Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

January 19, 2012

Cambridge Public Schools Academic Challenge Plan

Filed under: School Committee,schools — Tags: , — Robert Winters @ 2:00 pm

Jan 17, 2012 – The Cambridge Public Schools Academic Challenge Plan for the new upper schools is now available. You can view it at You may also wish to read the Appendices at

Personally, I’m primarily interested in the plans for mathematics in the upper schools and the high school, and it’s hard to discern from this plan what exactly will happen. There appears to be a rigidity of thought regarding sticking with "differentiated instruction" without any mention of what might happen if the difference in skills within a classroom turns out to be too great. There can be a breaking point where all the "professional development" in the world cannot yield appropriate instruction for all students. This report indicates only that "the Math Academic Honors option will offer students the choice of selecting honors on a unit-by-unit basis rather than enrolling students in a separate honors course." A quick read seems to suggest that the plan is to merely direct advanced mathematics learners to supplement their education with online options – something that advanced mathematics learners may well be doing regardless of the plans of the Cambridge Public Schools.

The plan will be presented at the January 17 School Committee meeting (starting 6:00pm).

Additional Public Comment will be received at the Tuesday, January 24 School Committee meeting (starting 6:00pm).

The plan will be voted on in early February.

I am very interested to hear what others may have to say about this plan. – Robert Winters

My Follow-Up Comments & Questions (based on the Jan 17 presentation):

1) I would like to hear more details about the "Subject Acceleration Protocol". It sounds almost like an IEP (individualized education program) for advanced learners. What are the possible choices that could be proposed for such students who are several years above grade level?

2) What will happen if the plans for systemwide "differentiated instruction in heterogeneous classrooms" fails to deliver on its promises and the result is primarily chaos and mediocrity? The plan leans heavily on teachers to carry out this plan – and the teachers were barely consulted in the development of the plan. It’s easy to claim that "professional development" can prepare all teachers to carry this out, but the reality may prove otherwise. Is there a backup plan?

3) The Scholars Challenge outlined in the proposal is terribly vague. Much of it sounds like things I thought any school system would already be doing routinely.

4) The Math Honors Option seems somewhat contrived – an acknowledgement that the Cambridge Public Schools must do something with accelerated students while remaining strapped to the mast of its ideology. One School Committee member noted that it’s a very real possibility that there will be two kinds of students – one group who chooses the honors option for every unit where this is permitted and another group who never choose the honors option. The system abhors sorting students by ability, but the students will likely do it on their own (and have no problem doing so).

5) Might there be a conflict between the Math Honors Option and the Subject Acceleration Protocol? I can easily imagine students first choosing the (embedded) honors option and then deciding to seek a more appropriate solution via the Subject Acceleration Protocol. Will acceleration be denied by school staff in order to make the embedded honors option work?

6) How exactly will the Math Honors Option be engineered? Will the Honors students gather in a separate room for these selected units? One School Committee member seemed horrified at the thought – even though this may be the only practical and sensible way to engineer this option. What will happen if there’s a great disparity in the number of students choosing the Honors option? Is there sufficient flexibility in the design to manage this?

7) What will be the protocol for dealing with noncooperative/disruptive students in heterogeneous classrooms? You can talk about beliefs and "habits of scholarship" and "creative environments conducive to learning", but you cannot wish away problematic behavior.

8) What exactly is meant by culturally competent teaching? How does this differ from what teachers do now?

9) Is there a transition plan for students who will be in the 7th or 8th Grade this coming fall? [The new upper schools will consist of Grades 6, 7, and 8.]

10) How does the new plan mesh with the high school curriculum and protocols?

11) Most people will agree that choice of electives and "leveling" of classes becomes appropriate at some point. What is this point? The underlying belief in this Academic Challenge Plan is that such choices are not appropriate at Grades 6, 7, and 8 (and earlier). Is Grade 9 and the beginning of high school the point where student choice becomes permissible?


  1. Where were the appendices?

    This proposal leaves the kids currently enrolled in the ISP stranded. It dumps all kids of all levels into the same classroom, with no specifics on how they’re going to “challenge” them at all, except for vague references to “personal challenge” (i.e., go teach yourself, kid.) No acknowledgement that kids can be advanced in languages and arts. Not one word of mention about classroom disruption, a chief reason given by many kids who chose the ISP.

    And no mention – not even in passing – of the Honors Proposal submitted by a group of parents.

    I’m pretty furious, and looking hard at the CCSC, which is closer to our house anyway.

    Comment by Shannon Larkin — January 17, 2012 @ 7:56 am

  2. I added a link to the Appendices. I reduced the file size of both documents without any loss of quality.

    I’m still looking over the appendices that give additional detail about the mathematics options. So much of this plan is dressed up in edu-speak that you have to work to figure out what’s actually being proposed.

    Comment by Robert Winters — January 17, 2012 @ 9:20 am

  3. There are a lot of words in this plan with a lot of ambiguity which could mean that what is intended and what happens are very different.

    I’d like to know what some of the teachers think about this plan. Do they understand it? Does it make sense to them? Were any of them part of the planning process?

    How about asking some of the high school math students, particularly the top ones what they think? Are they inspired? Would they like to have had these opportunities?

    When are the principals and the teachers going to be chosen for the new schools? How is team building of the staff going to work and when will it be done? And the requisite professional development. When will that be done?

    Comment by John Gintell — January 18, 2012 @ 10:55 pm

  4. Here’s an interesting article worth thinking about in the context of plans for "differentiated instruction":

    Comment by Robert Winters — January 19, 2012 @ 2:31 pm

  5. I’ve already commented about this on the Chronicle and made a letter to the editor about it with two pars. The first was about the $26,000 question and why students leave the k-8 with different skill sets and levels and then all enter the same 9-12 program, some better prepared than others. The second was about this particular solution ( In my view, one of the greatest challenges students have in the transition is that they come from incredibly different feeder schools. Nearly every elementary school offers a different curriculum, culture, and commitment to achievement. Many of the better schools cater to parents that are familiar with and do the research involved to make successful school choices. Many of the less successful ones are schools that are neighborhood based and tend to be where less involved parents (no judgment implied there, its hard out there on working families especially in this economy) send their kids because its where they went, its the closest, and their kids can walk there. Improving those more traditional schools and ensuring that kids that go there have the same skills as kids that go to the ‘open’ schools, the ISPs, etc. is one of the main focuses of the reform model. My biggest criticism is that I experienced heterogeneous classes during the swan song of the failed Paula Evans era at CRLS. My freshmen year, I went from a nurturing environment where I attended classes with other students who cared about learning to a highly chaotic environment focused more on discipline. We had three deans at my small school in three years, two principles in my four years, and two superintendents. It was a tough time since there was little leadership at the top.

    Fortunately by my junior year I could finally take AP classes and had a great experience. In the heterogeneous classes I also had great teachers, and by my sophomore year honors classes finally came into the fold. But heterogeneous classes do not work if you do not have excellent teachers experienced with teaching to advanced and remedial students both and if this middle school model really hopes to succeed it should avoid the Evans trap of valuing equity over excellence as CRLS did my first two years. I felt stigmatized for wanting to achieve and be advanced not only by my fellow students but by the system itself which made it seem criminal to be advanced when there were so many less fortunate students who needed help and attention more than me. The new system should avoid that entirely since it will lead to the same exodus of families that we saw at CRLS when it lost accreditation.

    Young’s plan when I first saw it and wrote that article looked to me like using ISP as a model and expanding it for all the middle school programs. ISP remember was like a middle school to me, I went from my local mediocre neighborhood school (the good ole Fightin’ Fitzy) to a new school downtown where all the kids were just as motivated as me. The motivation was the key, and there was never an admission exam or grade point qualification, rather the recommendation of your current teacher that you were motivated and a randomized lottery determined who got in. All the kids, even those that weren’t traditionally ‘smart’ were motivated to succeed. I would say isolating the motivated students from the remedial ones is vitally necessary for both cohorts. The remedial kids can get the extra help and assistance they need to pass the MCAS and graduate, perhaps modeling the successful Extension School onto a middle school would be a great way to start. Using ISP or a slightly more broad form of it for the other two would also work. That way we can close the gap and achieve equity without losing excellence.

    Comment by James Conway — January 24, 2012 @ 12:15 am

  6. James, I encourage you to come to the School Committee meeting tonight and tell the SC exactly what you wrote here.


    Comment by Shannon Larkin — January 24, 2012 @ 7:59 am

  7. I would Shannon but its not worth the plane ride from Chicago šŸ˜‰

    I had the pleasure of serving with some of those individuals during my tenure as a Student School Committee member and have asked several of them questions about the policy and made my opinions known. That said there are two issues at play and they are sometimes at odds. The first is the issue of equity and in my subjective view, a gross number of incoming CRLS freshmen during my time there were completely unprepared for high school work, the rigor and discipline of a large campus environment, nor for the MCAS and eventual graduation. Compared to the schools I’ve tutored in here on the South Side of Chicago and even the suburban midwestern schools my friends attended, CRLS has ample and great resources to match the needs of any student, as does the CPS in general, where we falter most is the crucial middle years. We need to have a program that filters the diverse body of students from our 11 schools with distinct cultures into one that successfully transitions them into the high school. Doing this would allow us to keep many students, and plenty of my ISP friends ended up leaving for other systems and private and parochial schools for the fear of CRLS and these middle schools should reduce that fear, along with the existing record of recent excellence at CRLS. It will also ensure far more students are ready and capable of the work and rigor the new CRLS will expect of them. As the idiom goes a rising tide lifts all boats and the entire system would be better served by students in the middle of the pack and below ascending to proficiency and even exceeding that. Most importantly it is my sincere belief that every student should enter CRLS on the same page.

    That said the question of excellence is just as important and I would argue that heterogeneous groupings are only successful with the right kind of model and the Young plan has the benefit of being gradually implemented and to replicate best practices for that model in the new middle schools. I must also add that the core strength of ISP was that it was a traditional middle school in the sense that most kids came from different k-6 programs to a single upper school where there were new, unique, and more rigorous expectations and that kids that remained in the standard track were taught by the same great teachers and did just as well as the ISP students did on most metrics and tests, the only real difference was how fast and how deep we went through certain subjects compared to them and that ISP students were more likely to be participatory and self directing in their education. But if we could mimic even the standard track at the old Longfellow across the entire district we would have much better results, but the plan can only work if we recruit teachers and principles that have track records of excellence at the middle school level and bring existing faculty and staff up to speed. Cambridge has too often in the past tried to reinvent the wheel with new programs and ideas and this program is really a back to basics approach that is time tested and backed by data. Very few districts have k-8 these days and separate middle schools will be a lot better than most existing 6-8 grade programs in our schools. But I do encourage you and others to be vocal about preserving the need for preserving excellence, in today’s society, especially with NCLB and MCAS, the focus is far too often on the under performing and it is the gifted students that will not only be the face of our schools but will eventually give back to them.

    Comment by James Conway — January 26, 2012 @ 1:51 am

  8. “Very few districts have k-8 these days and separate middle schools will be a lot better than most existing 6-8 grade programs in our schools.”

    I strongly recommended that, before you make any move to building a separate middle school, you google those three words: “separate middle school.” You will find that most of the US that is making any changes in this area are moving away from separate middle schools and back to the k-8 configuration you now have. Google separate middle school and see what is happening. I found one other school district in the U.S. considering building a middle school, but you both are the small minority. Finland has no separate middle schools. I think that is a large contributing factor to their having the best student performance in the world.

    Comment by Bill Betzen — February 5, 2012 @ 8:10 am

  9. In response to a comment from Marc McGovern elsewhere about this plan, I responded as follows:

    My reference is to what appears to be a rigidity of thought regarding ā€œheterogeneous classrooms and differentiated instructionā€ regardless of circumstances. There are, in my view, at least two unanswered and significant questions:

    1) What will happen when the difference in ability in a classroom becomes so great as to make instruction impractical?

    2) Does everyone actually believe that by offering enough ā€œprofessional developmentā€ to teachers they will all become masters of ā€œheterogeneous classrooms and differentiated instructionā€ and that this will work for all students in those classrooms?

    Personally, I have no opinion on whether the ISP should be maintained. Ideally, I would like to see any and all good aspects of that program made system-wide. Optimistically, I hope this becomes the case and I want to believe that the proposed plan has this as a goal. I do, however, remain skeptical. So much of the rhetoric that Iā€™ve heard on this topic is philosophical/ideological, i.e. that it is ā€œwrongā€ to separate students according to ability. What I have not heard addressed are the practical aspects of how a classroom actually operates.

    Just a little history ā€“ I once taught in a mathematics program for entering freshman at Boston University that grouped students of all mathematical abilities into one class (SAT Math Scores ranging from 320 to 720, some students unable to understand fractions and other students having already seen some calculus). The task was impossible, but it was also unfair to the students. Some students were guaranteed to fail while others were bored. I spoke out against this structure and it cost me my (tenure track) job. Within a year, the program was such a failure that it was discontinued. Students now take mathematics classes at their appropriate level.

    Comment by Robert Winters — February 7, 2012 @ 10:34 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress

%d bloggers like this: