State’s mostly positive district study fires on elected officials, even on election style
Criticisms from state education officials brought denunciations from School Committee members – including an eight-minute statement from vice chairman Fred Fantini – that reviewers didn’t know what they were talking about and were presenting individual opinions as formal findings.
The critiques of district management and committee relations were made Tuesday in a largely positive report on the district by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Its staff visited the district over a week in February, interviewing administrative staff, teachers and committee members and observing classes. The report, released this month, was presented by Assistant Commissioner Carrie Conaway. None of the eight staff listed as review team members attended the meeting.
In welcoming her to the meeting, Superintendent Jeffrey Young expressed appreciation for the report noting district accomplishments and “calling out our progress” on many issues. On the topic of areas of improvement, he said, “the thing that really struck me … is that nothing really surprised me. These are issues that we know that we need to work on.”
Making good progress
Cambridge was reviewed because two schools, King Open and Kennedy-Longfellow, were classified as Level 3 schools – meaning at least some population subgroups had MCAS scores in the bottom 20 percent of the state. The report, done periodically in all districts, is essentially a review of district management.
Cambridge is making good progress in achieving many state goals, the report concluded, praising work undertaken by Assistant Superintendent Jessica Huizenga on curriculum review alignment with common core and review cycles; gains in professional development under a new labor/management committee; and implementation of educator evaluations and data use and analysis.
In addition, the report commended the district on implementing the Innovation Agenda (“transition to a three-level system”), fiscal support of the schools and a transparent budget process.
Identified as areas that need improvement were lack of long-term district goal setting; lack of unity among School Committee members and between the committee and administration; that buildings remain in need of renovation and maintenance; lack of clear organization in terms of lines of responsibility, communication and authority; and general inconsistency across classrooms and schools for teacher quality and student support.
The theme of inconsistent application of differentiated instruction, high expectations for all students and implementation of tiered support for students across classrooms and schools resonated with parents during public comment, and with many committee members. Pia Cisternino and Karen Dobak, of the Cambridge Parent Advisory Council on Special Education, called on the district to use evidence-based remedies to address inconsistent accommodations for students with special needs, specifically the Response to Intervention program it chose to improve differentiated teaching. Both expressed hope that Assistant Superintendent for Student Services Victoria Greer’s department reorganization will help.
Young and committee members Fran Cronin and Kathleen Kelly praised the report for presenting “an opportunity for us to learn” and reevaluate priorities, as Cronin put it.
Fantini fires opening shot
The recommendations about governance, however, got Fantini riled up. Although saying there may be “enlightening” findings in the report, he read a long statement beforehand chastising the state for “its abject ignorance of … a general understanding of what a school committee is.”
Using such terms as “offensive” and “gratuitous criticisms,” Fantini took issue with the report’s complaint that the committee does not have a unified vision; its criticism of how the committee conducts business and suggestion that the committee obstructs school department business; and the suggestion that the city “may wish to … reconsider the continued viability of the Single Transferable Vote system and the concurrent, two-year term of office for all School Committee members, and contemplate instituting a different approach that could provide more stable district governance and leadership continuity.”
We find it hard for DESE to defend its allegation that ‘the committee members have many visions, making it hard to have a cohesive message all could agree to,’ when the state agency itself has overwhelmed school districts with one major initiative after another … Knowing of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s contempt for holding itself accountable to anyone but itself, it is stunning to see such naïve and inappropriate comments aimed at legitimately elected representatives …The purpose of a School Committee meeting is not to act as briefly as possible to do what the superintendent and principals want.
On the recommendation that the city reconsider its system of voting, he ended by saying that “the department [calling] for changes in something about which it knows nothing is a further warning to all public policy makers that within DESE lies a desire to exceed its authority and undermine local democracy.” (Read the entire statement here.)
Fantini’s statement drew little comment from Cronin – who merely thanked the superintendent for “his [positive] tone in opening the discussion” – and Mayor David Maher, aside from his jocular “Welcome to Cambridge, commissioner!” Other members addressed it directly.
Committee member Mervan Osborne took pains to say that an accusation in the report from some teachers that committee members “focused on [a] small sample of parents rather than listening closely to the superintendent about what is happening in schools” did not apply to him personally.
Fact vs. perception
The superintendent’s chief of staff, Lori Likis, joined Conaway in explaining that these were simply reports of comments that they heard and that each comments was “triangulated,” or heard from at least two people. Kelly said the reports of perceptions that the committee was biased or unsupportive could provide important insight.
But committee members Patty Nolan and Richard Harding argued that perceptions without evidence should be presented as just that – “perceptions” rather than “findings.” Said Harding, “I do think there’s a level of incompetence here from the state coming to us with a report that seems to be magnified … but truth be told is flawed in the information that it delivers in many different ways.”
Nolan pointed to assertions in the report that the K-8 coaching model is a success, that students entering the high school are at different levels of preparation depending on their K-8 schools and that the committee is “usurping” power from the superintendent as without factual back-up. Despite the committee asking for an analysis on the coaching model, she said, there was no evidence one way or another on its effectiveness. There are no facts documented on the different preparation by schools, she said, despite persistent requests.
How can the committee be said to obstruct the superintendent’s mission, she asked, “when we have passed almost every single recommendation that has come before us? Sometimes I think we defer too much. We certainly have been told that by many parents.”
But what seemed to concern Nolan even more: “This is a pretty devastating critique of management across all areas,” despite the tone of the report and presentation seeming fairly positive, she said. Specifically, she noted findings that:
the district has fractured and uncoordinated professional development (as of the February visits), despite years of intense focus;
in almost 75 percent of administrator personnel folders reviewed, there was no evidence evaluations had been written during the previous five school years;
elementary school principals cited lack of involvement in curriculum development and often a lack of awareness of curriculum issues;
principals said they were unclear about their expectations and often unclear about lines of communication for answers or guidance;
a lack of differentiated instruction in half of the observed classrooms, despite, Nolan added, a focus on differentiation through professional development for at least five years;
uneven and inconsistent school improvement plans;
interviewees were unable to provide any specific description of interventions as part of Response to Intervention, and few were identified in any documents.
Nolan tied these findings back to the earlier discussion of perceptions that the committee is overstepping, interfering and unfocused. “But on every single one of the issues and concerns,” she said, “we have seen that the School Committee pushed for change and noted need for improvement.” Where the report suggested areas of improvement, Nolan argued, are actually areas in which the committee has asked regularly for follow-through from administration without results.
Harding agreed, and said, “I think Mr. Fantini was so eloquent in this – I mean, look who was indicting us in this case.”
“We, the School Committee … need to figure out what we are going to do as a body to figure out how to be impactful,” Harding said to his colleagues. “The history of this body is we get these reports, and then the questions is, what are we going to do about the findings that are in this report? How do we as a school committee prioritize and hold accountable” the professionals charged with these responsibilities?
He concluded by suggesting that in providing some criticism this report is “a good thing.”
“I look forward to having more ammunition to hold folks accountable,” he said.
Student committee members Liz Kubicek and Lucy Sternbach spoke about concern in the high school about class-size caps as the school population continues to grow. Complaints about overcrowded high school classes last year led Principal Damon Smith to agree to caps, but there are signs the result is students being shut out of classes. “The size has been capped at 24,” Kubicek said, “but no new classes have been added.”
Sternbach gave anecdotes about a junior who was unable to get into any core classes this semester and is carrying an entire course load of electives; and three students who passed Spanish 1 but are forced to take it again because they cannot get space in Spanish 2 classes.
Young promised to consult Smith about this.
Two recommendations were calendared by Nolan after some discussion. One was to approve paid “release” for the incoming president of the Cambridge Education Association, Terry Gist, the first union president from among the clerical staff. Longtime practice has been to continue paying presidents while releasing them from classroom duties, district Chief Operating Officer James Maloney said. The recommendation included changing clerical staff vacation accrual to begin within their first year of employment, but it was calendared by Nolan to be separated into two recommendations and resubmitted.
The other calendared recommendation was for $50,000 to pay one-half of professional development for the city’s Task Force on Early Childhood Services. Harding wondered why the School Committee needed to share the costs for a task force that he noted included no committee representation. Maher suggested “it would be very wise of the School Committee to support this” as a good-faith effort at collaboration, and comments by Kelly, Cronin and Fantini supported the notion that a vote against this seemed to represent a vote against the task force or early childhood education.
Nolan, however, objected to spending $100,000 on professional development for a task force made up of high-level administrators including City Manager Richard C. Rossi, Young, Chief Financial Officer Claire Spinner and the director of the Somerville and Cambridge Head Start program, among others. “I just don’t understand why we would have this list of people being trained in focus group facilitation,” Nolan said. “We have the experts. Why aren’t we paying our own people to do the training?”
“This is the city manager’s task force,” Spinner said, and “this is a contract that has gone through the city and has met the city purchasing department’s benchmarks.”
Also approved were a $500 Reebok grant to the Tobin School for a before-school physical activity program, a $27,225 federal grant for fresh fruits and vegetables and contracts for produce, neuropsychological evaluations and out-of-district tuition.
In committee agenda business, Cronin wanted a review of policies about Internet access in the schools, and there was a motion by Cronin and Kelly asking for an analysis of the new middle school math program and support structures.