Research released earlier this year by MassInc makes a compelling case that the strategic drive for school improvement is greatly enhanced when communities develop their own accountability provisions to complement and augment state and federal policies.
What role, if any, do you see for yourself personally and for the School Committee as a body for creating and monitoring such measures?
Cara Berg Powers:
With my background in participatory research, I am excited about the ways in which more local accountability measures can lead to deeper learning for our students, school communities, and our leadership to make more informed decisions. The report challenges the common notion of “accountability” as test-based and sees local efforts as an opportunity to engage in a broader set of research methods, and align the questions we’re asking more closely with the outcomes our community is hoping to see. In addition to city wide metrics that are aligned with our agreed upon goals (like the strategic plan), better support for site councils to create transparent metrics at the school level could lead to more parent and community engagement. There are great models of this for specific outcomes like addressing the opportunity gap in Boston, where there is a live goal-tracker for community members to see progress toward the community-designed objectives in real time. With the ongoing concern about parent participation, this kind of authentic and transparent community-driven accountability can support our overall success and a more engaged community. Our role as a school-committee should be fostering and managing consistency of these types of efforts.
I made the decision to run for school committee precisely because I felt that the school committee had neglected its duty to engage parents and families, as they so often do, about establishing new policies and curriculum. In the case that finally motivated me to run, it was in regards to a comprehensive sex education curriculum.
The first thing that I would ensure and that the school committee must do, is enable open and transparent communication of new proposed curriculum and programs and invite dialogue and feedback with the community. This is what I will ensure. Further, state and federal law mandates that every school must have a school site council that is composed of 50% members of the community (parents and community members, and in the case of high schools, students). This school site council is responsible for creating and monitoring the implementation of the school improvement plan, or what Worcester now calls the School Accountability Plan. Further, the school site council as part of its supervisory duties is supposed to oversee the use of state and federal compensatory funding in conjunction with the school improvement/accountability plan. Currently, many schools in Worcester have no formally functioning school site councils, and those that do, have often created them in a manner inconsistent with the law. And none of the school site councils are given much authority over the development of the school improvement/accountability plans not to mention authority over compensatory budgeting. As a school committee member it will be my job to ensure that Worcester Public Schools complies fully with the state and federal law which will ensure that much greater community and family accountability.
The sad reality is that these are basic starting blocks that Worcester has, for too long, neglected. So my first priority will be to ensure Worcester complies with the federal and state law regarding open meetings and community accountability. But I will also be working to develop proposals that go beyond compliance with these basic legal mandates. I will conduct listening sessions with families and community members to hear about their concerns related to schools. I will collaborate with community organizations invested in improving education for our students to ensure that their voice is heard in relation to educational policies and priorities. Finally, I will draw from these listening sessions and examine practices from around the country to design proposals for new innovations in community accountability. Perhaps we can look to the many districts that engage in more equitable school site-based funding initiatives, monitored by strong school site councils. Perhaps we can look to the way some of the schools in the Worcester School District and around the country rely on parents (and students in secondary schools) in the process for hiring teachers and administrators in schools. There are a host of many initiatives that I will explore and possibly propose, but voters in Worcester can rest assure that any and every proposal I will make will be rigorously vetted and debated by the families in Worcester. We must create more inclusive and transparent leadership in Worcester which is one of the core reasons I am running for school committee.
Accountability plans for each school are a part of our school districts success and a portion of our challenges. We as School Committee members focus on the data in many areas reviewing our strengths and weaknesses to encourage improvements and establish dialogue of advisement for performance standards. Discussions collaborating with Administration with demonstrations and reviews are an effective opportunity to improve student performance for the district. As a School Committee member I have dedicated numerous items for our school committee agenda promoting positive experiences, acknowledging successes including presenting avenues to overcome obstacles. Always maintaining communication utilizing data as a stepping-stone for conversations with administration creates options and positive outcomes.
In developing accountability measures we need to make sure we are working collaboratively as a district. We need to create and implement procedures aligned with district and state goals, while following Federal guidelines in the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (EESA). Individually my knowledge, education and experience would help drive my involvement and the discussions surrounding our districts accountability measures. As School Committee Member, I would have an active role as we work to develop such measures. I will collaborate with fellow School Committee Members, city officials and families to make sure we setting meaningful goals and indicators to show how we are making the progress towards those goals. We need to ensure that our practices provide equality and equal access to high-education for all students, while supporting our teaching staff.
I agree with the premise that the focus on statewide goals has diminished the impact of ambitious, local goal setting with outcome measures. The constant push and pressure to satisfy state standards has diminished local efforts to set additional standards and benchmarks that are important for the local community. One such effort was the recent development of the Worcester Public Schools Strategic Plan, a community-based effort to set ambitious goals for the district based upon data and consensus from community leaders, families, and educators. The disconnect occurs when the district and superintendent goals are established and they are primarily focused on inputs rather than student outcomes. I have pushed the administration to focus on student outcomes and to direct strategic attention to the trends demonstrated in the data. There has not been sufficient analysis and public discussion about this data (student outcome measures) and the trends that would allow for establishing the types of local goals present in the strategic planning document. I will continue to fight for this transparency with data and public conversations regarding appropriate goals for the district.
Benjamin Forman, Executive Director of MassINC wrote that “Too many communities lack strong school councils and school committees to provide oversight locally.” Therefore, the strategic plan created with stakeholder involvement does not provide the needed resources to meet priorities, it lacks measurable goals that are not clear and accessible to hold leaders accountable, and it leaves parents without the full picture of what the schools are trying to improve and how they can support.
As a member of the School Committee, I will push to pass a rule for members and the superintendent to be trained on creating a protocol for accountability and measurement for the improvement of student outcome. This will begin with the School Committee being trained as a requirement to uphold the position by education professionals. The training will orient members to develop accountability framework with key stakeholders (parents, community-at-large, local agencies, teachers, and universities) that identify the resources committee members will implement to ensure strategic priorities are being integrated into their everyday practice and steps each member will adopt for monitoring and evaluation of successful initiatives. A rubric and goal setting based on SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) objectives, will give the necessary skills the board will need to become more impactful in the schools.
I will also advocate for objective measurement in principal, teachers, and the superintendent evaluations to be data-driven and to reflect the strategic plan. Lastly, I will advocate for the inclusion and preparation of parents, students, and community leaders to play a role in school governance.
There are many bodies that are included in a child’s academic performance and each one needs to have accountability when a student both fails and succeeds. MassInc makes it clear; we need balance. While it is necessary to comply with the state’s academic standards, local goals cannot be ignored. In many cases, state and federal standards are the primary focus leaving local districts’ goals to be nonexistent. While some districts may set community goals, the lack of measurable outcomes create ineffective turnouts. As a School Committee Member, I would ensure our community is creating goals that are both attainable and measurable for the students of the WPS. The performance of these goals should be accessible to the community throughout the academic school year. Thus, as a community, we can work together to monitor and target skill sets that are in need of improvement.
Personally I would like to attend the meetings that individual schools should be setting up with parents and community leaders to start a plan with measurable goals, short and long term. The school committee role will be to monitor the plan and receive a report explaining how the goals have been met.
I agree with the premise of MassInc. Although communities may be similar, no two are exactly alike. As a community, we came together to outline a strategic plan for the Worcester Public Schools. Appropriately, representatives from the school system, the business community, institutions of higher ed., religious leaders and managers of non-profits expressed their needs and the expectations they have to determine how we can all work together to strategize how to involve the school system to help them accomplish their goals. As a member of the Worcester School Committee, I see my role as an advocate for our students while at the same time helping all shareholders to develop doable objectives to help all parties accomplish their goals. Also, as a group we need to establish timelines and benchmarks as we move forward checking and measuring the progress of our implementation and making necessary adjustments along the way.
The strategic plan is a moral document for public education that we need to support and implement. First, however, we must review it and get public input once again. We must also keep in mind there are sections of the plan that depend on resources from the foundation budget. I do feel that the success of the plan will need a community-wide vision and commitment to action by those in the community. As a body we have embarked on reviewing the strategic plan as given to the school committee by our superintendent. There is a great deal of information within each goal and we need to review the benchmarks and invite input from the community as we move forward. I would like, and I have suggested this at our meeting, that we take up one or two goals per meeting so that we could have enough time to make suggestions and receive input from the community. It is extremely important that we all work together to insure the best plan for our students.
As we enter the second school year since the state updated its accountability plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which expanded the data the state is considering in its evaluation of schools and districts, the Worcester Public Schools are overdue to evaluate what our district and school communities most value about our schools and how we can reflect the position they hold in our city. As I discussed with Ben Forman, the author of the Mass Inc study on his podcast earlier this spring, one of the most potent ways of doing this has been available for twenty-five years: the school site council. At the local level, however, save an annual mention on the floor of the School Committee, site councils largely have been relegated to a check off box of compliance. Reading the law, one finds a clear outline of a group of people—teachers and parents elected by their cohorts, community members, students—meeting together with the principal in public session monthly to evaluate school policy, set school improvement goals, and deliberate on the school budget. Intended as a way for the principals empowered by the 1993 Education Reform Act to have input in their decision making, site councils could still serve this purpose, giving communities a meaningful and powerful voice in their schools. To make this work, however, the School Committee must make the Family and Community Engagement piece of the superintendent’s evaluation a true evaluation, tying it to authoritative voice of the community and families in district and school goal setting. As one well-versed in superintendent evaluation and in the state’s accountability system, I intend to ensure that the accountability of administration under ESSA but also under local decision making, is a piece of every School Committee meeting through reports that are tied to district goals that in turn reflect community priorities as well as state requirements.
The Strategic Plan of the Worcester Public Schools (“WPS”) provides a firm baseline and methodology for implementing sound accountability provisions, guidelines, expectations and standards. It urges, appropriately, that the WPS “embrace a culture of innovation that develops and pilots evidence-based approaches and allocates resources to address chronic student achievement gaps and underperforming schools.” (Strategic Plan Updates, Report of the Superintendent, July 18, 2019, gb #8-153.5, Annex A, Page 4). It looks to vigorous staff development, leadership support and training, and an aggressive effort to “identify demonstrated best practices regionally and across the globe that can be adapted to Worcester’s unique conditions to alleviate achievement gaps.” (Updates, Page 6). The Plan as implemented in the WPS features ambitious but achievable “benchmarks” for improvement in student academic performance, in skill mastery, in career training, in social and emotional growth, in cultivation of a positive and supportive school climate, in addressing student discipline, attendance, parent engagement, teacher quality, and staff diversity, and in bringing municipal and private sector resources to bear for quality instruction.
The Plan, and the benchmarks which quantify and measure implementation of it, must be at the heart of an effective accountability structure and mechanism. The School Committee is responsible for focusing the WPS on the Plan, for doing all that is reasonably feasible to meet the benchmark measures established for it, and for evaluating the Superintendent on her efforts to achieve Plan implementation in her administration and in the schools. In doing so, the Committee must measure the level of progress made as to the Plan. It must maintain a steady focus as to the Plan provisions, and meet periodically with the fine citizens who worked to formulate the Plan, in quarterly policy discussions and otherwise. The Plan must be at the forefront of School Committee attention, consideration and emphasis Accountability provisions will evolve over time, but they should relate directly to the Plan and to the benchmarks. As Chair of the School Committee’s Standing Committee on Teaching, Learning and Student Supports, I am anxious to help to focus the full School Committee on attaining the goals of the Plan and of the benchmarks which quantify them.
As someone who has been a part of school site councils in the past, I have seen how they can be effective and how they’ve come up short. Through that work, I’ve realized the need for more community accountability when it comes to the performance of our schools. Most school committees in Massachusetts don’t have student success as one of the measures used when measuring the performance of the superintendent. I believe that this needs to change. We shouldn’t measure student success exclusively on standardized test scores. We need to take a more practical approach by looking at student readiness for jobs or higher education upon exiting our schools. The School Committee should take an active role in analyzing student success based on these more practical measures when considering whether to renew the contract of the superintendent.