Quality, equitable education for all our children is a laudable goal. It usually turns up as one of the top three priorities on everyone’s list. We know that educating our children, beginning with early education, is good for our children, our communities, our economy…good for all of us.
In Cambridge, it seems, not all children are receiving the same level of education.
For years, the number-one issue in the Cambridge system — where nearly 65 percent of the students are minorities, despite a citywide population that is about 70 percent white — has been the achievement gap. Cambridge spends upward of $25,000 per student annually, more than any other municipality in the state, but the system’s MCAS scores trail state averages, with minority students lagging especially far behind their white peers in the district. [Boston Magazine]
However, concerns about educating students were expressed in different terms.
Superintendent Dr. Fowler Finn and the Cambridge School Committee heard concerns from a growing number of parents and staff regarding pressing issues with the middle school. Some of the concerns were about academic rigor, about varying degrees of student preparedness for CRLS from the elementary schools, about behavior, and about the need for additional opportunities for extra-curricula activities, teacher isolation, and the need for coordinated professional development and common planning time. [Cambridge Public School’s Blue Ribbon Commission Report]
Thus was the rationale for the Mayor and the School Committee to convene the Blue Ribbon Commission on Middle Schools in the Fall of 2007 to study district configuration, and/or grade structure of the Cambridge Public Schools and alternative existing approaches to middle grade education (i.e., how to better meet the academic and social needs of the middle school students). There are numerous reports available online documenting its listening and outreach efforts. [Cambridge Public School website]
The Commission issued its report in June 2008 but stopped short of a specific recommendation either to retain the current K-8 structure or to change it to a different model. That task was assigned to the newly hired Superintendent, Dr. Jeffrey Young.
Young’s preferred plan for the District was to establish a 450-student middle school, leaving 600 in the K-8 model. However, those plans were shelved until this year.
Not entirely going back to the drawing board on the issues of middle school youth, Young drew on previous research in the Blue Ribbon Commission Reports, input from various stakeholders, and community meetings in constructing a plan for a more qualitative and equitable way of educating the middle school children in the Cambridge Public Schools.
These articles provide a window into the process that Cambridge went through to get to the substantive decision of creating middle schools.
Listening & Outreach
This stark divide set up the reality Young faces today: a two-tiered system. Wealthy, middle-class parents know how to work it so that their kids get into the higher-performing schools, like Graham & Parks or Baldwin; the less-prosperous parents (who are often single and working multiple jobs) don’t. [Boston Magazine]
Young, who is from Newton, a place where the demographics are quite different from Cambridge, needed to get a better sense of Cambridge. One of the first things he did was to reach out to Charles Ogletree of Harvard Law School.
Essentially, Ogletree advised Young to go meet people where they live, and listen to what they had to say before he said too much himself. Meet them at the schools, fine, but also meet them in the churches, parks, and projects. “The most important thing I told him is he has to think differently about Cambridge, about how to establish a relationship with the community.” [Boston Magazine]
Young led the problem-solving on how to reform the middle school structure by asking the question “What do students in this age range need in their education—to help them develop as individuals and to prepare them for the next phase of their formal schooling?”
Young’s plan for a new middle school recommends turning some K–8 schools into K–5’s, while another option suggests that a handful of elementary schools may have to close. Some in the minority community fear their schools will be turned into K–5’s or shuttered while the high-performing, largely white K–8’s remain open. In this scenario, the new middle school would turn into a herding ground for black and Latino kids from the projects, further entrenching the segregation.
With those fears in mind, Young wanted his audience focused on one question: “What challenges and opportunities exist for educating all of our students? Once again, let me emphasize that word: ‘all.’” To move the school system forward, the race and class division must be faced head-on, he said. “Let’s not pretend it doesn’t exist.” [Boston Magazine]
Civic Engagement on Research
Recent studies of middle school achievement back up Waters’ argument. Looking at New York’s middle schools, economist Jonah Rockoff of Columbia University found they are less effective at educating adolescents.
Because of research like this, many urban districts, including Boston, are moving away from middle schools. But they work well in many suburban communities, including Sudbury, North Andover and Newton, where Cambridge Superintendent Young used to run the district. Now, he argues, middle schools will work in Cambridge.
Young says Cambridge would be taking a “well-considered risk.” If the school committee passes his plan, the superintendent says the district will see a reduction in the achievement gap in five years. [WBUR]
A parent notes that the Middle Grade Task Force did not include leading research that was critical of the 6-8 middle school structure or focus their best practice literature review on the specific challenges facing the Cambridge Public Schools.
Two schools’ representatives, from high-performing schools, presented staff petitions stating their concern that the “…plan is presented as ‘best practice’ for adolescents when we know there is compelling research that supports rigorous JK-8 as the most effective structure for students who are most at risk…There will be the social anxieties and negative behaviors that come with middle schools. We worry that much of our energies will be on ameliorating these dynamics rather than on developing and supporting rigorous curriculum.” Another teacher weighed
in about the references to “best practices” of Humanities and Portfolio Review Panels, to name two specifics, in both the printed documents and public statements from the Superintendent. “Allegedly, these are promising ideas to be explored after the vote has passed. But nobody from central office or the cabinet has come to ask us at Graham & Parks about these programs that our teachers have developed and refined over more than 20 years.
Civic Engagement – School Committee Hearings
Young first presented the original Innovation Agenda plan at a Feb. 1 School Committee meeting. In an attempt to improve education of the middle-school-aged students, that plan called for the creation of four upper school campuses for grades six through eight. [Cambridge Chronicle]
[School Committee member] Patty Nolan was only the first to speak with her new round of concerns, after Young’s already seemingly ceaseless series of community meetings throughout February. Even Tuesday’s roundtable went beyond 9 p.m., extended slightly more than an hour from the intended end, so committee members could get a rushed second round of questions and comments. [Cambridge Day]
But the community is still torn, and there are still many unanswered questions, [School Committee member Patty] Nolan said, starting with how the plan closes the district’s achievement gap. A request for outside experts and examples to follow has gone unfulfilled, she said.
“People say we’ve talked a lot about this for years and it’s time to act, but we didn’t really talk about this plan until Feb. 1, and the actual plan we’re voting on was presented a week ago,” she said. “The financial aspects are still not known, and that’s huge. If we need to increase our budget by $1 million, we’re going to have to make cuts.”
She isn’t the only person bothered by the agenda’s lack of detail on implementation… [Cambridge Day]
Many noted that the plan was lacking in education programmatic details. One parent stated in his testimony, the Superintendent used the metaphor of a bus heading into the fog to describe his plan. It’s a vivid description that’s not very comforting to parents looking for assurances of positive educational changes for their children.
On March 14th, the evening before the School Committee members were to make the decision, with standing room only available, many people signed in to testify. One after the other gave passionate testimony, for or against the Innovation Agenda. It really depended upon which school their children currently attend. If children attend a high performing school, typically the parents advocated for defeating the Innovation Agenda, and vice versa. Teachers in high performing schools typically advocated for defeating the Innovation Agenda.
One teacher stated in his testimony,
“As a Graham & Parks teacher, I am being asked to give up all that I know and love about this place, all that has been build for over 40 years. Even though we know what it takes to build a strong program, even though many in the city recognize ours as the most successful middle school model in the city, I am being asked to trade proven success for an unknown plan, a plan with no precedent or evidence to convince me it will improve the education of our children. I know much will be lost if the Innovation Agenda passes. After years of teaching Graham & Parks students about justice and dissent and watching them grapple with the dilemmas of when and how to stand up to a wrong, I simply cannot stand by and watch the destruction of our K-8 school. If you believe in our school and our mission, please stand up for what we know and demand to be heard.”
Action & Expectations
The Cambridge School Committee approved a plan Tuesday to consolidate most of the city’s 6th through 8th grade students into four school buildings.
The transformation will be undertaken to address disparities in class size, resources and training for 6th through 8th grade teachers in Cambridge schools.
Some district schools house dramatically higher percentages of low-income students and minorities and the number of students in the 6th through 8th grades varies widely from one school to another.
Young has said the uneven distribution of students and resources in the schools has been hindering success.
The report which details the Superintendent’s recommendation options and preferred option can be found at the following link.
Committee member Nancy Tauber said that Young’s willingness to listen made her likely to trust him with filling in the details of the plan. “Although all of my concerns have not been addressed, I believe that the superintendent and his team have proven that they are committed to listen, work hard and be flexible to meet the needs of this community,” she said.
And Committee Member Richard Harding cautioned Young that they would make sure that he followed through on that commitment. “Unless you run and run fast, we’re going to hold you accountable in ways you may have never seen in your long experience in education,” Harding said. “Because we have a lot riding on this.” [Cambridge Chronicle]
Letter sent by School Committee member Marc McGovern after his vote on the Innovation Agenda:
I know that this vote is very difficult for many. Some communities hunger for change, while others, who have built successful and wonderful programs over the years, are feeling a profound and painful loss. Please know that my colleagues and I respect and empathize with those feelings. It is what made this decision so heart wrenching. But I am confident that in this new structure we will build a district even stronger than before. A district where we can finally assure parents that no matter where their child attends school he/she will be prepared at high levels and be taught the skills and knowledge he/she will need to be successful in our every advancing world. [Cambridge Chronicle]
This certainly isn’t the end for this issue.
Racial disparity in the public schools has been a long term problem in Cambridge. How did this social change process feel for the families, teachers, elected officials? This wasn’t a grassroots civics engagement effort for social change. Should it be when the issue is racial inequity in education? The lesson is that it’s the elected officials’ job to listen to everybody, consider the research, and make the decisions on social justice issues as best they can. It’s not a matter of which constituency has the loudest voice. In the end, it’s about all children receiving high quality education, regardless of which school they attend.
Cambridge residents will be watching to see if the Innovation Agenda addresses the racial disparity and quality of education problem in the Cambridge Public Schools and closes the achievement gap that has been a high priority for Cambridge for so long.