Send contributions to:
Ben is now the Director of Public Policy at Massachusetts 2020, a non-profit that works to expand education opportunities for children. As policy director, Ben works with state legislators, education leaders, and superintendents to create improvement strategies for schools around the Commonwealth. Currently he is leading the development of a comprehensive public policy that will allow schools to include more arts, drama, music, and focused academic support in the school day and year.
Prior to joining Massachusetts 2020, Ben worked for the Center for Collaborative Education. As Director of Turning Points, the nationally recognized middle school improvement model, Ben worked with teachers, principals and district staff to transform the teaching, leadership and decision making of urban middle schools.
Ben earned a bachelors degree from the University of Michigan and a master's degree in teaching from the University of Michigan. He lives on Walden Street with his wife, Trina Abbott, and their 6 year old twins. Ben was first elected to the School Committee in 2003 and is seeks his second term.
As someone who has worked in schools for more than a dozen years, I know that our school system's improvement can only continue when we focus on improving the work of our teachers, leaders, and staff. You will hear many quick and dirty proposals during this election - from adding new programs, to cutting the budget, to hiring more people. The list goes on and on. Cambridge has tried these simple solutions and our schools have not improved. Solutions are one-shot quickies. Solutions are possible only when the entire system of education is examined and all the deficiencies addressed.
First and foremost, the only way to improve schools is to improve the work of the teachers, leaders, and staff. We have to help some of our teachers teach differently than they have in the past. We have to support principals to lead and manage their schools so they make better decisions about whom to hire, how to promote teacher excellence, and how to help students learn. We have to change the way the central administration staff operates so they serve schools and teachers and respond to parents in productive ways. Changing the work adults do in our schools is always going to be more difficult than adding new programs, hiring more people, or cutting administrators. But these improvements are the only way we will continue the progress our schools have seen in the past two years. My priorities reflect this focus.
Continue to Improve the Quality of our Teachers – The most important part of any school is the quality of teaching. In my second term I will push the district to continue the training we have begun so principals and administrators can be fair but firm in their assessment of each teacher's performance. Every teacher must be excellent.
Since my election, we have begun to create an effective evaluation system and provide training for principals to implement this system well. This new system is rigorous and nuanced. Teachers have clear expectations for excellence and are provided with tools to meet them.
In addition to proper evaluation, we must continue to work with teachers so they are able to collaborate effectively. We need structures that help teachers collaborate, identify and solve problems together, and learn effective teaching strategies from one another. We are asking more and more of our teachers. They can only deliver on these requirements if we provide them with time for training, analyzing data, and meeting with colleagues or parents.
In my second term, I will push hard to make sure the district and every school is implementing a focused plan to improve teaching in every classroom. Every student and parent deserves to have confidence in every teacher in our schools.
Develop Outstanding School Leaders – Great principals attract great teachers. Great teachers will stop at nothing to make sure every child succeeds. To make Cambridge the best school system in Massachusetts, we need to continue developing leaders at all levels of our system so we improve education today and are prepared for the challenges of tomorrow.
To develop great principals we must provide them with training on how to improve instruction. We must support them as they institute changes in school practice. We must hold them to high standards. Principals now understand that they must lead the continuous development of their teachers. They are being held accountable for their school's academic progress. They are rewarded for being team players who help build the success of the entire system.
We must create new opportunities for our master teachers so they can share their expertise with other teachers. So they want to stay in the Cambridge, we must provide both rewards and flexible schedules so they can formally mentor beginning teachers.
And finally, the School Committee needs to ensure our new administrative internship program gets off to a great start. We must tap our bright; young staff and groom them to move into the leadership positions of tomorrow.
Improving the Middle Grades – I've worked with dozens of middle schools around the country. I have noted that middle grades (grades 6, 7, and 8) are the weak link in most school systems. Unfortunately, Cambridge schools suffer that same flaw. Our middle grades must be made more challenging and rigorous. Young adolescents are capable of much more than our schools typically ask of them. Parents need to know that their children will be ready for high school and beyond.
We can and should learn from some of the very successful middle grades programs we already have in Cambridge. These schools, such as the King Open, ensure their students master the basics and then ask them to do projects where they are required to think deeply, analyze and synthesize information, and communicate publicly to audiences outside of their classrooms. We also have begun pilot programs at three of our schools that will help students be better prepared for high school. I think we should work toward middle grades that utilize apprenticeships with universities, local businesses, and community-based organizations so our young adolescents understand they have a role in their neighborhood and learn how they can become caring and powerful leaders.
Roles of the School Committee, the Superintendent, Parents, and the
These three fundamental responsibilities mean that the School Committee is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of Cambridge's schools. That doesn't mean that we micro manage teachers and staff. It means, rather, that we ensure the superintendent is leading and managing the schools. We monitor principals, and teachers in a way that improves our schools academically and financially every year.
It is up to the School Committee to ask the questions and make public the information that shows how our schools are doing so every citizen can trust that we are heading in the right direction.
The superintendent is responsible for the day-to-day operations of all facets of our schools. He needs to manage his staff (which include central administration and principals) so they are improving the instruction, operations, safety, and staff development every day.
Parents need to be involved in their child's education. Their primary role is to support their children's education at home by reading and writing with them and providing learning opportunities every single day. Parents should also be in regular contact with their child's teacher to learn how the child is doing and what the class is doing. If they choose, parents can also become involved in their child's school by being a room parent, volunteering, joining a school committee or the school council, or many other ways. Our schools can and should do a better job of reaching out to parents, especially those who find it harder to participate. In a multi-ethnic city, we must be sure that we have the tools necessary to reach parents across the seeming divides of language and culture; to welcome them and seek their guidance as well.
Elementary School Programs and Administration:
Coherence comes with every elementary school using the Literacy Collaborative reading and writing program and the TERC math curriculum - two highly regarded approaches that mix basic skills with critical thinking and deep understanding of the material. Every school also uses the same, data-based goal setting process that results in improvement goals that are focused and tie into our district-wide goals.
Most important, the School Committee approved a new school evaluation system that measures school performance on much more than just standardized test scores. For the first time we are able to show how each of our schools is doing and compare them on the same terms. Having the same performance goals across the city allows us to monitor the quality of education at every single school closely. This scrutiny helps the School Committee remedy the inequities that have, in the past, characterized Cambridge's schools; when we allowed lower income children and children of color to receive inferior educations.
Our elementary schools have a rich vein of individualism that has allowed them to create their own unique school communities. Whether it is the social justice curriculum of the King Open, the project-based curriculum of the Cambridgeport, the Core-Knowledge approach of the Morse, the community focus of Haggerty, or the strong music and arts programs of the Baldwin, each elementary school has developed its unique style. In a community that is based on school choice, having schools that have different focuses is essential.
Parents need to trust in the stability and quality of their child's school -- that high quality teachers will be at every grade, that their child's emotional well being will be nurtured, and that their intellect will be challenged.
High School Programs and Administration:
We have instituted a more challenging schedule and approach to teaching that allows students to study their subjects in more depth. We have re-instituted honors courses so any child who wants to can be prepared for more challenging and AP courses in the upper grades. Through the AVID program we are looking out for the kids who need a little more attention to be top performers. We have remade the curriculum for college prep courses to ensure that all teachers challenge students. We have also instituted a high school extension program that serves between 60 to 100 students who were not able to be successful at the high school. In it's first year, the extension program graduated more than 90% of its seniors who would not have earned a diploma without the personal support and guidance of the program's dedicated staff.
In addition, the high school's leadership has made outreach and communication to parents a priority. Parents now benefit from better materials, better communication, and better information at all meetings.
The most important challenge facing the high school is the quality of the teaching. While we have many excellent teachers, a legacy of not evaluating teachers properly has left us with an uneven teaching force. This remains my top priority going forward. With our new teacher evaluation system in place, I expect we will make great strides in improving the quality and consistency of our teaching force.
As the quality of the teaching, curriculum, and communication improve, so does parents' confidence in our high school.
School Department Administration and the Budget:
In my first term we have:
I have pushed for and will continue to push for the modernization of our payroll, human resources, and purchasing departments so they can better serve schools and teachers, and we can continue to cut where we are overstaffed.
Our current central administration staff is of the highest quality. The superintendent and his staff are helping to support tremendous educational, leadership, and cultural changes in our schools. School leaders feel more supported and better served by our administration then they ever have. Yes, improvements need to continue to be made, but state and legislative leaders around the state realize that Cambridge is now on the move. This progress, in large part, has been due to the vastly improved leadership of the new superintendent and his staff.
Teacher Evaluations and Teachers Contract:
Teachers are now evaluated every two years instead of every four. They have clearer performance expectations and are evaluated on a five-point scale instead of a two-point scale. Principals are being evaluated and held accountable for how well they evaluate teachers. For every teacher that is not rated at the top of the performance scale an improvement plan is created with clear objectives for growth: objectives that must be met in a timely way. In the past two years, 15 teachers have been let go for low performance. The quality of the evaluation system and the training we have done with principals on how to evaluate and supervise teachers is a crucial improvement in the way our schools operate.
In each of the past two years I have called for a public reporting of the teacher evaluation system to gauge its implementation. From my request, the public has learned that we are more thorough in evaluating teachers, that evaluations are being done as required, and that they are helping to improve our teaching force.
State/Federal Role in Local Education:
With the state and federal intrusions into our schools, we must continually assess the balance between meeting our community's goals for educating our children and responding to mandates. For example, while we have an obligation to ensure that all of our high school students pass the MCAS, we have to resist the temptation to teach to the MCAS test. Instead we need to offer a well-balanced education that includes strong academics with rich cultural and arts experiences that test mania is trying to crowd out. Right now I believe Cambridge is doing a good job with this balance, but we must remain vigilant or we will have a system modeled simply after George W. Bush's priorities of ranking and sorting.
We also need to continue the significant strides we have made in communicating the strengths of our schools and the high quality programs we offer. Years of instability and turmoil eroded the public's confidence in our schools. With improved materials, better outreach to parents, stronger relationships with state leaders and the media, public perception is beginning to catch up with the quality of our schools. We need to continue this trend.
Unlike some of my competitors, I am not willing to simply blame the schools for declining enrollment. Yes, we have to continue our improvement. Quality will make more parents choose our school system. At the same time it is simplistic to say that real estate prices, demographic changes, greater competition, and issues of race and class do not have an impact on the choices parents make about our schools.
With improved leadership and teaching, better communications, and outreach, and better data gathering (including annual surveys of families that leave our system), we now are focused on the pieces that will improve our enrollment in the next two years.
Charter schools were supposed to help public schools innovate. They never have. Charter schools were supposed to hold district schools harmless financially by only taking funds from the city that it took to educate their students. The funding formula takes a disproportionate amount from our city and gives it to charter schools that have a select student body.
What frustrates me the most about charter schools and the debate around them is that too much energy, money, political rhetoric, and time than is spent on an initiative that has made very few improvements for very few children. Charter schools are a fringe movement that has had no discernible effect on the education of children in our state. 10 years after they were created, there are fewer than 60 charter schools in the state, and they don't perform any better than other schools The three charter schools in Cambridge educate a small fraction of our city children (more go to private schools) yet I am answering a question as about them as if they matter as much as our teachers, our evaluation system, how we spend money, our principals' leadership, and the improvement of our school system. They don't, they won't and it is up to the school committee to keep our focus on the quality of the schools that serve all of our children and not just a subset of a subset.
|Page last updated October 02, 2006||Cambridge Candidates|