Margaret Raymond Driscoll is a nine-year Melrose School Committee member who is passionate about excellent teaching and learning for all public school students, and considers it a privilege to collaborate with others who share that passion. You can also follow her on Twitter at @MargaretDrisc. Just to be clear - opinions expressed here do not represent those of the Melrose Public Schools, the Melrose School Committee, or the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials - they are hers alone.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Looking at "Condition of Education in the Commonwealth"

The Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy is an "independent non-profit organization committed to addressing the critical challenges of reforming education in Massachusetts," and publishes an annual report entitled "Condition of Education in the Commonwealth." This year's report was released very recently and it uses data that it says measures the things that state policy is trying to impact, with the goal of increasing conversation around whether reforms are working (and to what extent) as well as "potential strategies for improving student learning outcomes." (The report is only a few pages, has lots of visuals, and can be found here: 

As the state and district become more sophisticated in their collection and use of data, we need to think more about how to better employ data in our policy-making and other School Committee functions in Melrose. First we have to ask the right questions regarding the problems we need to solve, then determine what data is needed and where to get it. Then we can use it more effectively to focus expectations around how and why our administration can improve teaching and learning in both the short and long term. This effort is best done collaboratively with a clear understanding around roles and responsibilities, and within a reasonable timeframe. Reports like those produced by the Rennie Center are helpful benchmarks to expand our own conversations about what how our policies can support high-quality education for our own students.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

School Budget 101

Last night's School Budget 101 forum, hosted by the Melrose Education Foundation, the Melrose Public Schools, and the City of Melrose was an enlightening look into sources of revenue for the city and schools, along with expenditures for both. Some key financial goals include maintaining a balanced city budget (required by law) and one that is stable (employing the policy that no more than 5% of the city budget is devoted to loan payments on our bonds), while using bonded money to pay for one-time expenditures only (so that we aren't borrowing money to meet day-to-day expenses). Challenges for our city include managing expenditures given limited opportunities to expand revenue, health care costs, moving toward a greener/cleaner energy protocol, maintaining pension system funding, managing our debt/bond rating, regionalizing to maximize efficiencies, being aggressive about state grants, and being innovative (like privatizing trash and having the DPW absorb the schools' custodians).

On the school side, 86% of expenditures are for staff salaries while 10% are for contracted services (like special education tuitions/transportation), 2% is for athletics, 1.5% is for supplies and materials, and the rest is for technology. Managing a tight budget means working to add revenue (like instituting school choice and renting facilities), and creatively addressing costs (like reorganizing some paraprofessional staff and charging fees to pay for part of music and athletics expenses). Challenges include addressing unfunded mandates (like collecting state-required data and aligning our curriculum with the Common Core); using technology in teaching and learning (adding technology for the new PARCC exams, paying for software licenses, etc.); training teachers to do all of the above and more; and the uncertainty around special education budgeting. Additional pressing needs include providing teachers more time to work and learn together (since that is proven to increase student achievement), social/emotional support for students (by way of school adjustment counselors), and infrastructure at Melrose High School.

Learn more! Check out the Powerpoint here: http://mayordolansblog.wordpress.com/2013/12/04/school-budget-forum-the-presentation/#more-3057 and watch for the replay of the forum on MMTV. Then come to the School Committee meeting on January 14th where you are invited to share where you would like to see district money spent in the FY 15 budget.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Standardized Tests - Where is MHS in the Mix?

At last week's School Committee meeting we had a spirited discussion around standardized testing at the high school level, most notably the SAT, ACT, and AP exams. Results are in last week's packet: http://melrosecityma.iqm2.com/Citizens/Detail_Meeting.aspx?ID=1245 (under 5.A.1.a.). 

It was agreed that SAT scores are not where we want them, and Mayor Dolan pledged to financially support a summer prep class for the SAT through the Rec. Department. In addition, teachers are working SAT questions into their courses so students will have more practice throughout the year in preparation for the test. The ACT's, which differ from SAT's in that the ACT is content-based while the SAT is reasoning-based, are taken less frequently but most schools will accept either and some students naturally perform better on one than the other. The Guidance Dept. recommends that students take both and determine which works best for them, then consider using that score for college applications. Our ACT scores have been relatively static.

MHS offers a variety of AP classes as well as individual Virtual High School opportunities (for students who may uniquely find a topic appealing or useful to their future plans). Our AP exam scores reflect mixed results over time and it was made clear last Tuesday that we all want our students to prepare and perform as well as possible. When compared with other similar communities (ref: the DESE web site) our scores look unimpressive, but the devil is in the details. The AP philosophy at MHS is that every student who seeks the rigor of an AP class and who is willing to do the work has the opportunity to enroll. In addition, by virtue of enrolling, the student also agrees to take the exam in May so we have virtually 100% participation on test day. Test day also includes students who weren't enrolled in the class but choose to self-study and take on the challenge the test brings. Conversely, many similar communities screen students to allow only those who meet selected criteria to enroll in the class, and don't allow opting out of the test or opting in if not enrolled in the class. As such, their aggregate test scores are likely higher. A recent New York Times article speaks to accessing AP courses, specifically by a diverse group of students (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/27/us/pulling-a-more-diverse-group-of-achievers-into-the-advanced-placement-pool.html?_r=1&). 

My opinion? Continue to support access for as many students who want to take the AP challenge as possible, and provide AP teachers with the most training and resources that we can afford. Encouraging continued employment of this MHS philosophy not only speaks to national, state, and Melrose emphasis on rigor and accountability to ensure that all students are college and career ready, but it also reinforces important life skills like taking on a new challenge, hard work, and perseverance. (And if they end up with college credits to take with them on their journey, all the better!)