country to come here and lead our schools? Who is evaluating the best in our own system to step up to the next level? Who is talking to young African-American and Latino males in liberal arts colleges about coming here to mentor, inspire and help close the achievement gap? Where is the call to arms to bring men into the lives of so many of our young people coming from single-parent, female-led homes? This is the real talk of urban education.
The traditional middle-school model in its pure form has clear long-term benefits. Consensus building is critical to any political process, but the principals of socioeconomic balance and focused middle-school campus structures should not be sacrificed. As school leaders work through this long-term plan there is an underlying opportunity to tap into the newly engaged parents who have come forward in this process. Mayor Maher, the committee and Superintendent Young are right to do everything possible to keep these parents involved long after this process is over.
Also, don’t wait until the plan is implemented to ask the critical questions of who will lead our new programs and what skill sets are most needed to advance a classroom of students who range in diversity as wide as any school system possesses. Even in its purest form, a middle school system will not alone be a solution to the achievement gap in Cambridge. If closing the gap is indeed a priority, we will need to make changes that will reflect a vision for five, 10 and 20 years down the road, and not just that of an isolated middle school debate.
Anthony Galluccio served as a Cambridge city councillor from 1994 to 2007 and as mayor in his 200o-o1 term. He was elected to the state Senate in 2007 and is now a partner in the law firm Galluccio, Watson & Wehbe LLP.