Sunday, July 14, 2024

Jennifer Amigone of Cambridge Public Schools at a Monday town hall held at the high school. (Photo: Julia Levine)

School officials promised context for bad survey results at a town hall on Monday, and delivered for those who listened closely: It all depends whether you compare the Cambridge Public Schools district with all others in a dataset, or only the subset identified as “urban.” 

The urban-districts comparison is “more apples-to-apples,” said Jennifer Amigone, director of research, assessment and evaluation for the district. “We got a lot of questions about this.”

The comparison with urban districts will only became available to the public Friday at the earliest, school officials said.

Until then, in results among 16 benchmarks across five groups in a 2023-2024 District/School Climate Survey open from Nov. 27 to Dec. 15, the district doesn’t hit the highest quintile in a single one as compared with 2,000 districts nationwide. And in only a single benchmark – the sense of belonging of students in grades 3-5 – does the district land in the second-highest. (For students in grades 6-12, the sense of school belonging plunges to the lowest quintile.)

Responses from district educators, administrators and staff expressed the most misery. They were stuck in the lowest quintile, or compared with others nationally from zero to the 19th percentile – unless somehow they rise when corrected to compared CPS with only fellow urban districts.

The degree to which the “urban” setting made a difference was hard to discern in the two-hour session at the high school’s Media Cafe.

It was only after the town hall, when attendees were packing up, that superintendent Victoria Greer made the importance clear, and that was in a one-on-one conversation: “If we set it to urban, the percentiles are much higher [across the benchmarks]. When we set it on urban, actually, we’re in the top percentiles.”

Slow start

The value of the urban comparison was neither described on the district’s “Assessment & Accountability” webpage or in the reports linked to from the page, and on Monday there was no clear announcement.

It was mentioned a few times during the town hall. After being described as starting at 6 p.m., though, attendees in person and online weren’t called to attention until 6:15 p.m., and it was only at 6:30 p.m. that Greer led the town hall through a tone-setting “welcome ritual.” The three groups of material for staff, families and student were each supposed to get “private time” to consider results and quiet discussion among the cafe’s round tables, and the first did. So by the end of the first group, at around 7:20 p.m., Amigone announced that “We’re realizing we’re really running behind time.”

There were questions about the urban comparisons, including from some of the four School Committee members present – Elizabeth Hudson, Caroline Hunter, José Luis Rojas Villarreal and David Weinstein – and former city councillor and mayor Anthony Galluccio. But many questions were met with responses that the information wasn’t immediately available, including one about which Massachusetts or national districts made for the most direct comparisons. “This isn’t research with a capital R, this is kind of getting a pulse for what’s happening across our district,” Amigone said to some of the more specific questions heard by officials. Several questions were answered with remarks that they would be addressed with materials in the near future, including the ability to see responses broken down by school and by the elementary, upper and high school grade tiers.

“Deeply concerned”

Some of the biggest disparities between positive and negative responses – what the district described as “glow” and “grow” – were with students getting Individualized Education Program services, such as those with learning disabilities. That too would be explored further, the district said.

Galluccio, who continues to interact with high schoolers as a sports coach, said he found the feedback “glaring“ and came out of the town hall “deeply concerned.”

“If a staff member doesn’t feel connected to their community or other adults, or doesn’t feel coached, we’re going to lose teachers. They’re going to burn out or feel more exhausted,” Galluccio said.

Greece replied that the district had taken steps to work with the various groups, including the unhappiest educators, administrators and staff. “We have lots of ideas as district administration, but it’s really through our partnerships” that we can address concerns raised by the survey, she said.

Software doesn’t allow comparison

The comparison to other urban districts wasn’t prioritized in part because of the software used for the survey, which is run by a company called Panorama, Amigone said. The release of a report that compares CPS with all 2,000 other districts was because “Panorama can’t generate a report that holds just that urban percentile.” 

“I’ve asked them to set it, and they can’t,” Amigone said, “and so it just defaults to everyone.”

A director at Panorama, Stephanie Reynolds, confirmed the problem in a Tuesday email, agreeing that although results can be filtered online, a “default PDF report benchmarking comparison cannot be customized for individual districts.” That means a document sent out by the district could have shown grimmer results than necessary, and without notice or explanation.

No principals attended the town hall, which drew perhaps a couple of dozen attendees in addition to many district staffers.