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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My Dream CUrriculum

I guess this is a mini manfiesto – a minifesto if you like!

I have been thinking about what I would truly love Poppy’s school curriculum to look like and this is what I have come up with. I purposefully did not include mandatory PE at this point figuring we have decent breaks and a decent lunch break.

09.10am School Assembly

09.30am: English – so reading and writing!

10.30am Break-time

10.45am: Maths

11.45am : History/Geography (M), French (T), History/Geography (Wed), French (Th), History/Geography (Fri)

12.15pm: Lunch

13.30pm: Afternoon Registration

13.35pm: Art (M), Music (T), Art (Wed), Music (Th), Art (Fri)

14.45pm Break-time

15.00pm: Science

15.30pm End of school day

I have this vision of tying lessons together. So for example if it was the Arctic in geography we would talk about ice/snow/cold and cold climate animals in science. Let’s build a winter scene in art!! Music and French could link together or French and Art. The English class could be half devoted to writing and half to reading. And Hisotry automatically involves reading – and I would love to start with the Greeks and Romans so you could do all the mythology – and think how that could tie into art and science? Let’s build a Trojan horse! Let’s build a labyrinth! I know this is likely unrealisitc but a girl is allowed to dream right?

My Eduation (and some background on England and Eduction)

What has been especially hard is that I do not really understand the American system, it just baffles me. I don’t understand why it starts so late, or that there is so much variation in curricula, that foreign languages are an afterthought, and that schools can actually be allowed to edit text books and teach that creationism is fact and evolution a ‘theory”

I am very aware that I am viewing my education through a distance of more years than I care to document, and that my memories of my education are mostly positive. England has gone through remarkable changes since I left school at 18. Just like in the USA there is a huge government focus on testing and assessment, and on schools being graded in relation to their test scores. The system I went through has changed as to pretty unrecognizable to me today. There are academies that have received much of the same criticism regarding “privatization by the back door.”More recently the much reviled (and rightly so) coalition government, and in particular Michael Gove have permitted the establishment of so-called “free schools” which are very similar to US charter schools, however in England many requests to open “free schools” have come from faith based organizations, and while Michael Gove has said that no extremist groups will be permitted to open a school, this remains a very genuine concern with England. There are many unhappy teachers in the UK as curricula seem to be ever changing, and teacher performance has been tied to student performance. This all being said however, I find the detail and knowledge required in the UK exams to be far more rigorous than I have seen in US public schools.

I am a summer baby so I started school when I just 4. Yes you read that correctly I was just 4 when I started full time “infants” school. I have fond memories of the reading scheme, of times tables, of learning to write stories, of the dress up box and play houses. My headmistress was Miss Gent; she seemed very old and very stern. After infants it was “junior school” from 7 to 11, where I remember classroom plays, finishing the reading scheme, moths (I was not very good at moths so I am sure if any of my teachers saw me plowing through all these stats now they would be amazed), writing stories, lessons in penmanship (imagine that – we wrote with fountain pens), music lessons, choir, orchestra. I remember history going as far back as the Greeks and Romans. There was art and PE. I remember Mr. Clarke and Mr. Barber, and our head teacher Mr. Jardine. And then I was off to the “big school”

From 11 through 16 I went to “seniors” and shit got real. Moths, English language and literature, French, World Studies, Science, PE, music, art, graphics and even RE. In second year I added German, and at some point World Studies became History and geography and Science became Biology, Physics and Chemistry. I flirted with the saxophone and double bass, and was in every conceivable school play. I followed this path until my 3rd year when we sat our “options” the exams we take to help decide what subjects we would take for the final 2 years. We had to write short essays on these exams, there was not that much multiple choice as I remember. For my final two years I took French, German, Latin, English Language, English Literature, History, Moths, Chemistry and Biology. And oh my those exams….we had to be able to sight translate, we read Ovid in Latin, we read Shakespeare, the World War 1 poets and Thomas Hardy in literature, we dissected things, we may have blown a few things up, we wrote essays on the French Revolution and innumerous wars. We still took PE by the way – there was no escape from cross country runs in the rain and field hockey!

After “seniors” it was off to Sixth Form College for 2 years and further specialization with “A” levels. This is where things become pretty specialized, and you tend to select your “A” levels based on your “O” level results and what you plan to do after college. I was blessed in that since I knew I wanted to be a nurse I only had to repeat my biology to get my grade up, so the “A” levels I selected were for interest only. So there were 2 more years of French, and English lit, plus some “general studies” and a random “O” level in Home Economics.

I did try to attach some links to some “O” and “A” level exam papers so that you can take a look but in my novice blogger status i am having ahard time with the links…If you are interested I recommend checking out the following website:
htts://www.aqa.org.uk

Salem Puclic Schools – Part One – Demographics

As I write this, I fear I am dooming my child to a school assignment in the janitor’s closet. Why do I feel this way? Because living in Salem I have learned that to rock the boat and to speak out against anyone in public office can make your life really quite difficult and unpleasant. The ranks close and small town attitudes take over. Those of us who “moved in” and who are not afraid to speak out are shunned. Instead of teenagers pointing fingers and whispering “witch” we face an entrenched population saying “how dare you criticize us? How dare you ask for more?”

I am the mother of a very bright 4 year old, and since her infancy I have been following the state of the Massachusetts educational system. We moved to Salem because we genuinely liked the community, we liked the low crime, and we liked the quiet. And then we watched the slow inexorable slide of the schools into the disaster that they are today. We have watched the failure of Bentley and the endless finger pointing that has followed. Parents are to blame, teachers are to blame, the MCAS is to blame, poverty is to blame, and minorities are to blame. There seems to be plenty of blame to go around, and yet there the one thing we have never heard is accountability. The school committee has not stood up and said “We did not do enough to stop this,” the Mayor for all her lip service has not made education a priority, she has chosen instead to focus on developers and the tourist economy, and while I acknowledge that you inherited a mess, you sir have done nothing to improve the plight of our schools. I am not writing this as an emotional reaction, I have sat down and talked to parents, and I have spent hours going over the enrollment data and MCAS scores for the past decade. It has made for very interesting reading. The conclusion I have come to is that things are very wrong in Salem. So wrong that I honestly do not know how they can ever be repaired.

Before we get to the data, I am a huge proponent of public education. I firmly believe that education should be free, of a very high standard, available and equitable to all. I think that teachers should be allowed to teach, so that the young minds they are shaping are able to develop critical thinking skills, and a deep understanding of the material they are studying. Our children should be taught to question, and to challenge. They should be allowed to create and grow as human beings. They should be exposed to music, art and foreign languages from a young age, as I hope you know there is a plethora of research that shows that children exposed to music, art and languages excel in other fields such as math and science. Sadly I do not see this happening in the Salem School District. I looked at the new Bentley curriculum proposed by Blueprint – there is no time for art and music. Other schools have art once a week, and music teachers are basically itinerant going from school to school. I have heard from parents about how everything stops for MCAS test prep – full days of math before the math test, full days of writing before the ELA tests. If our children were being properly educated then test preparation of this intensity would not be required, there would be a process of continual readiness. Cramming like this only sets up poor study habits, and creates resentment and boredom.

But now to the state of the schools overall and some of the statistics I looked at were very concerning to me as a parent, and as someone who believes in equality in education. The district’s own assignment policy states:

Rationale: When a school’s student composition becomes socioeconomically imbalanced in contrast to other schools in the District, that school’s environment and educational opportunities also become imbalanced, contributing to educational inequality. It is well-documented that students learn from each other as well as from teachers and other adults. Interaction with students from different backgrounds and abilities is a powerful tool for advancing student learning and performance as well as preparation to live in the larger world.

So with this policy in mind how can the district explain the following statistics in regards to low income student enrollment based on data from 2011 to the present day:

 

2011

2012

2013

2014

Bates

59.7

61.2

51.6

61

Bentley

76

74.8

71.4

75.3

Carlton

72.2

74.6

74.2

70.3

Horace Mann

44.1

56.8

63

62.2

Nathaniel Bowditch

64.3

66

60.2

62.2

Saltonstall

36.7

36.7

38.5

41.8

Witchcraft Heights

30.4

32.4

35.8

38.6

The difference between FRL enrollments in the schools is in direct contradiction of your own policy. How was the FRL population at Horace Mann for example allowed to increase by 18.1% while Witchcraft Heights and Saltonstall have remained so stable? Why are there between 36 percentage points difference between Witchcraft Heights and Bentley? Why when you convert the percentages back into numbers are there only 84 children considered RFL at Saltonstall versus 219 at Bentley? Actually why are the numbers of FRL students so low at Saltonstall overall? The Witchcraft Heights numbers seems reasonable when compared to the other schools until you factor in the size of the population at Witchcraft (493 total enrollment).

If you then look at enrollment by race and ethnicity how were the schools permitted to become so unbalanced? Out of a school population of 300 only 78 children who are identified at Hispanic/Latino are assigned to Bates, yet Horace Mann and Bentley which are of comparable size have Hispanic populations of 120 and 128 respectively. Saltonstall again shows limited diversity with 361 students enrolled and only 90 students are Hispanic. Out of the two largest schools Witchcraft Heights and Nathaniel Bowditch (493/569) are even more disparate with only 108 Hispanic students at Witchcraft and 335 at Bowditch? If you walk around the neighborhoods in Salem you will see that these numbers do not reflect the neighborhood demographics. I have heard the local myth that the reason for low Hispanic enrollment at Saltonstall was the year round calendar, and that Hispanic families did not like that because “they like to go home for a month in the summer.” This is nothing more than a myth that has obviously been perpetuated throughout the district, especially when you look at the statistics going as far back as 1996. The Hispanic population at Saltonstall has remained incredibly stable, and the only dips in Hispanic enrollment have occurred during periods where there was a decrease in the overall Hispanic enrollment in the district.