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  1. #1
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    Default Thoughts on an evolution of the Wayland Public Schools

    A thread on the private Town Crier/Wicked Local discussion board includes considerable back-and-forth on data showing US students trailing their international counterparts on certain standardized tests. One contributor to that thread makes the wholly unsupported claim that Wayland, being part of the US, is therefore in a similar trailing position. That's entirely possible, but I know of no data indicating such a gap.

    Let's imagine, thought, that a Wayland Public Schools (WPS) education isn't the best in the world, the country, or even Massachusetts. Because that's what we should imagine as the motivation for continuous improvement. Twice on the TC/WL thread, I asked the critic for something more than criticism: what might the WPS look like to truly compete? Twice getting no answer, it occurred to me to take a stab at the question myself.

    I included "evolution" rather than "revolution" in the title of this thread because the data (test scores, athletic results, art performance, college acceptances, ...) reveal a system that is at least strong, and that doesn't need to be "blown up" and started anew.

    I would start with what we have--excellent teachers, solid curriculum, adequate facilities, all aimed at our delivering on our mission statement--and then evolve consistent with the best thinking of our superintendent, our administrators, our teachers, and experts beyond our borders:

    • More professional development: As our Superintendent says, this is our research and development. Teachers get better when they learn, and their learning in the classroom will be slow without training in the classroom and outside the current school day.

    • Longer school day: I would start with Kindergarten, moving from a 2/3 to a full day. Then, I would consider extending the full day by an hour or two. This is more an issue at the elementary level, as our co-curricular program (more on that below) already provides a longer day.

    • Technology infusion: Educational productivity in terms of student:teacher ratio hasn't really changed in a century--we still have one educator in a class of 25 or so children. One promise of technology is a shake-up of this ratio. Instructional software and distance learning don't have to come at the expense of the teaching staff, whose count would reduce through attrition. In fact, such a shift would benefit the teacher, freeing him or her up to spend more time in smaller groups providing truly differentiated instruction.

    • Differentiated instruction (1): As commonly used, differentiated instruction connotes different or extra work for struggling students. A broader use of the term, though, means having each student at their "zone of proximal development" (where work is challenging, not frustrating or boring). This applies to all students across the spectrum of ability, not just those who struggle.

    • Differentiated instruction (2): While this isn't the traditional use of the phrase "differentiated instruction, I'd like to explore having one teacher for reading/social studies and a second for math/science at the elementary level. This would allow for teachers with more focused education and experience coming in and professional development going forward.

    • Curriculum enhancement: In recent years, we've made great strides in the key foundational skills of early reading and math. All curriculum is reviewed and improved on a revolving schedule. Two areas that are obvious candidates for expansion/overhaul are foreign language and health/wellness. Both should be considered district-wide, including a look at foreign language at the elementary level (sometimes called FLES). Regarding health/wellness, the research is clear on the positive academic effect of nutrition, fitness, proper sleep (perhaps enhanced through later start times for older students), and avoiding destructive habits.

    • Co-curricular program: Currently, because of our athletics fee structure, we spend on the order of $50 on academics for every $1 we pay for our athletic program. I'd like to see that ratio drop to $30:$1 (by eliminating the fees) or even $25:$1 or so (by publicly-funding crew and hockey). Athletics should be on par with our rich arts program, and they aren't. Athletics are an important part of an education, not only for reasons of fitness, but for their contribution to the "competitive skills" listed at the end of this entry.

    • Adequate facilities: As great as it would be to house a world class education in world class facilities, that has not been--and likely will not be--our approach. With ongoing significant (roofs, windows) and minor (flooring) work, our elementary schools are adequate. Our Middle School, recently renovated, is a bit better than adequate. The deficiencies of our High School physical plant are well-documented; through the outstanding work of the High School Building Committee, we hope that these deficiencies will shortly be the subject of some redress. Across our buildings, we need to be "thinking green" by implementing energy efficient features.
    My list above builds on our current offering, it does not replace it. Commensurately, my list above requires funding on top of what we currently spend. I fully appreciate the precarious position of our current finances and the considerable challenges we face in increasing the amount. Nonetheless, I think it important to paint a picture of what a reasonable--not excessive--public education might look like.

    I offer all of the above in the context of the current structure of public education. I do so not because this structure is perfect, but rather, because it is what we have. I'm all for working to improve public education by changing its structure, but doing so requires effort far beyond our control here within the borders of Wayland.

    Earlier, I referenced our mission statement. My shorthand for our goal: helping young people become global citizens. A recent survey of 400 national companies found the following qualities to be most important to competitive success on the global stage:

    1. Professionalism and work ethic
    2. Written/spoken communication
    3. Teamwork
    4. Critical thinking/creativity/problem solving

    All are consistent with our mission statement, and all should be at the forefront of our thinking as we continue to evolve the Wayland Public Schools.

    There are probably some areas that I've inadvertently neglected. I look forward to reading people's comments on my thoughts as well as the addition of their own.
    Last edited by Jeff Dieffenbach; 09-13-2008 at 03:27 PM. Reason: Added "Differentiated instruction (2)

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    Several weeks back Jeff Dieffenbach posted a set of goals by which the WPS should strive to achieve to further its status as a top-tier public school system.

    http://www.waylandenews.com/forum/showthread.php?t=175

    Recently in this thread he asked me to review it in regards to differences of opinion he and I may have outside of the Loker debate. Upon re-reading it, what struck me was how many of those items I had assumed were already part and parcel of this school system in the 13+ years that my wife and I have lived in Wayland -- over 12 of those years without children of public schooling age. Upon our immersion into the elementary school debate it appears that assumption was not quite accurate.

    The reality in Wayland is that much is expected of the public schools. I believe you (Jeff) have used the phrase when describing parents’ expectations of a “private school education at a public school cost.” I would argue that we’re getting closer to a point where the reverse could be true: a public school education for a private school price. Often the two costs aren’t all that different (in our small and personal household example, it’s cheaper to send our son to private full-day kindergarten than it would be if he went to Loker (for half-day K), all due to the BASE cost). The fact is that taxes are high in Wayland. Thus, there is a high tax/high service expectation here. The other alternative is low tax/low service but it isn’t relevant to discuss this outside of the fact that the two extremes are mutually exclusive. You cannot have high tax/low service or low/high. So the expectations are what they are and the schools have to meet them.

    So what are the high service expectations? As you proposed (but I think is more assumed) here: differentiated instruction for both special needs and high-achieving students. Better teacher training. Better facilities. More diverse co-curriculars. Better technology. The problem is we haven’t yet begun to implement many of those improvements under the current operating budget. If we’re having so many financially constraining problems now how could we possibly afford all the improvements?

    There should be a standard basic level for both academics and extra-curriculars. I’m not proposing that extra-curriculars aren’t important but if only one of the two can be funded at above the basic level, in my opinion it should be the academics. Others might debate that. There are other ways for everyone to play sports and do other extra-curriculars, but there is really no other way to get the academics. So how do we define “basic” in terms of academics? Is it differentiated instruction for all students? Better teacher training? Technology? Languages? All of those things? The crucial question for the SC is to define “basic” for academics and extra-curriculars.

    I think an unknown is what is really important to the community. The SC should prioritize school needs with active public input that has to expand beyond the ballot and discussions of overrides at Town Meeting. The Loker decision was based mainly on one SC member (Jeff -- I can use your name here legally, right?) with Dr. Burton expressing their opinion on the value of maintaining athletics (including MS) over elementary class sizes and 3 elementary schools. Does that really reflect the public opinion of an “excellent” school system? The override vote is not representative of that, as the public had no input to the override “menu list.” The override has been a binary choice and, in my opinion, its passing or failing in and of itself is not indicative of the level of public support of educational priorities. It will be more and more difficult to expect the public to support voluntary tax increases without more engagement of that public in regards to expectations of the educational system.

    The disagreement I believe I have with Jeff is not what our “blue-sky” aspirations would be for an excellent school system, it’s how to prioritize competing – and all worthy – interests in times of limited resources. We were offered a glimpse of that with the elementary reconfiguration but little in the way of understanding how current and proposed budget programs are prioritized. The Wayland School system is indeed very good. But I think we’re approaching a place where continuing at that level -- and obviously improving it – will necessitate difficult decisions in the years ahead because of budgetary constraints. If compromise is required, where should it be and, as importantly, why?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Paul Grasso View Post
    I believe you (Jeff) have used the phrase when describing parents’ expectations of a “private school education at a public school cost.” I would argue that we’re getting closer to a point where the reverse could be true: a public school education for a private school price.
    Paul, "private school education paid for publicly" has been the charge of school critics--I've never said any such thing. In fact, I've said what you're saying--with the increase in fees, Wayland is (unfortunately) moving in the direction of public school education paid for privately.

    I'll read the rest of your post in more detail when I get a chance and respond if/where appropriate.

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    My apologies for the lack of clarity, Jeff. I didn't mean to imply that you had agreed with that categorization but that you had used that phrase to describe expectations/criticism of the schools.

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    Our family moved to Wayland last summer (2007) for a couple of reasons; #1 being school reputation & quality of education, and #2 proximity to Boston in a more or less rural setting. We knew about the high tax rate, but figured that the trade off was worth it. We have three kids, a junior and a freshman at the high school this year, and our youngest is a fifth grader now at Claypit (we were at Loker last year). What follows are a few of my thoughts on some of the points that Jeff D. has raised in his post:

    Full Day Kindergarten: Our kids have been in five different school systems throughout their academic careers; including two in Vermont, one in Iowa, and one in Kentucky. Wayland is the only school system our family has been in that does not offer full day Kindergarten. We don’t have children of Kindergarten age anymore, but at least in our own experience full day K is in the norm.

    Curriculum Enhancement/Differentiated Instruction: We were surprised to learn that Wayland doesn’t have a system at the elementary level to challenge its students who fall into the “gifted & talented” category. One of our children was moved into such a program at our last school system. The majority of her classes were with her peers, but once or twice a week she was pulled out with a small group of other children to work on semester long projects that went over and above the regular curriculum. They were challenging, and taught the kids to further expand their minds and abilities. No such thing exists in Wayland. Our former G&T student came home from school a couple of weeks ago wondering aloud why they were covering XYZ in math class-as they learned the same thing two years ago. Leaving me to wonder if she’s bored at school (maybe), being challenged at school (seems not to be). Hmm. I will say at the high school level, there seems to be a broad spectrum of classes offered that we as a family are happy with.

    School Start Times: There are a multitude of studies that show high school aged children have a physiological shift in their internal body clocks that makes them in essence want to stay up late and get up late. Starting school at 7:30am and having to get up at 6am or earlier to catch a bus feeds their sleep deprivation, and in turn their performance (or lack thereof) at school. Consider moving the middle school and high school start times an hour later, and elementary school times an hour earlier? We might just see our high school children more awake, ready to learn, and performing better in class (and on those all important SATs).

    Our family chose to live here expecting our schools to provide an excellent education for our kids. While I don’t think that the education our kids are getting is sub-standard, I also don’t feel that it’s anything out of the ordinary either-the schools are good and that’s it. I agree with Paul that all of the various possibilities that would improve Wayland’s schools should be prioritized with community input-it can’t be just the SC and Dr. Burton, who have the responsibility to listen and respond to the wants and needs of the people they serve. It’s not always convenient or possible for people to get to SC meetings, why not send out a survey allowing folks to rank items and leave space for other ideas? Or do it on-line? Thanks for listening.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Paul Grasso View Post
    I think an unknown is what is really important to the community. The SC should prioritize school needs with active public input that has to expand beyond the ballot and discussions of overrides at Town Meeting.
    To be sure, community input goes well beyond those two mechanisms. We hold a fall general forum and a spring budget hearing. We hold on the order of 30-35 public meetings each year. And we receive communication from community members throughout the year. That said, I like the idea of a survey to address the question of priorities and provide feedback to the Committee and the Administration.

    Quote Originally Posted by Paul Grasso View Post
    The Loker decision was based mainly on one SC member (Jeff -- I can use your name here legally, right?) with Dr. Burton expressing their opinion on the value of maintaining athletics (including MS) over elementary class sizes and 3 elementary schools.
    I'm not sure that I understand your point, but if my interpretation is correct, I disagree with your characterization. There were two key decisions regarding the elementary school reconfiguration: whether to reconfigure a year in advance, and if so, how to reconfigure.

    The first of these two decisions--and the one to which you are referring, I think--was made unanimously by the School Committee as a whole (and opposed by Superintendent Burton). The primary rationale was to reduce the amount of the override. We could have reduced the override by roughly an additional $100k had we elected not to preserve MS and HS co-curricular programs, but the overall intent was to preserve both curricular and co-curricular programs across all three levels: ES, MS, and HS.

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    Mary,

    You’ve raised some excellent points.

    I am also in favor of more community input on important decisions that affect the entire school community.

    The unanimous decision among the 5 members of the school committee to go to 2.5 schools is a good example of where community input could have made a difference, assuming we’d had sufficient knowledge of it in advance, understood the implications of it and had time to react.

    It is also a good example of a school committee that is out of touch. In previous dialogues with some of its members, it is clear that they support golf and Ultimate Frisbee for high schoolers, at the expense of other programs more academic in nature. While the arguments they pose for maintaining co-curriculars make sense on a certain level, it would be interesting to take a poll and see what most voters or most parents think about that. It’s entirely possible that the 5 members who make up the school committee have it wrong, and in fact do not reflect what most parents would most value for their children.

    They also seem to be out of touch with the $32 million dollar budget that they alone control. The fact that they were unaware of an annual $9000 expense for ski lift tickets for our high school ski team, makes one wonder what else has slipped by them on their watch.

    So, yes, we do need more community involvement if we want to make sure that the school committee focuses on what we truly value.

    There is a School Committee meeting tonight, and I would encourage all interested parties to attend this, and as many meetings as you can.

    .
    John Flaherty

    Any views expressed are NOT mine alone.
    Wayland Transparency - Facts Without Spin
    http://www.waylandtransparency.com/

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    Quote Originally Posted by John Flaherty View Post
    It is also a good example of a school committee that is out of touch. In previous dialogues with some of its members, it is clear that they support golf and Ultimate Frisbee for high schoolers, at the expense of other programs more academic in nature.
    I would be interested to know which members these are. And which academic programs. We spend about $10k on golf, of which roughly a third is funded by the participants. I don't recall the Ultimate Frisbee expense, but it's substantially less, I believe. Since there is always more that we could be doing academically, I guess the "at the expense of" statement is technically correct, but applying that philosophy would mean that we'd never have any publicly funded co-curricular programs at all. We need to strike a balance.

    Quote Originally Posted by John Flaherty View Post
    The fact that they were unaware of an annual $9000 expense for ski lift tickets for our high school ski team, makes one wonder what else has slipped by them on their watch.
    I for one was not aware of the $9k lift ticket expense. At a bit less than 0.03% of the budget, it did in fact "slip" past me on my watch, as do many items of that magnitude. When it comes to the cost of athletics (and the fees that partially support them), I necessarily look from the top (or perhaps the middle) down.

    At $626/student in FY07, skiing did not appear to be out of alignment with other sports (it ranked 8th out of 25 teams). I certainly have no objection to lift tickets at a training hill being covered by the athletic budget--the athletes need to get up the hill, after all. It's not as if we're talking about season passes to Stowe.

    The reason that I reluctantly agreed with the decision to pass yet another fee on to our students was to stay in line with what other school districts are doing, not because there's anything inherently wrong with the item in question.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Dieffenbach View Post
    I for one was not aware of the $9k lift ticket expense. At a bit less than 0.03% of the budget, it did in fact "slip" past me on my watch, as do many items of that magnitude.
    How many?
    That's my point.
    $9000 as an annual expense is relatively small in a $32 million dollar budget. But multiply that times 10 or 20 or more and it becomes a big number.
    And if these are items that "slip" past you and your fellow SC members, there's really no way of knowing how many there are. It could be that a lot of money is either being wasted or spent on purchases that even you may find inappropriate.
    This is unacceptable.
    This is our money that is slipping by you.

    The reason that I reluctantly agreed with the decision to pass yet another fee on to our students was to stay in line with what other school districts are doing, not because there's anything inherently wrong with the item in question.
    There is nothing inherently wrong with the item in question.
    For towns with disposable income, it's a great way to spend it.
    However, we don't fall into that category.
    You're coming to taxpayers every 2 years saying that if we don't approve an override, X, Y and Z will need to be cut. I don't recall every seeing anything like ski lift tickets on those cut lists. Why? Because including them on there would be a sure way to fail the override.
    And yet programs like this live on, under the radar, not broken out in a budget breakdown while you're telling us we won't survive without an override.

    Show me the money!
    We need to see a breakdown of how our money is being spent.

    I have no problem supporting a necessary override.
    But when I see expenses like this that the 5 people responsible for the budget weren't even aware of, I get nervous.
    I lose confidence and wonder how necessary an override really is.

    .
    John Flaherty

    Any views expressed are NOT mine alone.
    Wayland Transparency - Facts Without Spin
    http://www.waylandtransparency.com/

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