In May 2006, I met Craig Kelley for an early morning interview at a coffee shop near Davis Square. Though he is a city councillor, he wanted to talk about little besides the Cambridge Public Schools. Kelley is a polarizing politician—often somewhat too dogmatic, even strangely eager to alienate his colleagues—but he does have a tendency to tell it like it is, and one thing he said has stuck with me for the past three and a half years: “If we can’t make public education work here,” he said, “there is no hope for public education in a diverse, urban environment anywhere.”
And so, it would seem, there’s no hope. Just last week, the most recent standardized test results showed that, despite improvements, Cambridge students are still scoring below the state average and that the racial achievement gaps in the city are larger than they are in Massachusetts as a whole. Particularly distressing was the staggering 44-point achievement gap between white and black students on the seventh-grade math test. The disappointing results come in the face of natural advantages that most cities would kill for: notably, a blank check from taxpayers—at last count, an extraordinary $25,000 per pupil—and the commitment of a significant middle-class population.
These positives have long been overwhelmed by a school committee without a clear direction and ineffective superintendents that were the result—a common enough occurrence that many experts believe school-board models are themselves unworkable. School committees can succeed at running districts, however, as long they do at least three things: provide extensive political cover for the superintendent; manage the system’s finances effectively; and think creatively, but not intrusively, about curriculum and instructional issues. On these criteria, two of Cambridge’s committee members—Patricia M. Nolan ’80 and Marc C. McGovern—stand head and shoulders above the rest.
In the recent search to hire a superintendent, Nolan strongly backed Newton schools chief Jeffrey M. Young—and, along with several of her colleagues, stood her ground against the many residents who evidently did not like that he is white and from the suburbs. The experienced and savvy Young possesses both the strong managerial skills of his predecessor, Thomas D. Fowler-Finn, and the grace and consensus-building style of Fowler-Finn’s predecessor, Bobbie D’Alessandro. As Young makes controversial staffing and curricular decisions, as he surely will, it will be important that committee members are allies in promoting reform and not agents of obstruction.
On financial issues, Nolan’s record as a school-committee member has been exemplary. She has developed a sophisticated understanding of the district’s finances and has pushed for cutting central administration spending and redirecting it to classrooms. Early in her tenure, she sponsored a proposal to reclassify the district’s surplus money as discretionary funds for principals—an effort to see the dollars spent in the schools—but it received only the votes of Nolan and committee member Luc D. Schuster, who is not seeking reelection. Her intimacy with the data has also allowed her to discover worrying information, like the fact that Cambridge spends so much more than other districts but without the lower teacher-to-student ratios to show for it.
McGovern, for his part, brings an unfortunately unique perspective to the school committee, for, as a youth social worker, he is the only member of the committee who actually works with children. His professional background is reflected in his priorities: Where Nolan often pushes for better market research and financial management, McGovern’s concerns are more oriented toward the classroom and pedagogy. He has pushed to spend more resources on students with special needs and has called for the district to create a comprehensive plan to improve the educational climates in schools, including an anti-bullying strategy. Crucially, he has been the strongest supporter of an early childhood education center, which would provide programs to ensure that all children begin kindergarten on a level playing field.
Today it’s as rare for Harvard students to become involved in Cambridge issues as it is for a Cantabrigian to vote in local elections. The reason I’ve paid attention for so many years is that I just can’t shake what Craig Kelley said to me during that early morning interview. Making public education work in Cambridge has proved to be far harder than most people thought, but in the past year the stars have begun to align. When Cambridge voters go to the polls next Tuesday, I hope they mark their ballots for the two committee members who have the strongest records of bringing positive change to the city’s public schools.
Paras D. Bhayani ’09, a Teach for America corps member in Chicago, was managing editor of The Harvard Crimson in 2008. He previously covered both the Cambridge Public Schools and the 2007 city council and school committee elections.