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?

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