This meeting largely focused on a report of the high school, presented by Principal Mark Jackson. This report focused largely on providing an overview of the current high school framework, and included information on the following topics related to academic achievement: reducing class size, providing better information exchange between faculty and parents, and a greater emphasis on school-wide writing expectations. The report also included a brief summary of the trimester evaluation committee, and specifically that this committee has been unable to achieve consensus and thus that the trimester system will continue.
As a School Committee member, I had a number of questions about this report and about the high school (most of my issues were ones that parents and teachers had brought to my attention). The following questions were asked (in most cases by me) and received the following responses:
1. Could I get a copy of the trimester evaluation committee report, and could that report be placed on the web for interested families/community members? Although this seems like a pretty reasonable question (given that this committee spent 18 months working on evaluating the trimester system), it is not clear to me that a report even exists (I'm doing this entry over a week past the meeting because I was waiting to see a report). I was also surprised that the committee did not examine any data related to learning outcomes (e.g., do kids learn world languages or math better in a trimester versus a semester system?) nor did the committee examine any data related to other districts (e.g., what system is used in high achieving districts in Massachusetts?) nor did the committee examine budget implications of different systems (e.g., is it more or less cost-effective to have students change schedules three times a year versus twice). I don't have a stake in whether our school system uses a trimester versus a semester system, but I do have a stake in whether our district uses a rigorous, thoughtful, and thorough process to evaluate our school programs and policies -- and I don't see this trimester evaluation as an example of such a process. Other members of the School Committee did not seem to share my concerns.
2. Andy Churchill asked a question about the plan for evaluating the new 9th grade science program (this question was sent to me and to Andy by a parent who could not attend the meeting). Apparently a survey was given to all high school students about their science class, and information on their experience will be used to evaluate the new program (although the specific timing and procedures used to measure "success" versus "failure" were not noted). Some data on science classes taken may also be collected, but again, it was quite clear that there is no real plan for evaluating this program. I see the absence of a real evaluation plan for an unprecedented required science program as a real problem, and as very emblematic of our school system's tendency to just rely on gut instinct and intuition to make decisions, as opposed to a careful and thorough evaluation of empirical evidence. But the lack of an evaluation plan is frankly the fault of the School Committee, which approved the new science program without requiring an evaluation of any sort, and not the fault of Mark Jackson. I hope that the School Committee and/or superintendents will develop a real plan for evaluating this new program -- but I'm not hopeful (I've pushed considerably for such an evaluation and have virtually no support).
3. I asked whether the high school underclass awards assembly would continue this year (it was cancelled last year). I was pleased to see that Mark Jackson has made the decision to continue this assembly (which many parents felt was helpful in celebrating achievement and accomplishments from many children).
4. I asked a question about the effectiveness of different approaches to conducting honors work in high school classes. Some high school classes include only students who are interested in doing honors-level work, and this work is then taught during classtime and also given as homework. Other high school classes include mostly students who are doing college preparation (regular, non-honors) work, and then a few students who have the option of doing additional work outside of class as a way of getting honors. I've now heard from several families that some teachers are not very supportive of students who want to do honors work in these classes (perhaps because this requires additional work for teachers), and thus some students feel discouraged about doing honors. I was glad to hear that the high school is planning on investigating these different approaches to earning honors work, and I hope that he will return to the School Committee with a report on his findings later this year.
5. I asked a question about the results of the high school climate survey that was sent home with parents with report cards in June (and parents were told the results would be posted on line). Mark Jackson reported that many surveys have been received, but that results have not yet been tabulated. He hopes that the survey results will be posted this fall sometime.
At this point, I was told by the Chair (Michael Hussin) that my time for questions was up, and hence I was not allowed to ask my final question, which was as follows: Is the high school considering adding two AP classes that are commonly found in MSAN districts (AP Statistics, AP Chemsitry)? If I am able to get an answer to this question at a later point, I'll be glad to update my blog with the answer!
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.