I am calling shenanigans

Oh I have so many questions. I have been looking at test scores today, I went back to 2003, it was very dperessing and an exercise in frustration, it did not show me anything new, it merely confirmed what i already had already learned about the schools in Salem. It confirmed that things are seriously amiss in the Witch City and as for who is to blame for this? Well there is plenty of blame to go around. But before I get to the scores, I agree with many educators in that these tests are not often an adequate representation of child’s ability, and as one researcher put it, the MCAS is often a better indicator of a district’s socioeconomic status. But sadly these socres are what I have to go on, so I am pretty stuck right now.

One thing I have heard over and over is that the issues we are seeing in the Salem schools are all the fault of the last mayor – the guy who left office in 2006. This punting of blame to the old guy has got to stop, and our current mayor Ms. Kim Driscoll has to stand up and take some accountability for this mess. The school committee also has to shoulder a huge chunk of blame here, (although I am going to exclude Patrick Schultz and Rachel Hunt from this as they truly are brand new to the job) as does the superintendant. Interestingly as far as the actual school committee goes I am going to dump a whole lot of blame on the doorsteps of Dr. Brendan Walsh and Mr. James Fleming as the longest sitting members. Yet I am hearing no accountability from any of these people. My understanding is that Mr. Fleming spends a great deal of time in Florida and is often absent from meetings, Dr. Walsh while always present is oftentimes very polarizing, I am not quite sure what to say about Dr. Russell the superintendant just that he hasn’t done anything since taking up the position in 2011. Mayor Driscoll’s focus seems to be developers and tourism, and making sure everyone thinks Salem is happy and smiley (please check her Facebook page for the latest posts on the sunshine and unicorns in Salem!).

But I digress, back to the scores. I have only looked at Grade 4 English Language Arts so far, so will comment on this area for now.

  • In 2003 the average number of children testing proficient or higher was 46% and currently stands at 39%
  • In 2003 the average number of children testing as “needs improvement” was 42% and currently stands at 39%
  • In 2003 the average number children testing as “warning/failing” was 13% in currently stands at 22% 

When you actually graph this data you can see that although there was a spike in proficiency in 2007, this seems to have been a statistical anomaly and the number of kids in this group has stayed relatively stable over time as has the “needs improvement” cohort. The failing cohort however is the most concerning as that has just continues to slowly increase over time. A quarter of our children should not be failing 4th Grade English.

Why are more children scoring so low on the tests? Have the tests changed and become more difficult? Are the scores required to meet each requirement changing therefore making it actually harder to pass? Are we not preparing our teachers adequately to teach? Are our children not understanding the material? Are families and kids so disengaged that school has just become a babysitter? Are parents just too busy to sit down and help their kids with their homework? Are the tests fundamentally flawed? I think the answer is likely all of the above, but there has been no motivation from those charged to govern our schools to do anything about this. I know we have been shifting programs around and therefore shifting children around within the SPS and that really plays havoc with any meaningful data. Unfortunately this shifting of children and programs only seems to result in moving problems from one school to another.

So what of our erstwhile superintendent, Dr Russell who was brought in to much fanfare about how he was going to fix everything. Dr. Russell was hired in 2011. His only competition for the position of School Superintendent was Dr. Debra Bradley. Both applicants had very impressive credentials, Dr. Bradley is even a turnaround specialist known for increasing test scores in troubled districts, yet the position went to Dr. Russell for two reasons that I can ascertain

  • He is from MA
  • Dr. Bradley could not discuss why she had left her prior position due to a non-disclosure agreement – and this to the school committee equaled too many questions. 

A little bit of digging can give you a pretty good idea that Dr. Bradley left the Fontana District due to backlash over this:

“The claim by community and the Fontana Teachers Association that the Fontana District office staffing went unchecked resulted in Debra Bradley recommending to the Fontana District Board of Education that a management audit/management study be conducted to determine the accuracy of the claim. The management study resulted in a significant staff re-organization and a savings to the general fund and categorical fund budges of approximately $3 million, significantly reducing the $8.6 million deficit that confronted the district at the time. “

This is conjecture and a little conspiracy theory on my part but perhaps nobody wanted Dr. Bradley looking too closely at our books? Dr. Bradley also specialized in improving test scores through improvements in teaching and curriculum, and yet we hired a chap who isn’t even held accountable for the test scores in his evaluation. (Hell’s bells the he also wanted to bring in school uniforms and he hasn’t even managed that.)

Why would Salem not want someone looking too closely at their books? I have some thoughts- and again I point out that this is pure conjecture.

Title 1
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, to be an eligible Title I school, at least 40% of a school’s students must be from low-income families who qualify under the United States Census’s definition of low-income, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Remember that 40% figure, it is important.
Now let’s take a look at Salem’s schools….

  • Bates – Title 1
  • Bentley – Title 1
  • Carlton – Title 1
  • Horace Mann – Title 1
  • Nathaniel Bowditch – Title 1
  • Saltonstall – Title 1
  • Witchcraft Heights – not Title 1 

That, as my sister-law pointed out is whole lot of Title 1 schools. I, however ran the numbers.
The total district wide percentage for students classified as low income (and most schools calculate this using the numbers of students requiring free or reduced lunch) was 55.9% in 2013, but when you look at the individual schools it is a little different.

  • Bates – RFL – 51.6%
  • Bentley – RFL – 71.4%
  • Carlton – RFL – 74.2%
  • Horace Mann – RFL – 63%
  • Nathaniel Bowditch – RFL – 60.2%
  • Saltonstall – RFL – 38.5%
  • Witchcraft Heights – RFL – 35.8% 

We have already established that Witchcraft Height is not a Title 1 school, so let’s ignore that one and ask this question about the remaining schools. “Which one of these is not like the others?”

Yes, Saltonstall has been designated a Title 1 school for as many years as the program has been available. What is particularly interesting is that between 1998 and 2013 the RFL population never met or exceeded 40%. It only became eligible in 2014 when the RFL population wnet up to all of 41.8%. So for shaky numbers I am calling shenaningans. And shenanigans that people might not want to address.

The Budget – (AKA the only place for creativity in SPS)
There seems to be some degree of creative bookkeeping. After all the school committee is responisble for it’s own budget, the city council only approves the total amount of money allocated. The school committee can then spend the money as they please and the city has no say in it. I am very interested to know what input Madam Mayor has in the school budget given that she is the chair of the school committee. I am not sure if it is just me but I do find that to be a huge conflict of interest. In the most recent budget there have been suggestions of cutting math coaches and special education teachers, I am sorry but when the school district is in such poor shape and our test scores are continuing a slow inexorable decline into disaster does cutting teachers seem like a good idea? But then this is the school committee that voted to end the only year round program in the city, so just as cutting learning time will benefit test scores it appears that cutting teachers will do the same. As I already mentioned the district does like to move programs around, and all that does is alter the numbers, mess with the test scores and spread the misery.

I don’t know what to do. Next week there is a community meeting at Nathaniel Bowditch, ostensibly to discuss their impending doom in regards to test scores and I am guessing their likely decline to Level 4. The school committee wants to assign another assistant principal, and throw $200,000 at the problem – but that $200,000 has to come from somewhere else in the budget, so something else gets axed, and as I have already said the misery spreads. Let’s cut special education teachers at Carlton….okay lets do that and see how they fair in the next round of testing when they are already struggling. 

I shrug and wonder how to address all of this to the school committee without being vilified for insulting Dr. Walsh, for making Mr. Fleming actually pay attention and turn up and sin of all sins for popping Mayor Driscoll’s bubble about how fantastic everything is in Salem.

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