SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

July 1, 2013

Column: Saltonstall vote was about results

Brendan Walsh
The Salem News

---- — This newspaper recently ran an editorial that both reflected and added to the confusion and misinformation that exists in regard to the School Committee’s recent discussion and pending vote on the issue of the appropriate number of school days for Salem’s school children.

The editorial writer focused entirely on the issue of equity and then proceeded to defend one side of the discussion. If you read the editorial, you would come away believing that the sole issue is equitability of services. Equity is indeed an issue to me, as it should be to all School Committee members and elected officials in a representative democracy. It was not and is not my major reason for reducing the amount of money spent on Saltonstall.

My rationale is quite simple. If something is not worth what you’re paying for it, stop paying. Saltonstall has not shown itself to be any more effective than a like school, according to the hard data we have on hand. At this point, it should be noted that testing experts agree that family income and parental education levels are usually closely related and that this combination is the single most powerful determinant of test scores.

Much of what has been said, printed and shouted from the rooftops is, essentially, anecdotal evidence provided by one side of an argument. It is my experience that defenders of any school/program can produce anecdotal evidence supporting their position. Unfortunately, the value of anecdotal evidence is in the eye of the beholder.

Evidence based on data is somewhat less biased. That evidence indicates that there has been virtually no performance difference between the Saltonstall and Witchcraft Heights schools. These two schools are compared because they have very similar populations. Saltonstall is in session 250 hours a year more than Witchcraft. One would expect there to be some difference in performance stemming from the extra 250 hours. Unfortunately, the difference is just not there and has not been there for some time. Indeed, it appears to be a “little-known fact” that Saltonstall slipped to Level 3 status in the last MCAS round. That has been either blithely ignored or explained as a “glitch.” Maybe. Maybe not.

There are other, non-test score, but neutral and unbiased analyses of the facts, as well: Follow-up analysis of high-level academic performers at SHS who attended Salem elementary schools reveals no evidence of any one school better preparing its students academically. This is also true of analysis of participation in various talent- or interest-driven extra-curricular activities such as band, drama, debate, math clubs, etc. The participant numbers indicate that no one school has a particularly strong across-the-board effect in these areas.

Not mentioned at the most recent meeting, but relevant to the discussion, is other data-supported evidence: Attendance. The rate of absenteeism at Saltonstall during the summer weeks over the last few years has been consistently higher than the rate of absenteeism for the preceding months. This is a simple fact supporting the implication that extra days are important unless they are inconvenient. A look at teacher absenteeism also demonstrates a small uptick in the summer period.

If one wishes to use the “summer loss” argument for employing an extended year due to evidence indicating that low-income kids lose ground in the summer, I would generally agree, as will be noted later. But, as I have pointed out during every discussion of this subject, Saltonstall, as our least-needy school, is precisely the wrong school in which to make that argument.

If one wishes to make the “we know that more is better for all” argument regarding length of school year, I advise that they look at the calendars of the private schools in the area. These schools charge tuitions between $4,200 and $36,900 a year. For this expenditure, they are in session for a range of days spanning between 156 and 180 days, and most don’t make up lost “snow days.”

I am confident that the Salem School Committee can provide additional instruction focused on the standards set by the DESE for students who, for whatever reasons, are struggling to meet reasonable expectations and to provide that instruction by the best professionals available and funded by the Salem Public Schools. This, to me, is something that must be offered to every struggling child. We cannot force attendance, but we can underline its importance and encourage attendance.

The Salem Public Schools and our many willing partners can provide enrichment experiences both aligned to and tangential to the state standards for children whose parents desire such participation. This must be done, I believe, on a “sliding scale” basis determined by each family’s economic capacity.

Interestingly, almost all of the elected participants in the debate agreed, in one form or another, regarding the two preceding paragraphs. My personal belief is that additional instruction for struggling students must be seen as a necessity in light of MCAS, and enrichment activities be viewed as an “extra added attraction” for Salem Public Schools students wishing to participate, assuming that funding can be found. I would add that if a participating partner’s programs are too expensive for our families, they should not participate.

It is the task of the School Committee to spend limited funds wisely to do the most good for the most students. Sometimes, doing this in the face of politically powerful and well-connected opposition is not easy, but it is the right thing to do.

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Brendan Walsh is a member of the Salem School Committee.