Annual tweaking of public schools budget keeps achievement gap stuck, or widening
From Leslie Brunetta, of Roberts Road, Nov. 15, 2016: These comments were delivered at a Nov. 15 budget hearing held by the School Committee with schools superintendent Kenneth Salim in attendance and addressed to those officials:
Except for Dr. Salim, you all know me, so you all know I have a lot of respect for you as people and as public servants.
I’m going to say some very critical things, which I hope you’ll take constructively because I know you all want the same things I want for kids.
So, flat out: We, as a district, are not serious about the achievement gap. Teachers are serious, the staff are serious, each of you is serious, but our systemic actions, which you direct and oversee, are not serious.
I went back and looked at eighth-grade MCAS scores back to 2001. The English-language arts black-white gap is completely stagnant since 2006. It was 28 points wide then, went up and down a few points and jumped to 36 points in 2015, the last MCAS scores.
In math, the gap has grown pretty steadily since 2001 – to 43 points from 29 points. Only one in three African-American students scored proficient in 2015. It’s taken 15 years to get from 13 percent proficient to 32 percent, and we’ve been stuck at 32 percent since 2011. If we keep slogging along at this rate, we can maybe close the gap by 2058.
Why are we in this position? I think it’s because we decided about 17 or 18 years ago to do what the state department of education told us to do – to chase MCAS scores and a completely byzantine system of accountability and to pour our resources into that effort rather than into truly individualized help and instruction for kids.
We have incredible educators in our system and in our community – including some of you – and we haven’t listened to them. We’ve instead hired lots of consultants who may offer good services, but I’ve never seen any of them present actual records of spurring the academic progress of the kids we’re worried about.
We’ve listened to a state board of education that we now know is promoting a movement to eventually privatize public schools and whose philosophies and practices have led to both some of the highest test scores in the nation for kids who would do well no matter what and to one of the biggest achievement gaps in the nation.
We’re in a completely different environment as of last week. We don’t know who’s going to be in charge of education at the national level, but they’re unlikely to smile favorably on places such as Cambridge. We now see what the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education’s goals are.
The budget is your true statement of policy. We talk a lot about closing the achievement gap. But when we essentially just tweak a budget from year to year that the evidence shows is holding the gap in place, if not widening it, maybe we should just stop talking about it anymore.
We’re at a real turning point here, and Cambridge can either lead – as it’s shown itself capable of so many times in its history – or it can follow. I urge you, as you consider shaping and voting on this budget, to stop following and start leading.
I thank you all again for the work you do for our children and the rest of us.