Schools need to know what works; study wasted time, money and didn’t tell us
The Cambridge School Committee recently made public an outside study undertaken last year of middle grades instruction in the Cambridge Public Schools. This study was supposed to be a follow-up to the comprehensive study conducted the previous year of the two schools housing the Intensive Studies Program, where sixth- to eighth-graders were taught in leveled classes.
Unfortunately, the new study was very limited in its design and hastily conducted at the end of the 2011-12 school year. (Interestingly, the study is labeled “Draft. Not for citation or distribution.”) It certainly should not be used by parents or school officials to judge CPS middle-grade teachers or the previous K-8 programs or when making decisions about heterogeneous classrooms versus “leveled groupings” (sometimes called “tracking”) in the new middle schools.
The authors of the study concluded that “it would be presumptuous of us, based on a study of such limited scope, to offer far-reaching recommendations for change.” We agree. The study consisted entirely of one-time observations of 38 classes across nine schools; included no interviews or surveys of parents, teachers or students; and included no analyses of student work, teaching strategies or curriculum activities, or analyses of later high school outcomes. The observations took place from May 22 through June 5, a time, as the researchers acknowledge, when teachers are busy with end-of-the-year activities not representative of typical instruction. (Moreover, the researchers mention only in passing that some of the one-time observations took place on the days immediately after a well-known CRLS sophomore was killed in a drive-by shooting. In these classes, they were therefore evaluating the “rigor” of instruction on a day the school community was experiencing shock and grief.)
Despite such ill-timed skimming across the schools, the study authors confidently asserted that instruction was generally not “sufficiently challenging” and classroom topics not “sufficiently complex.” Related particularly to challenge, they stated that observers “failed to see two important instructional tools in any class in any subject … differentiated instruction or scaffolding, two critical instructional strategies.” The study’s own classroom descriptions, however, contradict this statement. These descriptions include social studies teachers who supplemented textbook instruction with videos, photos and additional readings and students working on science projects of their own choice following their own interests (both differentiation); teachers providing graphic organizers to help students understand their readings, writing class objectives or agendas on the board, asking students to describe steps they will take to prepare for a quiz and providing research guides to help students conduct research (all scaffolding); as well as students writing notecards to prepare for portfolio presentations (scaffolding and differentiation).
By wasting time and money on this study, the district failed to commission a study that would have been very informative: an examination of the former middle-grade CPS programs that did not suffer from small cohorts and typically lost few students to the ISP program or other schools. Such a study could have provided a record of the strengths and weaknesses of the curricula and teaching practices that had attracted and retained full cohorts of students under the CPS K-8 system.
Lacking such a study, we have no documentation of the teaching practices or student outcomes related to the K-8 schools that had been widely considered most successful at teaching classes of academically diverse students, even as we have moved to a system now entirely composed of nonleveled classrooms. Rather than trying to build new middle schools on the strengths of the former K-8 system, CPS has decided to ignore its own history as a leader in progressive, student-centered and project-based education.
There is a better way forward. Instead of paying outside, non-teaching consultants to fly by our classrooms, why don’t we ask parents of a diverse set of recent middle school graduates as well as a diverse set of recent CRLS grads about the curriculum topics and teaching approaches they found most challenging and engaging? Then let’s learn from CPS teachers what methods they have found most effective and what changes they would like to see that could support even more effective practices.
The new middle school model is here to stay, at least for now. For the sake of the city’s children, we need it to succeed. Let’s stop lurching from one “innovative” solution to the next and instead find out what teaching practices have actually worked in Cambridge with Cambridge kids and why they have worked. Then let’s build on the strengths that many parents and others know reside in our schools.
Leslie Brunetta and Emily Dexter, parents at the Cambridge Rindge & Latin High School