Sunday, May 19, 2024


073014i School CommitteeThe School Committee approved nearly $500,000 for three professional development consulting contracts Tuesday, with only committee member Patty Nolan voting no.

Recommendations to approve the contracts were pulled for discussion from a group of nearly 20 contract awards, grants and policy revisions. The contracts are for services during the upcoming school year for three companies:

bullet-gray-small$155,100 to for-profit Research for Better Teaching, primarily for a “high-expertise teaching project” to improve “instructional practice and student learning outcomes.”

bullet-gray-small$136,000 to for-profit Ideal Consulting Services for training staff in the Kennedy-Longfellow, Haggerty and Fletcher-Maynard schools on implementing Response to Intervention, a process for assessing individual student progress quickly and developing interventions that is due to be rolled out to all schools over the next few years.

bullet-gray-small$106,000 to nonprofit Authentic Education for facilitating Understanding by Design workshops for curriculum review for English-language arts, world language, social studies and science. It continues work begun last year on world language and science and starts work for ELA and social studies, which will be done together to allow interdisciplinary curriculum, Assistant Superintendent Jessica Huizenga said.

“Wall Street rates”

“We’ve gotten letters from parents concerned about what the system is paying for service contracts,” committee co-chairman Fred Fantini said to frame the discussion. “Folks want to know why we are spending half a million dollars on this instead of in the classroom.” Among the letters is a Change.Org petition protesting committee approval of “excessive administrative spending on outside consultants.”

“I’m sensing there is some sticker shock in the room,” member Mervan Osborne added. “What did we buy?”

“When you actually look at what we are paying here, it’s $400 to 600 per hour – Wall Street rates,” Nolan insisted. “It feels disrespectful to our staff.”

Without directly addressing any rates, Young did acknowledge that Jon Saphier’s Research for Better Teaching and Grant Wiggins of Authentic Education are “nationally known – they’re top shelf.” From his point of view, the fact that Cambridge can get them “is good.”

Assistant Superintendent Carolyn Turk explained some of the method of determining costs for Research for Better Teaching, describing it as modeled on presentations where the client is charged per the number of participants in the training. Except for Turk’s explanation and Osborne’s sticker shock comment, there was no more discussion about the costs of the contracts, nor any discussion about whether other consultants were considered.

Strategy: More consultants or staff

The unexamined high rates were not the only thing that concerned Nolan. She questioned the strategy of relying on outside consultants to improve teaching skills and facilitate curriculum review rather than relying on internal expertise.

“Given our high level of staffing, given our investment to date … it’s very concerning to say that we have added all this capacity that is at a level that is double the state average for administration and instructional leadership, but we don’t have the capacity in-house to provide this,” Nolan said.

She also pointed to the highly touted use several years ago of star education consultant Richard Elmore to develop teaching expertise.  “Why continue with a model that hasn’t worked in the past?”

Committee member Richard Harding seemed less concerned. “We are above the state average in lots of measures,” he said. “Many districts don’t have the luxury to spend this kind of money. … I look at it as an opportunity to move … work along.”

“This is the place that we are at”

In addressing Nolan’s charge that Cambridge has high professional development spending compared with the state average, Young said it depends on how the state measures professional development. “The biggest chunk of what we do in professional development has to do with our [instructional] coaching salaries,” he said, noting that the committee and administration are due an evaluation of Cambridge’s coaching model soon.

While agreeing Cambridge’s coaching levels are high, and that they need to see an evaluation on the effectiveness of the model, Nolan argued that she was referring to instructional and administrative costs: “We are above the state in costs, but not in so many other areas that we care about.”

In terms of the strategy, Young said, “However we’ve gotten to this place, this is the place that we are at right now.” He stressed that he has been consistent in resisting requests to fund more classroom staff.

“The reason is that quantity is not the answer, quality is,” Young said. “Sometimes in schools adults start to trip over each other.”

Huizenga explained the strategy for using outside consultants this way:

Anytime in an organization you are going through a continuous cycle of improvement and you rely on internal capacity, generally the organization will plateau. Then you need to rebuild capacity … We realize looking at our outcomes it is time to build capacity in a more comprehensive way, by building the knowledge and skills of our people.

“By the way,” Young reminded the committee, “you approved this in the school budget.”

“What did we buy?”

The budget for fiscal year 2015 does mention Jon Saphier and Research for Better Teaching for the “high-expertise teaching project,” and Saphier made a presentation to the committee in the spring. The latest budget sets aside $100,000 to be combined with $40,000 from fiscal year 2014.

Response to Intervention is also discussed in the budget, with $33,000 allocated for hiring substitute teachers needed to cover classroom teachers pulled from the classroom for interventions as the only new expenditure. A list of non-salary expenses for the curriculum and instruction department includes $230,000 for RTI and instructional support. The costs for Ideal’s services appear to be supported by government grants, so they did not have to be delineated as new expense items in the budget. But they still are part of the overall school budget, and the consultant, deliverables and rates are not included in the budget. Ideal was a consultant to the state’s Freetown-Lakeville school district when Huizenga was its interim superintendent of schools.

Curriculum review is given $180,000 in the department’s expenditures list, also apparently covered by government grants. Authentic Education is mentioned once regarding curriculum review support for science and world language for the 2014 fiscal year, but again no specifics regarding consultants, deliverables and other elements for the current year are included in the budget.

“To your point” that we approved this in the budget, Osborne told Young, “this was debated and discussed and agreed. … We didn’t actually talk about this specifically. Not about the quality or even about the source of the work. It feels expensive given the numbers Ms. Nolan laid out. We want clarity. What did we buy? Not just who, but what did we get?”

Comprehensive curriculum alignment

Turk reviewed for members some of the details of the services Research for Better Teaching will deliver, originally presented in Saphier’s spring presentation, including workshops with 110 staff members in three working groups, school and classroom visits, debriefing and outcome analysis, planning for future projects and three sets of education materials. In addition, since its consultants would be here often next year, the school department included an extra $18,000 for six working sessions to help Huizenga design and launch a three-year new teacher induction program.

Regarding curriculum review, Huizenga described some of the work on ELA and social studies curriculum review that Authentic Education has already begun. She spoke about the meetings of staff across JK through grade 12, working with Authentic Education to do a “current audit” of what they know about their disciplines, and reported that most teachers knew their own grade material but were unsure about the work in grades below and above them. She spoke of the power of having teachers across the 17 schools work together on curriculum alignment. “This is one of the most comprehensive pieces of work I’ve seen in any district, and I’m proud to be part of that in Cambridge,” she said in defense of the contract.

In discussing the work of Ideal, Huizenga argued that developing expertise in Response to Intervention student screening and assessments is “very technical” and involves “lots of detail.” Ideal has already started RTI work at Kennedy-Longfellow, Fletcher-Maynard and Haggerty this past year, and “we are actually seeing results.” She promised committee members that when they saw the Kennedy-Longfellow report, “you will be very pleased.”

Call for more information

One message clearly delivered by Nolan, Harding, Osborne, Kathleen Kelly, Fran Cronin and Fantini was the need for the administration to provide more information when asking for contract approvals. “The more information we have when we consider proposals, the better off we will be,” Kelly said.

Fantini, saying that he had been studying committee procedural rules lately in response to parent inquiries, was more explicit: “I want it to be clear: for-profit or nonprofit. Sole-source [funding] or not. Deliverables are really important,” he said, referring to details of exactly what and how much time the consultant is delivering and how outcomes will be measured, something Harding and Nolan also stressed.

This is not the first time this year the committee has requested more complete information on contract approvals. One of the most recent times was June 17, when Assistant Superintendent for Student Services Victoria Greer presented a $165,000 professional development contract with Group Dynamics & Strategy. There was no information on days of training, how many people were involved, deliverables or any cost breakdown. The committee approved the award, but asked for details to be delivered later. While some further information was subsequently delivered to the committee, members still await information on the number of days and daily rates.

In the end, only Nolan voted against approval. Asked afterward why she voted no, she wrote: “If staff can’t do this type of work, which is the core of education – developing good lesson plans and improving teaching – we should ask why. Paying outside consultants Wall Street lawyer rates should not need to happen in a district with so many senior educational leaders.”

Other business

A motion put forward by Nolan at the last June meeting but tabled by Fantini before anyone could say a word was finally passed last night with no comment, after Fantini himself moved for its passage.

The motion was for the committee ask the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the legislature to “refrain from adding new mandates, including new tests and other initiatives, and to revisit the mandates already imposed … with a view to reducing interference with classroom instruction, thus allowing educators to do their work.” The motion needed to be passed by June 30 to help the Massachusetts Association of School Committees meet a filing quota, a point Nolan was unable to explain during the testy June 17 meeting exchange. Fantini had been irritated at that meeting that Nolan had just tabled one of his motions without comment.

Also passed was a motion by Fantini that the committee “work with the administration to review and improve family engagement,” formally adding the committee to a new administrative initiative.

A months-old motion by Fantini and Harding that each elementary and middle school be provided “with feedback in the form of a written report … by an expert consultant” was put on the superintendent’s desk for him to consider how it fits into current review plans. He will return with a recommendation.

Superintendent’s agenda

Academic Challenge and Enrichment Manager Paula Feynman gave a presentation on Advanced Learning in CPS.

Passed without comment were policy revisions on head lice, social media, HIV/AIDS and prescription drugs and allergies.

A revision of student attendance policy was referred to the school climate subcommittee after several members voiced concerns about how this policy fit into broader policy about family engagement and nuanced definitions of absenteeism and truancy.

Also approved without comment were an $8,600 gift to the Amigos School from Amigos parents, a grant award and contracts with City Sprouts, Cambridge School Volunteers, Cambridge Housing Authority for the Work Force program, computer hardware for the high school, food services and dairy delivery, medical billing, computer software maintenance and computer hardware for administration, totaling about $1.1 million – half of which is for food services.

School Committee agenda

Retiring School Committee executive secretary Pat Berry

Retiring School Committee executive secretary Pat Berry gets applause and an official city rocking chair Tuesday at a committee meeting. (Photo: Jean Cummings)

The committee presented an official city rocking chair to retiring school committee executive secretary Pat Berry, whose work ends Aug. 31. Committee members and school department staff took Berry out for a celebratory dinner after the meeting.

With the meeting running nearly three hours and Berry’s dinner looming, the remaining items were quickly handled. Tabled without discussion until the next meeting were a City Council order from Nadeem Mazen about summer schooling opportunities, a motion from Fantini and Harding on school bus options for students living at Rindge Towers and Jefferson Park, a motion from Cronin and Fantini on a report on the high school Rindge School of Technical Arts program, and a first reading of proposed revisions to committee rules.

Passed without discussion were a motion by Fantini to ask the superintendent to explore ways to improve the sound systems in all schools, a motion by the school climate subcommittee to approve previously discussed revisions to the rights and responsibilities handbook, and $11,000 in invoices to the Massachusetts Association and School Committees and the National School Board Association for annual dues.

Also passed without reading or discussion were seven resolutions to send letters of appreciation and acknowledgement to scores of school staff. The lists of the names can be found here.

No one spoke at public comment.