Alliance Report Blasts Cambridge Schools

Superintendent Says Some Criticisms Unfounded

A report recently released by a Cambridge public action group blasted the quality of the Cambridge public school system, saying that the high per-pupil spending in the system is straining the funding available while student performance declines.

The Cambridge Alliance, a newly-formed non-profit citizen's group, released the report, titled "White Paper: The Cambridge Public Schools" last week.

The report compared the performance of Cambridge city school students unfavorably to that of students elsewhere in the state and nationwide. For example, the report said, the average Cambridge student ranked in the bottom 25 percent nationally on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).

Cambridge also ranked 32 out of 39 schools in Boston and the surrounding areas in the percentage of students performing at or above grade level on standardized achievement test in 12th grade math and eighth grade science.

Meanwhile, the report said, Cambridge, at more than $8,500 spent per student, spends almost 60 percent more per student than does the state overall.


The Alliance proposed several changes to the current system, standardizing of curricula across schools, setting educational standards and downsizing the school bureaucracy.

Alliance members said yesterday they hoped to provoke thought with the report.

David Goode, program coordinator for Cambridge Alliance, said the group intended to "try and initiate some debate."

He said the group has already heard from several people with more ideas for issues to add to the report, and he said the report might be added to in the coming months.

"We're considering it a working paper," Goode said.

School superintendent Mary Lou McGrath said yesterday that she was glad that some members of the community were concerned enough about education to formulate such a report.

McGrath said she had only just received the article, and had only had time to skim it between activities concerning personnel selections.

But she said that several of the recommendations had already taken place, such as the proposed lowering of health care costs and the encouraging of linkage with area universities. And she said she felt other criticisms were unfounded. "We have the lowest percentage of administrators to students of any system in the state, according to the state representative," she said. "It's true that we have a lot of people overall--but if you look at it there's a very small number that's not on the front line working with the kids."

Many staff members, McGrath said, are devoted to such special-needs areas as special education and bilingual programs, the latter of which is necessary in a community with a definite percentage of students for whom English is not a first language.

She said she had not yet been able to look carefully at the data provided about student achievement, but said the school administration had been studying the matter themselves for some time.

"We spend a lot of time and resources with the top students and with the lower groups of students," McGrath said. "Students at the lower end of academics have achieved improvements, but we're looking a students with lots of issues. Also, there is a great correlation between the socioeconomic situation and student achievement."

McGrath said she and other staff and administrators in the school system would review and discuss the report this week. But she said she felt there was at least one area of improvement ignored by the report.

"I don't know what they mean by [problems with reducing] bureaucracy," she said. "Since I've been superintendent we've reduced bureaucratic costs by more than $1.7 million... A lot of people have been asking for early retirement."