School Committee: celebrations, programs, policies and test scores

A regular semimonthly meeting of the School Committee on Thursday, May 8, started at 6:30 pm, mostly held in the fifth-floor meeting room at Town Hall. Topics included committee leadership, new school programs, policy reviews and scores on state tests at Brookline High.

Celebrations: Welcoming celebrations for newly elected committee members and farewells for departing ones were not on the agenda but took about the first 45 minutes. Previous committee chair Alan Morse did not run for re-election, and new leadership was expected this year. To compensate for time spent on celebrations, the committee deferred review of the school technology program to its next meeting. At least 50 members of the public were present during the celebrations, but only four stayed for the rest of the meeting.

Leadership: Following current tradition, the previous vice chair, Susan Wolf Ditkoff, was elected committee chair for a year and can serve for a year beyond that. She is a partner at the investment firm Bain & Co. and has been a committee member since 2008. Barbara Scotto was elected vice chair. She was employed for 25 years as an elementary school teacher in Brookline, joining the committee in 2009 after she retired, and has been a Brookline town meeting member for more than 40 years. Committee votes for the new leaders were unanimous.

For many years, the School Committee has organized standing subcommittees that review ongoing issues. Those now include capital improvements, curriculum, finance, government relations, negotiations and policy. Ms. Ditkoff announced three changes. David Pollak replaces Helen Charlupski chairing capital improvements. Helen Charlupski replaces Barbara Scotto chairing curriculum. Benjamin Chang replaces outgoing committee member Amy Kershaw chairing finance. Rebecca Stone continues chairing government relations and negotiations. Abby Cox continues chairing policy.

Programs and policies: For capital improvements, Helen Charlupski said a proposal to renovate Devotion School has been sent to the Massachusetts School Building Authority, with an initial response expected by mid-May. She recounted that the capital subcommittee of the Advisory Committee, chaired by Carla Benka, had recommended against funding a feasibility study for Driscoll School. Actually, subcommittee members were unable to achieve a majority on any approach to the issue, a rare event.

However, the full Advisory Committee voted to recommend $1 million to town meeting, under Article 8, Section 25. Ms. Stone asked about the expected number of added classrooms. Dr. William Lupini, the superintendent, said four more classrooms are now expected in a new addition, plus two more classrooms from rearrangements inside current buildings. There is a separate project for Lawrence School pending under Article 7, which has also proved controversial. $1.5 million recommended for Lawrence by the Advisory Committee and Board of Selectmen supplements $2.5 million previously appropriated. The project builds an addition with four more standard-size classrooms. For details, see the warrant report for the 2014 annual town meeting.

For curriculum, Barbara Scotto described a pilot math program at Devotion School managed by the principal, Jennifer Flewelling, using four iPad computers per classroom. She also described new first-grade reading instruction that uses computers, managed by Jillian Starr at Devotion. Currently, she said, not enough computers are available, even for small groups. She described a “child study model” begun at Baker School, using “instructional intervention” in trying to avoid assigning students “who aren’t being successful in the classroom” to special education. The Web site for Public Schools of Brookline currently has nothing about the first two programs and mentions the third only in a 2012 improvement plan for Heath School, under the heading “educational equity.”

For government relations, Rebecca Stone characterized an Advisory Committee approach to a proposed new community relations commission, replacing the current human relations commission, as being “neutral on schools.” Reviews of Article 10 for the May town meeting, proposing the new commission, have turned complex and heated. The Advisory Committee’s approach does expect that the new commission would review hirings and promotions at all Brookline agencies, including schools, but it advocates cooperation rather than legal requirements to provide information to the commission.

For policy, Abby Cox reported on “community use of school buildings.” Those uses extend from child care and supplemental education to occasional meetings of organizations. Changes are being proposed, she said, in a “policy manual” regulating scheduling, fees, liability, safety, accessibility, special events and large gatherings. However, she did not describe any changes, and no such proposals could be found on the Web site for Public Schools of Brookline. Ann Turner of Toxteth St., representing Brookline’s extended day programs, spoke up during “public comment,” saying, “Waiting lists are getting longer.” She urged the committee to “work together to build trust, and make space available to after-school programs.”

Continuing policy reviews with larger issues of how schools educate students, Dr. Jennifer Fischer-Mueller, the deputy superintendent for teaching and learning, described a proposed new “strategic plan” for the school department. The current version was adopted by the committee in 2009. Only an “executive summary” of the 2009 plan could be found on the Web site for Public Schools of Brookline. The proposed new version changes the plan’s “vision,” “mission,” “core values” and “goals.” The proposals were flashed on a projector screen during the meeting, but they could not be found on the Web site for Public Schools of Brookline.

Dr. Fischer-Mueller invited members of the School Committee to recite statements from the proposed new plan aloud. Although committee members went along, that extended ritual would surely have looked odd to veterans of School Committee meetings over the past several decades. Nothing similar comes to mind. The statements sounded ambitious and idealistic yet somewhat vague. Proposed titles of “core values” remain the same as in 2009, while some of the revised “goals” seemed less specific. Discussion followed over how performance could be measured against goals. New committee chair Susan Wolf Ditkoff said, “The system is not captive to MCAS scores.” New vice chair Barbara Scotto went farther, saying, “I’m not sure I want to live in a society where everything is measured.”

Test scores: With Deborah Holman, the Brookline High School headmaster, and Harold “Hal” Mason, the assistant headmaster, presenting, the committee reviewed a “competency determination report” for the High School. Ms. Holman came to Brookline High from Newton North two years ago, replacing Dr. Robert “Bob” Weintraub, who left to become a professor of practice at Teacher’s College, Columbia University. Mr. Mason, an English teacher, came to Brookline High from the New York City High School of Art and Design five years ago.

Ms. Ditkoff’s outlook notwithstanding, the “competency determination report” appeared entirely based on the state’s standardized tests. They have functioned in graduation requirements since 2001. No other “competency” was mentioned in the report–notably none involving practical and prized skills such as organizing, selling, inventing, managing, debating, report writing, estimating, translating, complex problem solving, community awareness, music, art and mechanical design. School Committee members had copies of the report at the meeting, but no such reports for any year could be found on the Web site for Public Schools of Brookline.

“Competency determination” is required for public school students by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education under state regulations inspired by the Education Reform Act of 1993. The format of the report being reviewed by the committee is unique to Brookline schools and was developed during the Lupini administration. Copies of the recent document were made available to reporters. It can be obtained on request to Beth McDonald, Administration and Finance administrative assistant, at the school department offices in Town Hall, 617-730-2425.

Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests produce “scaled scores” ranging from 200 to 280 and rankings named “advanced,” “proficient,” “needs improvement” and “warning/failure.” Students scoring in one of the upper three ranks on English language, math and at least one of the four science tests meet the state’s graduation requirements. The Brookline “competency determination report” focused on students scoring in the top two ranks. Those students need not be evaluated individually by Public Schools of Brookline, to prepare “educational proficiency plans” in the subjects of tests at issue.

The latest “competency determination report” compares groups of Brookline High School students identified as “white”, “Hispanic” “Asian,” “African-American” and “multirace.” In past years, High School administrators maintained internal reports also comparing METCO students and students living in Brookline public housing. The latter groups were not mentioned in the latest report, which surveys the most recent four years. The report did not compare Brookline High with any other high school in the state or compare MCAS with any other tests–such as the National Assessment of Education Progress, whose 12th-grade results for last year were recently announced.

Overall, MCAS test rankings for Brookline High School students have been strong and rising. For English language, 89 percent of those tested were in the top two ranks in 2010, rising to 98 percent in 2013. For math, results increased from 91 percent in 2010 to 93 percent in 2013. For science, results increased from 81 percent in 2010 to 87 percent in 2013. The report offered no breakdowns by science subject.

Mr. Mason told the committee that all this year’s seniors received high enough scores to graduate. However, some encountered problems and had to participate in retests. The report mentions problems for students with “limited English proficiency.” According to Ms. Holman and Mr. Mason, the high school has many students coming from foreign countries and many speaking languages other than English at home. The report mentions tutoring offered to low-scoring students.

The report shows percentages of “Hispanic” students in the top two scoring ranks increasing in English and math–approaching those for the total student body. However, a substantial gap remains in science. For “African-American” students, trends in English are also rising, but more slowly. For math and science, the most recent year saw a substantial drop in “African-American” students scoring in the top two ranks–from around 80 percent to around 60 percent in math and from around 50 percent to around 40 percent in science.

Bhs10thGradeMathMcas2010to2013

Source: Brookline High School, MCAS Competency Determination, 2013-2014

Questions from School Committee members focused on declines for “African-American” students in science and math rankings, which Ms. Stone described as “breathtaking.” Ms. Holman and Mr. Mason did not offer clear explanations. Ms. Holman said it was partly a “surprise” and there had been lapses in “tracking” student progress. They and Dr. Lupini committed to more frequent reviews. Possibly that also means more counseling and tutoring, but if so no one spoke about it.

Instruction and assessment came across as main interests of the committee, including “calculus for Latino and African-American students,” but motivation was hardly mentioned. In particular, no one spoke to the obvious: that transition to a new headmaster might have some effects. “Dr. Bob,” as he was often called, was famous for knowing nearly all students and staff by name and taking keen interest in students from disadvantaged backgrounds. If those shoes can be filled, that is not likely to happen overnight.

Surprisingly, committee members did not ask about the fraction of school resources diverted into coaching for tests in mainstream classes and into test-oriented counseling, planning and tutoring. They also asked few questions about testing students with learning disabilities, including ones in special education programs. In past years, these have been controversial topics.

New testing regime: Dr. Lupini mentioned he is to make a decision before July about whether to adopt new PARCC tests as a base of assessment, instead of MCAS. They are oriented to the so-called “Common Core” curriculum being promoted by the U.S. Department of Education, under the Obama administration. The state’s education department has said it will not change to PARCC before 2018.

PARCC looks high-risk for Brookline–partly because of a very complex and fast changing curriculum, partly because of differences in test administration. MCAS uses conventional, paper-and-pencil tests. PARCC is electronic and uses interactive computer software.

A more drastic difference is that PARCC tests have been strictly timed. MCAS began as a timed test but offered “accommodations” to students with learning disabilities. For practical purposes, it evolved into an untimed test. Decades of experience show that strictly timed tests put students from foreign-language and low-income backgrounds at severe disadvantages.

Tests are usually couched in dialects that tend not to match those of foreign-language and low-income home and community settings. With enough time to understand questions, students from those backgrounds often do better. With strictly timed tests, those students are placed at well known risks of lower scores. Because many are Latino or African-American, some critics have protested the practice as racial discrimination.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, May 12, 2014


Correction, May 15, 2014. Sentence added about Advisory subcommittee position on funding for Driscoll, a rare instance when a subcommittee reported no recommendation.


Bella Travaglini, Panel raises questions on PARCC, Boston Globe, April 12, 2014

David B. Tyack, The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education, Harvard University Press, 1974

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