From the 7/24/2008 Town Crier letters to the editor

Quote Originally Posted by Dawn Davies

Are our students lagging behind?
TO THE EDITOR:
Over the past few months new sources have provided support for the conclusion that the United States, Massachusetts and Wayland are falling behind educationally.

Gov. Deval Patrick’s June 2008 Education Action Agenda (June 2008) documents Massachusetts’ educational decline versus the developed world. While Patrick’s agenda focuses on the educational lag of the poor in Massachusetts, many of the same educational challenges face Wayland. Patrick describes the standards in Massachusetts as high, but Massachusetts standards are significantly below those of the developed world. For instance, Massachusetts schools have a shorter year and day than our world peers. The public schools addressing that concern are mainly Massachusetts charter schools, where the day and year are often longer. Charter schools are the most successful recent educational innovation in Massachusetts and the only remedy for middle class parents who want a higher quality education than local school boards like Wayland can provide. The Patrick Administration’s proposal suggests an expansion cap on Charter schools, which is unfortunate. Such a cap would limit Wayland parents’ ability to catch their children up with the rest of the world.

There is a new documentary coming out on the state of American schools. At www.flunkedthemovie.com one can see the trailer, and read about what prompted the documentary. As this documentary notes, most parents think their own school systems are preparing their students adequately, with the educational lag occurring elsewhere.

Want to see if our educational lag could affect your child’s college plans? Take the "Third World Challenge." The producer of the documentary "Two Million Minutes" has teamed up with an online educational program to create an online test. This test is a simplified version of the test that rural Indians must take to go on to 11th grade. This test is for our entering 12th graders - our soon-to-be college applicants. Given the falling dollar, greater numbers of international students are expected to apply to American colleges next year. This might be useful to see what your child is up against.

Dawn Davies
Woodridge Road

----------

[In part, Dawn replied as follows to a Town Crier discussion board post responding to her original letter.]

Many sources are now also making clear what the problem is, and it is not primarily money. It is a lack of focus. The extracurriculars many support so strongly come at a cost that is more than financial - it is academic.

[Regarding], class size as a determinant of academic performance, [it] is worth noting that, after pots of money being thrown at reducing class size, the idea has lost credibility with almost any authority except the educational unions. For instance, Patrick's plan to improve education contains no reference to reducing class size beyond second grade. Nowhere in any recent source I could find is class size for older grades pushed as an initiative.
I couldn't agree more with Dawn's original overall point. The data clearly show impressive performance on the part of select students in other countries. US schools are well-advised to benchmark against best international educational practices.

Similarly, the data show that some charter schools do quite well (see below for MA details). It does not surprise me when charter schools perform better than public schools, as the families who opt for the charter school path have self-identified as being motivated. While charter schools are required to accept all students who apply on a lottery basis, they do not necessarily have the same applicant pool as public schools. To randomly take just one local example, the name of the Advanced Math and Science Academy may discourage applications by some students. Regardless, public schools should consider the best practices of charter schools as well.

Massachusetts schools perform among the best in the United States, and the Wayland Public Schools rank near the top of Massachusetts schools when judged on a broad base of measures. This is an excellent position from which to further our pursuit of continuous improvement.

Where the thinking of the Wayland Public Schools begins to diverge is in the area of co-curricular activities: athletics, arts, and activities. For every $10 we spend on academics, we spend $1 on co-curricular endeavors. I'm aware of no evidence to suggest that this is overdoing it with respect to co-curriculars, which provide multiple benefits including but not limited to teamwork, creativity, problem-solving, fitness, and outlets for energies that might otherwise be less constructively applied.

It is a curious decision to downplay the importance of funding. If funding were not important, we would not be spending time, energy, and political capital fighting for overrides. With more funding, we might have full day kindergarten, perhaps a longer school day and year in general, more foreign languages, a better wellness program, and many of the program enhancements we'd like to offer. Certainly, diverting the minimal co-curricular funds won't help us accomplish these objectives, even if these co-curricular activities weren't valuable in their own right.

All of that being said, the WPS constantly strives to improve, in cost-effective ways, looking both inward and outward for successful paths forward.

----------
Charter school performance
This report from the Massachusetts DOE looks at the performance of charter schools compared with their "Comparison School District," or CSD (that is, the conventional public district which the charter school students would otherwise have attended).

The data in this 2006 report only goes through 2005--if there is a more contemporary unbiased report, I would be interested in seeing it. The main conclusion is that in 2005, charter schools significantly outperformed their CSD 36% of the time, whereas the CSD outperformed the charter school 11% of the time.

The report states, "Although that pattern existed for all subgroups, the likelihood of the significant difference favoring the charter school was most prevalent for the racial/ethnic subgroups of African American and Hispanic students and the subgroup of students who are Low Income."

The reader is left to infer how the average and best charter schools compare to a high-performing public school district such as the WPS.