Nancy Walser

Nancy Walser
2005 Candidate for Cambridge School Committee

Home address:
335 Huron Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138

Contact information:
Tel: 617-876-4582
Candidate's website: 

Send contributions to:
The Committee to Elect Nancy Walser
335 Huron Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138

I am the 46-year-old mother of two children, who are in the 6th and 8th grade at the King Open public school. I have served three terms (6 years) on the School Committee. I live on Huron Avenue with my husband, author Robert Buderi, and our kids.

Prior to my relatively new career in politics, I worked as a journalist for the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Harvard Education Letter and many other publications.

I got involved in the Cambridge public schools in 1996 when my husband and I were trying to pick a kindergarten for our oldest child. My research turned into a book, The Parents Guide to Cambridge Schools, which was published twice in book form and also on-line. I believe it served as a model for much of the information now published about schools by the school department.

Before getting elected to the committee, I co-founded CUE (Cambridge United for Education), a citywide parent’s organization which focused on the system as a whole, committed to improving all our schools, and provided information to parents through forums and newsletters. I was (and am) a volunteer at King Open where my children attend school.

I come from a family of teachers: my father is a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Texas, my mother is a former 2nd grade teacher and reading specialist, and my maternal grandmother taught in a one-room schoolhouse in the 1920s. I have been an ESL teacher in Tokyo, Japan.

I was raised in Austin, Texas, but I consider Cambridge to be my adopted home. I have been the co-chair of the budget subcommittee for three of my six years and have served three times on the teacher contract negotiations subcommittee.

Top Priorities:
My top priorities for Cambridge Schools are quality teaching, improved communication, and responsible use of financial resources:

1. Quality Teaching
   Quality teaching should be the main focus of all that we do. It is the single most important thing a school district can provide to guarantee achievement. It is the single most important thing to parents who are in our schools, or who are considering our schools for their children. The budget and other decisions we make should all support quality teaching. Our administration should be structured and focused on supporting quality teaching.

   People often ask me what I mean by “quality teaching.” A good teacher not only knows the subject he/she is teaching, but also helps build a respectful community within the classroom, is attentive to the individual needs of children and works with parents and with school administrators to support or enrich the learning of each child. A good teacher also has high expectations academically and socially for everyone in his/her class. It takes a lot of knowledge and skill to teach in a city as diverse as Cambridge, so we need to hire and retain the best.

2. Improved Communications
   Public schools must do a better job communicating their strengths because education is increasingly a competitive environment. On the School Committee, I have encouraged the development of the school department website and other new ways of communicating with parents and residents. More needs to be done. Cambridge schools are unique, and together they provide many services for children and families that other districts cannot or do not provide. Communicating our strengths is essential for building enrollment and for keeping our community strong and close knit. Communicating with families is essential for boosting achievement.

3. Responsible Use of Financial Resources
   Over the past six years – and as budget co-chair for three of those years – I have been a leader in calling for moving resources out of the central administration budget and into schools and classrooms. (I have also made sure our budget documents are on our website,

   In my first term, former colleague Alice Turkel and I pushed for the creation of School Improvement Plan funds to give principals flexible resources and teacher training funds, and for stipends for teachers to spend on classroom supplies. This was the beginning of the recent trend of streamlining administration to fund new academic initiatives identified by the Superintendent.

   Over the past three years alone, the School Committee has eliminated 83 administrative positions, with savings of $5.8 million, closing budget shortfalls, increasing School Improvement funds and teacher training funds and expanding programs like the highly successful Literacy Collaborative, extended day and even art (now in grades 1-8).

   For more funds and efficiencies, we need to explore further automation within the system. With these resources, I would like to see the Superintendent expand the number of “Junior” kindergarten classes specifically for 4-year-olds; expand academic and other opportunities for the middle grades (4-8) including community service; expand the Science Initiative; and increase our capital building fund so we can upgrade our older elementary buildings in the near future.

Roles of the School Committee, the Superintendent, Parents, and the Public:
Massachusetts law is pretty clear about the roles of the School Committee and the Superintendent. Above all, the School Committee hires and manages the Superintendent, who runs the day-to-day operations of the school district. The Committee sets annual goals with the Superintendent and evaluates him/her based on progress toward these goals. The Superintendent puts forth an annual budget to support these goals and the School Committee “reviews and approves” it.

At meetings and through informal conversations with the Superintendent, School Committee members also provide valuable feedback on what is happening in the district, both good and bad. A responsive Superintendent can do a lot to correct things that are going wrong, and publicize things that are going right.

Parents can play a huge role primarily by supporting their children in school, attending parent teacher conferences and communicating to their teachers and principal about problems. Basic things -- like making sure children get enough sleep, eat right, do their homework, and stay active vs. watching a lot of t.v. -- go a long way to helping children do well in school.

Parents can also volunteer in classrooms and by running for election as parent reps to their School Council.

Other residents and taxpayers can learn about schools through our much expanded website (, and by calling School Committee members and other administrators in the schools with their questions and concerns. I have also worked to make the School Committee become “paperless” using new software that allows public access to all our public documents online. This new system has been approved by the whole School Committee and should be up and running next year.

Residents and others can also volunteer in our schools by calling Cambridge School Volunteers.

Elementary School Programs and Administration:
In November, we will see the results of two years of work with the Superintendent to stabilize and improve the elementary schools. This is when we receive the newest “benchmarks” of school progress. These benchmarks measure a whole range of things that are commonly associated with successful schools as well as progress on helping all students – those working below, at or above grade level – work at higher levels. MCAS scores are part of it, but so are other measures like grades and portfolios, attendance in honors courses etc. It really is a holistic way to look at schools and I hope that more people will come to know about it in the future.

It is important that School Committee members stand by this annual benchmarking process with a single message that we don’t just judge schools or students by a single test and that sustainable school improvement takes time.

Parent should know that our schools continue to implement creative, rigorous curriculum, like the Literacy Collaborative and TERC math, that encourage critical thinking, and deep understanding of subjects rather than just test prep.

On the whole, I hear many good things about the elementary programs from parents. The no-tolerance bullying policy written by the administration and passed by the School Committee this term is research-based and allows for individual schools to focus on particular concerns at the school level. We have banned sodas and junk food in schools. The Healthy Children’s Task Force and City Sprouts are working with the school department on ways to provide healthier food and to build gardens at the schools for children to work in.

In my experience, the parents who are unhappiest in Cambridge are those who do not get their first choice of school at the kindergarten level, or who don’t feel their concerns for their individual child are being taken seriously by staff. We need to have a more consumer-friendly school system, and I see it moving in that direction – getting high school schedules out earlier and sending registration packets home before school began this fall are two examples of this.

High School Programs and Administration:
Cambridge Rindge and Latin School has a good reputation for its wide variety of clubs and sports. This is great. But it should also be known for its excellent teaching and academics. In a nutshell, this is the challenge for us and for the high school administration.

I have supported the return of Honors courses for grades 9-12 at the high school, and the immediate goal of getting the high school accredited, which was accomplished this year. I supported the administration’s decision to implement the new college-like block schedule and I helped negotiate with the teacher’s union to make sure teachers would get a year of training before implementation. (Unlike the initial 2000 redesign when there was no training required before implementation.)

My main concern at the high school is, again, quality teaching and high expectations. The AVID elective, implemented this fall, should help by supporting more students to take high level classes and by training teachers to help students with specific study skills and strategies, with the goal of getting into college.

Overall, the faculty and administration should be focused on creating an academic environment where all students can experience success, are motivated and have the skills to pursue concrete plans for their future, be it college or work. Passing the state-mandated MCAS test is only part of the picture.

Next term, I would like to see the administration reach out even more to the 7th and 8th graders to prepare them for course options at the high school. I would also like to see a special program for 9th graders, either an orientation day after they get their fall schedules, or an orientation elective during their first year.

I also would like to see the administration work on making the high school building more attractive and user-friendly – more like an academic campus, with better signage and amenities. This will be especially important when construction on the main library expansion begins next door.

School Department Administration and the Budget:
As a member of the Cambridge United for Education in the mid-1990s, I helped do an analysis comparing our budget to that of Brookline, a slightly less diverse district, but with K-8 elementary schools like ours. It showed that Cambridge was top heavy, with many more administrators and support personnel. After I was elected to the School Committee I took a leadership role in calling for streamlining of the administration to close budget shortfalls and put money into classrooms.

This past year, I urged the Superintendent to go even further and explain more clearly why our district spends more money per pupil than many others. His analysis, part of the budget presentation this spring, shows that we spend roughly what Brookline does and have a similar administrative structure – except we offer many more services to families.

Our system of many small elementary schools, our choice system – to name only two factors –makes our district more expensive to run. This is not a bad thing: parents prefer small schools and small class sizes which are associated with higher achievement. Also, unlike other districts, we have not cut art, music, physical education or foreign language in the elementary schools in response to cuts in local aid. We do not charge parents user fees either, which limit access to low-income families.

Our challenge is to use our resources in the best ways possible and to communicate successes so Cambridge taxpayers (whose residential tax rates are half of those in the suburbs) believe their tax dollars are being used wisely.

Teacher Evaluations and Teachers Contract:
This is where the rubber meets the road, as the saying goes.

Since I joined the School Committee, I have made sure I was at the many, many meetings of every contract negotiation – I feel that strongly about it. Each time, we were able to strengthen the evaluation system and focus more on the need for ongoing teacher training.

The School Committee has asked for summaries of the results of the evaluations to make sure principals (who evaluate teachers) are using evaluations effectively to improve teaching. Better evaluation of all personnel was one of the goals we established with the Superintendent after he was hired two years ago.

The Superintendent is now evaluating principals aggressively based on how well they are evaluating teachers. I support the further training being done this year with principals led by Harvard professor Richard Elmore, an expert in teacher development. This training is all about visiting classrooms in Cambridge schools and identifying and talking about “best practices” in teaching. I also support the administrative internship program begun by the Superintendent to train aspiring principals within our district.

One area of concern for me is making sure that principals are acting immediately upon information that a teacher is not doing well. Although principals are legally prohibited from talking about personnel issues, they need to show parents that their concerns are being taken seriously and, deficiencies, if present, are being corrected.

Conversely, we should find more ways of acknowledging and rewarding excellent teaching. The new evaluation system does, for the first time, allow evaluators to use a scale to distinguish degrees of competency, from unsatisfactory to excellent.

State/Federal Role in Local Education:
The state and federal role has expanded significantly into education, while local control has shrunk. State and federal lawmakers have relied on soaring property taxes to cover unfunded mandates for schools. They have relied on punitive labels for schools and single tests (often with errors) to measure student progress rather than measuring and rewarding improvement.

This is why I have become much more active in the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC).

Earlier this year, I was one of several school committee leaders in the state to lobby for a restoration of education aid to ‘02 levels. As a result of our “Fund the Future” rally, lawmakers included an additional $50 per pupil in FY ‘06, shifting the costs back a little toward the state side and off local taxes. I have also worked for a moratorium on charter schools and for an “Adequacy” study to determine the true cost of teaching to the Massachusetts curriculum frameworks.

Lobbying state and federal officials on behalf of Cambridge and public schooling is an important part of the job of a local school committee member. I will continue to do this next term. I have been nominated to become the Secretary/Treasurer of the MASC next year (a volunteer position), the first representative from Cambridge to join the top leadership of the MASC.

Declining Enrollment:
Cambridge enrollment has been declining for some time. A “leavers” study done by the Superintendent last year shows that the reasons are mixed, but mostly due to housing costs and job transfers.

I believe we should do all we can to encourage parents to stay in Cambridge and send their children to the Cambridge public schools. (I am co-sponsoring three forums on how to make Cambridge more “family friendly” during this election season. Please go to for details.) But, ultimately, the focus should be on building good schools that parents want to come to.

Our schools are unique city schools that offer much more than the suburban experience. Colleges recognize this when considering applicants from CRLS. We need to be better about communicating the social and academic skills our graduates have.

There are many other things we can do to attract families to our schools: expand popular programs, minimize mandatory kindergarten placements, become a more “customer-friendly” system, look at “magnetizing” schools where enrollment is very low. These are things I have pushed for on the School Committee and will continue to push for.

In the end, enrollment will be driven by the reputation of the schools and teaching force – which is why I’m such a cheerleader for quality teaching and professional development.

Charter Schools:
I am opposed to the Massachusetts charter program because it is being used to siphon money and students away from public schools and to take power away from teachers’ unions – not to create innovative schools as the charter law intended. Numerous studies show charter students on average do no better than public school students and that charters are re-segregating schools in the U.S. Better to improve the schools we have and make them more responsive to parent demand.

Thanks for reading this far! For more information on me, please go to If you’d like to read my updates from the campaign trail, visit my blog at There’s also a ton of good information on the school website:

Please go to the polls on Nov. 8 and give me your #1 vote for Cambridge School Committee! To find your polling location, go to:

Page last updated October 02, 2006 Cambridge Candidate Pages