Tag Archives: MCAS

An Open Letter to the Salem School Committee

I plan to read this aloud at the next school committee meeting:

I feel very strongly that the district has turned its back on the moral implications if not yet the legal ramifications of the Brown v. The Board of Education decision. I believe that what we are seeing today in Salem is closer to what was addressed in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the court accepted segregated institutions for black people, stipulating only that they must be equal to those open to white people. While in Salem our African American children are equally represented in our schools, it is our low income, our Hispanic and our English language learners who are not. Our children who are waitlisted and asked to make 5 minute decisions about attending another school are not. Yet it would appear that this systemic duality has been unquestioned for years.

One only needs to look at the enrollment statistics over time to realize that equity has never and likely will never be achieved. In this school year that is just ending there was reported low income population of 60% yet of this 60% only 9.8% was enrolled at Saltonstall, and 13.5% at Witchcraft Heights, yet 28.1% of the low income population was enrolled at the Bowditch School. And this is not an isolated occurrence; one needs only look at the enrollment data for the past 10 years. The low income enrollment at Saltonstall and Witchcraft Heights has actually declined, even in the face of an increasing low income population within the city. When you look at the numbers of Hispanic children, even allowing for the SEI program at the Bowditch, we see a similar pattern. In this school year there was a 37.1% reported Hispanic population in these schools yet only 9.8% were enrolled at Saltonstall, 8.9% were enrolled at Bates and 11.8% at Witchcraft Heights. While I acknowledge the “bump” at the Bowditch School related to the SEI program, when you look over the past 10 years the Bowditch school has always had over a quarter of our Hispanic population, with Bentley following a close second. How can you talk about equity and balancing the schools, yet tell parents that their child may not be allowed the choice granted to others because they do not meet the demographic requirements? How can the district say there is not a two-tiered system in Salem, when the numbers quite obviously show that there is? We may have equal funding in our schools, but equal funding for unequal needs is not equality.

We speak loftily of restructuring, but all I have been able to ascertain about restructuring in the SPS is the moving of the same old furniture around the same old house and calling it new. The SEI program was set up without the necessary supports in place for it to function adequately in a school that was ignored even while parents were raising red flags about issues in the school. There was no thought to how the move of over 100 students with limited English proficiency would impact the school. The move of this population coincided with a dramatic increase in the number of RFL student in the school. The Bentley and Bowditch schools have been allowed to flounder, have been allowed to become so unbalanced and sadly underperforming that there may be no recovery possible. Letting them go “charter” is a very convenient way to divest yourselves of the problem schools, and avoid any further black marks on current and future political careers.

The failure of our schools has gone on for too long, and the remedy must be systemic, not a band aid here, and a finger in the leaking dike there. It is not working. The 2011 DESE report detailed dramatically the failings of this school district, and after reading this report, and doing a very detailed review of all the statistics myself I cannot see where things have changed. When Bowditch parents come before this committee and voice concerns about a culture of disrespect within that school, one has to ask “Is this coming from the top?”And I am afraid that to a certain extent it is. It is all too easy say this comes from societal issues such as inter-family and community violence, from drugs, from any other issues that plague our less well off neighborhoods, but if that respect is not coming from the top then how can we expect our children to show respect? Is it respectful to a child to pull a teacher out of class for a meeting? Is it respectful to leave a school without leadership for years? Is it respectful to expect a family to put their life on hold while waiting for a Kindergarten assignment? Is it respectful to cause undue anxiety to these children and their parents while they are forced to wait? Is it respectful to change agendas at the last minutes and then discuss plans for the future of an entire school without a single parent present? Is it respectful to tell parents that the focus of the district is test scores and that maybe their children would be better off elsewhere?

In the education catch-up game we are entrapped by teaching to the tests. We are currently a district that has made a conscious decision to abandon the practice of educating the “whole child” in the drive for “academic rigor” and improved test scores. When test scores become the primary focus of the system, we are left with children who are not educated; they are trained to be test-taking machines. By stopping the curriculum in favor of test preparation we are robbing our children of the right to be engaged, the right to learn to think independently, and we are robbing them of the right to an education. Our underperforming schools feel this pressure more intensely, and the trickledown effect from the SC and administrators, impacts teachers who are so anxious about their student’s performance it impacts their effectiveness as a teacher, and do not for one second think that the older children do not have some comprehension of their status as students at “a bad school” Have you stopped to think for one second what 30 days of testing in the academic year takes away education? How these children are in a constant cycle of test preparation. Our neighboring districts do not have this endless test cycle and their scores are higher, their children are learning, and if children are being taught the material in meaningful ways endless test prep and endless testing should not be needed. How important to society are flexible, imaginative and inventive citizens? I cannot even guess, and if we continue down this road in Salem we may never know. We will have generation of children qualified to work in the tourist industry, which is seemingly the only industry that matters in Salem.

To assume that parents are not paying attention and making choices based on the data is shortsighted. We are not going to take the advice of a “Tips for Parents” document that was lazily adapted from another district, a document that tells us not to look at test scores, when in fact we are constantly reminded that test scores are all that matters to the district. A document that tells us not to listen to “playground talk” when there is such a lack of transparency from the school committee that we have no choice but to get our information from other more reliable sources. Does the committee not understand that many parents visit the schools prior to enrolling their children, so we can see the glaring differences in educational practices? We can see that the teaching and the curricula between the schools are not equal and consistent and when we select our three choices we are doing it based on what we have seen and what we have learned. We can see which schools have more engaging curricula and which have been left to rot. To assume that we are not going to wonder what kind of system we are putting our children in to when a piece written by the superintendent is littered with spelling and grammar errors, reads more like tourist information brochure than a reason to believe in our schools. Those of us who chose to educate our children outside of the district are not being disloyal, we are being parents, and we are doing what is best for our children. Maybe, when the school committee starts doing its job then we will reconsider.

Testing, testing, one, two, three

I came across this testing schedule during some of my ongoing research and it doesn’t really make that much sense to me. I have heard that ANet is an indicator as to how well children will do on the MCAS, and also that is the tests that are used to assess ability throughout the year. So I sat down and rather laboriously counted out the number of days that our children are in school over the academic year, and then I finally tracked down the entire testing schedule and came up with some numbers..

In the USA in general the academic year runs for between 170 and 186 days with the average being 180 days.

When we compare this to some other countries you can see that our children are getting less education than some other countries:
Mexico: 200 days
South Africa: 200 days
Japan: 200 days
Brazil: 200 days
Netherlands: 200 days
UK: 195 days
Finland: 190 days

In Salem there are 175.5 days in the school year broken down as follows:

September: 18.5 days
October: 21.5 days
November 16.5 days
December 14.5 days
January: 20 days
February: 14.5 days
March: 20.5 days
April: 15.5 days
May 20.5 days
June: 13.5 days

But how many of those days are “instructional days?” and how many are testing days? Let’s face it we love standardized testing. A disclaimer I am not including BAS, K/1 Inventory, SRI, Access testing or the Math mid-year and end of year common assessment (for K-1). Oh yes…we test our Kindergarteners here in MA

October
21.5 days of class time
6 days of testing for ELA and Math ANet

December
14.5 days of class time
6 days of testing for ELA and Math ANet

February
14.5 days of class time
6 days of testing for ELA and Math ANet

March
20.5 days of class time
4 days of testing for ELA MCAS

April
15.5 days of class time
3 days of testing for Math ANet

May
20.5 days of class time
4 days of testing for Math MCAS
2 days of testing for STE MCAS
3 days of testing for ELA Anet

I looked at the school calendars and 24 school days are taken up with Anet testing. When we figure in the days spent doing the MCAS it is as follows
Grade 3 – 28 days total
Grade 4 – 29 days total
Grade 5 – 30 days total

This of course does not take into consideration the shifting of class schedules to accomadate test prepartion, and there are horror stories.

“We moved here from PA to MA in the summer of 2012 so that my husband, a first year teacher could accept a position in Salem. We could not find housing in Salem in the short amount of time we had before school started, so we ended up in a neighboring district for our first year in Massachusetts. We wanted to be in Salem, so we knew it would be temporary. After our first year, we made the move to Salem and enrolled our boys at the school where my husband was teaching My husband had some concerns about the educational model at the school but knowing his first year as a teacher was their first year using this model he figured they’d work out the kinks and that the second year would be better.

The beginning half of the year was ok. I felt it was a much narrower education than the one they received in the neighboring district but nothing I didn’t feel I could supplement at home. Then February break came and went, and the entire structure of the school day changed. Time was taken away from reading and math in order to drill writing. Writing to prompts, writing essays, writing open responses from mid Feb until April. They did so much writing that my son was coming home and telling me that his hand hurt. He was asking me questions about why they were doing so much writing all of a sudden. At first, I thought nothing of it, then he began begging me to stay home from school. He began asking me if he could go back to his old school and began telling me that he hated writing, that writing wasn’t fun for him anymore (a stark difference from last year, when he would write books for fun, and was even encouraged to do so in school!). So my ears perked up, I began paying more attention and questioned Why my son all of a sudden hated going to school? The day before the ELA MCAS was administered, he did writing all day (with the exception of lunch, recess, and special). He came home drained and burned out, and then was expected to take the test the next day.

As soon as the ELA MCAS was over, the principal mandated an extra hour of math for all 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders (of course, the Math MCAS is next, so why not?!). So on top of their usual 90 minute math block, they’d be receiving another 60 minute math block. This extra 60 minutes of math time took away from reading & writing. I am fairly certain my son received little to no guided reading instruction during this month that they implemented the extra math. I also know he received very little Science time as well. My husband, and other teachers, were also instructed by the principal to group the kids according to “passing”, “on the cusp”, and “won’t pass”. They were to allow the “passing” and “won’t pass” kids to do Dreambox (an online math game, that the principal says “is part of the curriculum”) for the second 60 minute math block, while the “on the cusp” kids were given the extra instruction. It was at this point that my husband came home and said that’s it, job security aside, we need to say something. So we drafted, as parents, a professional and cordial (but firm) email to the principal stating that we were not okay with what was happening. That we saw what happened with the writing and the toll it took on our son, and didn’t want to see it happen now with math. We ended the email requesting a meeting to further discuss our concerns, and signed it from the both of us. The very next morning, my husband was pulled from his classroom and berated by his principal. He sent me a text asking me to come over right away, and I did. I sat in the waiting room and could hear her screaming at my husband (and so could others.) She got the union involved because she wanted to fire him on the spot, but was told she could not. She said he crossed a personal/professional line. Our email was written strictly out of parental concern and was handled extremely inappropriately and unprofessionally.

At that time, I requested that my son be opted out of the extra 60 minutes of math and be given time to independently read or write. It was granted – after me pushing. However, it didn’t spare the other kids. I also went to the superintendent, who informed me that he “in fact supports the changes to the instructional schedule, not for the sake of testing – but to teach the standards we are responsible for teaching.” I can show you our email exchanges, I’ve saved them all. I responded back informing him that this was, in fact, for the sake of the test and that if this was the type of learning environment he supported, then I would find an alternative option for my sons. I received no response.

After this my husband went from receiving all “effective” marks on his evaluations to being marked “needs improvement” for nearly everything in his last evaluation. He was also informed last week that his contract would not be renewed. All because we had concerns about the education our son was receiving and spoke up about it.

So this morning we had a final meeting with the principal (we figured he’s already lost his job, now we have nothing left to lose). We addressed all of our concerns, we called her out on her decisions. And she has said that she stands by her decisions. We have to “agree to disagree.” She “analyzed the data and did what was best for her students.” She is sorry our son had the year he had, but she feels she did what was right. She says it wasn’t test prep, because they weren’t placing practice tests in front of them during the extra math time, it was “quality math instruction.” That’s not the point! That 60 minutes of math took away 60 minutes of something else. It made 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders endure two and a half hours of math, every single day for nearly 5 weeks! She doesn’t understand how this was wrong. She says she spoke with her math and ELA consultants and they backed her. As a parent, I am sick to my stomach that this can happen. As the wife of a teacher, I am sick to my stomach that this has resulted in my husband losing his job (though she claims it is because he is a “bad teacher”). The data she loves so much doesn’t say so.

And to make my point even clearer, the difference between the education the kids in the neighboring district are receiving and the kids in Salem are receiving (at least at the Level 3/4 schools) is not even comparable. This would not happen there. Last year my kids studied Greek Mythology. They were allowed to do creative/fiction writing (which is non-existent in the Lucy Calkins writing curriculum). I only heard the word “MCAS” the week before the tests, and that was an email from their teacher telling us that our kids were well prepared, no worries, they’ll do fine. Last year, they completed hands-on projects. I haven’t seen one project of my 4th grader’s this year. If you walk though the upper halls of this Salem school there is virtually nothing on the walls. I did a tour of other schools in Salem (except for Bentley), and even in those schools there were projects on display, artwork on the walls. I can tell more of what those kids did all year than my own. Even within the district, there is a stark difference between the education the kids are receiving at two other prominent elementary schools in Salem, and what my kids experienced this year. And these are schools within the same district! The difference is – our school has approx 75% low-income, while the aforementioned prominent schools are approx 35-40% low-income. Our kids are not free/reduced lunch, so it’s pretty much a guarantee that we wouldn’t get spots at either of those two schools. Yet if we stay where we are , our kids receive an education like they did this year. This is troublesome and I have no idea where to go from here. And judging by the way our situation was handled by the principal, and the superintendent, we have no voice or input in what happened or is happening. It’s pretty much take it or leave it, we need to get the test scores up…if you don’t like it, leave.”

I am so appalled by this. This family went from having a child who loved school to having a child who hated school. We cannot keep teaching to the test, we cannot keep narrowing the focus of our children, we need to be educating our children, we need to be allowing them to explore their interests with our guidance, not mandating that they take 2.5 hours of math a day. Hell, their class periods should only be 40 to 45 minutes max, not 90 minutes. Children are not made to sit still for that long.

As I have said I do not know how to fix this, but we need to start looking at alternatives, we need to examine what works in other countries who have way higher academic achievements than the USA. We need to do something, before we have a generation of children who only know how to respond to narrow questions and narrow parameters.

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.