Cambridge Schools Need Tough Love

Originally printed in The Boston Globe

January 18, 2002
Charles Euchner (Executive Director, Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston)

In public education, good intentions are not enough. Spending a lot of money is not enough. Intelligence and commitment are not enough. Sophisticated public involvement is not enough. Tests and other performance measures are not enough. Even model programs at schools are not enough.
That is the message of a new report on the management of the Cambridge Public Schools conducted by Harry Spence, the onetime receiver for the City of Chelsea and deputy chancellor of the New York City Board of Education.
The report, commissioned by the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, found that despite spending more than $17,000 per pupil, Cambridge's public school system performs below acceptable levels because of ''entrenched, dysfunctional organizational behaviors in the system.''
Spence, now the state commissioner of social services, proposed an overhaul of the central office, adoption of clear and consistent goals, and a strong core curriculum.
The report offers a ''tough love'' message. In particular, Spence argues that the superintendent and school committee have to sort out the roles to avoid the endless proliferations of missions, strategies, and systems of accountability.
Cambridge being Cambridge - a hothouse of ideas about how to do thing better, with activists to push every plausible idea - the biggest problem is the lack of focus. In the 1999-2000 school year, the school committee issued 490 orders to the superintendent. Just responding to those orders is a full-time job. It does not leave much time for providing strong leadership on curriculum, working with principals, or running an efficient central office.
While the superintendent is busily responding to the school committee, the system's managers and principals are all acting without clear direction. School officials regularly talk about ''the eleven, the four, and the three,'' referring to the different sets of goals articulated in a mission statement, by the school committee, and by the superintendent.
Spence exhorted the school officials to sort it out. He suggested making college admission for every student the primary goal of the system - a goal that would drive curriculum from kindergarten to 12th grade.
He also called for the consolidation of four key instructional departments - curriculum and instruction, professional development, student achievement and accountability, and special education - under one deputy superintendent for instruction.
''The external demands on the superintendent are simply too extensive to serve as the chief instructional leader of a system,'' Spence writes. ''Only a deputy can spend the time and energy on the internal workings of the instructional system.''
Once strong leadership and clear goals are set, the system can get more bang for its buck. Right now, the system spends more than virtually all other school systems on a wide range of categories. Among a group of seven geographic peers, Cambridge ranks first in spending on teaching, assistants, principals, clerical help, health, the central office, custodial services, benefits, special education, and extraordinary maintenance. Of 17 school districts that are roughly the same size, Cambridge spends the most on teaching, support, assistants, principals, clerical help, health, the central office, custodial services, benefits, and special education.
The reforms have a chance. One reason is the willingness of School Superintendent Bobbie D'Alessandro to accept a harsh report card. The other is Spence's insistence that just because the structure of the schools is dysfunctional, it doesn't mean that the people in the system should be flogged publicly.
Spence found ''a great deal of real human pain,'' which results when people lack a common set of goals - and people are left to battle over trivial details of management. The pain also results from inefficient central office operations, which ''bleed'' energy from the system. When principals and teachers cannot get the supplies they need, they suffer subtle but powerful loss of focus.
In recent years, school reform has sometimes veered away from a concern for system-wide problems and toward a school-based approach. There are lots of examples of individual schools that provide the learning environment needed by teachers and students - individual schools operating with a special charter or focusing on special strategies (e.g., back to basics, community service) or themes (e.g., math and science, Asian cultures).
But system-wide excellence is much harder. It requires sharp focus, organizational capacity, strong leadership, and clear lines of authority.
If Cambridge achieves its goals, it will set an example for the state - and the nation.