Editorial: Somerville School Quality

by Dan Futrell, March 20, 2014 

originally published by  

In an open letter last week to the Journal, Selena Fitanides, an education activist who unsuccessfully sought to open a charter school in Somerville in 2011, expressed her opposition to a proposal for a more fair assessment of school districts in the Commonwealth. According to Ms. Fitanides, “Somerville officials successfully lobbied the State” to change the assessment so that it would raise Somerville’s ranking, and so that the city could prevent the creation of additional charter schools.

Leaving aside the notion that Somerville officials have the power to singularly change the way the state Board of Education chooses to measure all schools in Massachusetts, I’d like to correct Ms. Fitanides’ statements about the quality of Somerville schools.

As a new School Committee member 70 days into my term, I’ve spent 79 hours over that time (according to my google calendar) meeting with teachers, parents, administrators, and colleagues on the School Committee working to improve our schools, not including solo work late at night. I’m proud to say that we’re working on initiatives that are both important and impactful to the health of our families and our city.

We’re working on a plan to ensure that children in Somerville are universally ready for kindergarten, we’re working to ensure students are career- & college-ready upon graduation, we’re working to include more diverse voices in the conversation about the future of our schools, and importantly, we’re working toward a future that regards success as something more than rote performance in math and english on a standardized test.

Ms. Fitanides asserts that Somerville will “likely remain in the bottom 10 percent [of the districts in Massachusetts] for years to come.” I’ll respond with clarity here: Ms. Fitanides, you are 100% wrong.

On two of Ms. Fitanides claims – that Somerville is one of the worst performing districts in the state, and that we will remain so – the data simply doesn’t support the story she seems eager to tell.

Her letter specifically omits any explanation of why the formula for assessing school districts is being adjusted because that would undercut her claim that Somerville is a terrible district. The formula being proposed would incorporate student growth – the amount that a student progresses in a single year compared to her or his peers – because it is universally recognized as a better way to measure teaching effectiveness.

For example, a poorly performing teacher may only lead his students to progress better than 20% of those students’ peers across the state, while a great teacher may lead his students to progress more than 90% of those students’ peers. Incorporating student growth also acknowledges an uncomfortable fact: absolute test scores are more correlated with family income than any other variable.

In a district where 68% of students are from low-incomes households, the data show that our teachers are the most effective in the state compared to all other of the 26 urban school districts. That is, Somerville’s student growth is higher than every other urban school district because our teachers are great at what they do. Put another way, there is no other urban school district in Massachusetts that leads to more student academic growth than Somerville. Surely not what you’d expect to see from one of the state’s “worst performing districts,” as Ms. Fitanides describes Somerville.

Lastly, Ms. Fitanides’ claim about the future of our district reveals a significant gap in her awareness about what is truly going on here in Somerville. I urge her to attend an Education Programs Subcommittee meeting, or any meeting for that matter, to witness the work and collaboration and the smart application of data and resources – people and otherwise – toward making our high performing school district even better.

Our children’s future is going to be bright not because of the addition or not of a charter school, but because we are working tirelessly, smartly, and collaboratively toward a shared vision where all of our 5,000 children are incredibly supported as they grow into well-rounded, confident young men and women who are empowered to reach their potential.

Dan Futrell currently serves as a member of the Somerville School Committee, representing Ward 2.
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