Bill Forster, retired Cambridge teacher, taught for 34 years in Cambridge. I was the Principal's Assistant at the Morse School during the time when it improved from the second least chosen school to the second most chosen school, where its MCAS scores for a needy population were some of the best in the state, where discipline cases and incidences of bullying were the lowest in the city. We were able to go for years without a single suspension. As a professional educator I know the fine points of budgeting, contracts, demographics, and our state laws as they work in a school setting. I know the difference between theory and practice. I know what works from over 40 years of teaching. I know the Cambridge Public Schools in detail, and I can provide the history of the decisions that were made to bring us to where we are today.
[A] Recruit families to the public schools.
[B] Allow parents to choose the schools and programs they feel match their child's needs.
[C] Institute a program to change 'the culture of failure' that some communities perpetuate from generation to generation.
If we do not improve student numbers we are always going to be chasing our tails, and consolidating schools. Cambridge's public school population over the decades has been on the decline. We have a fine educational system, but too many families do not know how good we are. They are afraid to place their children in what they think is an inferior school system. We need to institute a recruitment program that brings these families back. It can be done.
In my last two years, I worked in the central office. One of my assignments at that time was to be a member of 'The Recruitment Team', which was instrumental in bringing a couple of hundred middle class families back to the public schools. When the superintendent left and three key members of the team retired the recruitment program was lost. I would like to bring that program back. We need to use our popular programs to bring families back. "Allow the programs that work to grow."
The Quality of The Cambridge Schools - Comparing Apples and Oranges
Cambridge spends a great deal of money on education. We are an inner-city school system producing results comparable to the best-funded private schools, and the best funded suburban schools. We are not alone in our level of funding, many municipalities spend the same amount of money, but they hide a lot of the cost of their school system in the budgets of other departments. For instance in a town's budget which department pays to maintain fields, swimming pools, and libraries. If a toilet backs up, what department pays the plumber? So when people try to compare finances they are comparing apples and oranges. Trying to make value judgments as to whether Cambridge is getting value for its money is a complicated process. It is foolish just to compare test scores to total budgets and make statements about the quality of the Cambridge Schools.
Disposition of Surplus Buildings
I believe this city should never sell a building. The population of Cambridge will some day increase and those buildings will be needed again. There is very little open land in this densely developed city; to replace the properties that would be lost would be extremely expensive. I would rather have them temporarily rented, or demolished for parkland.
The Innovation Agenda
The Innovation Agenda is making the best of realities that need to be faced. It could use some tweaking, but as a whole it solves a number of very difficult situations. The most successful programs need to be supported and allowed to grow. Parent choice must be respected, and we must do more to challenge our gifted and talented students. In addition we have to do a better job of transitioning all of our students.
Controlled Choice, Student Assignment Policies
We need more choice and less control. The controlled choice policy needs to be reevaluated in terms of our new student demographics.
The "Achievement Gap"
To lessen the achievement gap we need to change the educational culture of the under achieving groups. The circle of poverty is difficult to break without changing the value system of the individuals. I would like to face realities and make the changes that will produce the social and economic equality we say we value.
Enrichment Programs, pre-school, parenting classes, tutoring, honors classes,
after-school opportunities, summer school, longer school day, and longer school year
The Second law of learning says: "Quality time on task produces effect". All of the above programs will help students learn and retain, but are we as a city willing to pay the added cost for these programs? There are no free lunches. Which programs are the most effective? What is the best balance for what we can afford?
Do we do enough for the academically talented?
"NO", they are probably the least served group in the system. They give back the most, after having received the least.
Do we need to preserve and grow programs that challenge our best students?
Yes, these programs are what will lift families out of poverty and will attract middle class families to the public schools. This is an example of you get what you pay for.
Enrollment and the Marketing of Public Schools vs. Charter Schools and Private Schools
Advertising works. Companies and private schools spend huge amounts of money to market their product. Public schools need to do the same.
Elementary Schools and Curriculum
Unfortunately, we have to put the cart before the horse, and design our curricula around the MCAS. I believe in testing, but think the MCAS must go as the only source of determining a student's success.
High School Programs and Curriculum
We need to reevaluate block scheduling and assess if the positives are greater than the negatives.
There is always going to be differences in style and ability among teachers. A school system does itself a disservice if it can not make room for these differences. Teachers are not 'Superman' and there are realistic limits to what we should expect. I always asked myself, "What could I do in that teacher's situation?"
We have the best cohort of professionals that has ever existed in the Cambridge public schools. They are the best educated, the healthiest, the most talented, and the most dedicated staff in Cambridge's history. When I applied for a job in the 60's the school department was desperate for teachers. I was offered six positions, many of which I was unqualified to teach. For instance, I was offered a position teaching Physics because I had one high school physics course. There are some jobs that are difficult to fill because industry and other school systems pay a lot better than Cambridge. This is not an excuse; it is reality.
Evaluation of teachers and principals is a requirement of state law. Evaluation is a necessary tool for support of professionals. There should be an ongoing professional dialogue between the evaluatee and the evaluator. The process of evaluation is still subject to collective bargaining and should be clear, consistent, fair, and well-defined for both administration and teachers. Professional respect is core to what should be a collaborative professional relationship.
Performance Measures, Contract Negotiations
In reality this is simple, just follow the old golden rule: "Treat people the way you want to be treated."
School Safety and Student Behavior
We have safe schools, we have always been ahead of the curve in accepting the new realities. We need to continue to assess our security system and make changes.
Parent Involvement and School Councils
I think that improved parent involvement and school councils are core to improving our school culture. We say we give buildings the independence to govern themselves, but the School Committee through the superintendent still controls all the big decisions. I understand and accept the role of the school committee to determine policy and expect the superintendent to put those policies into action district wide. However, I would like to have greater clarity about what 'building governance' really means.