SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

December 8, 2012

Column: Continued effort needed to improve Salem's schools

Liam Kerr
The Salem News

---- — The education challenges that Salem is overcoming with grants won from the federal government and partnerships forged with Salem State and others are a direct result of the Obama administration’s policy of driving change by encouraging school districts to do difficult things.

Salem parents and students can expect further progress toward education reform with Obama’s re-election and the leadership that has emerged in Salem since it was put on notice last fall that it was one step away from a state takeover.

The city garnered significant federal redesign grants that will infuse $1.5 million into Bentley Elementary alone. Students now spend an extra hour a day in school at Bentley, and Mayor Kim Driscoll, who also chairs the School Committee, has vowed to expand that added instruction time to the rest of the district.

Driscoll deserves credit for committing to change and stability. The city has brought in the respected school turnaround expert Dr. Roland Fryer, a Harvard economics professor who helped public schools in New York City and Houston.

Fryer, who spent two years studying public school systems around the country, has identified five ingredients for getting under-performing schools back on track. More common sense than magical, Fryer calls for students to spend more time in school, be tutored in small groups, and to learn in a culture of high expectations. He also says teachers should have plenty of training and development and high quality tools and data-driven instruction.

Since last fall when the state designated Salem’s schools as underperforming, district officials have also secured major grants for Carlton Elementary ($45,000) and forged new partnerships with Salem State for summer programs for students and training for teachers, and added assistant principals to all the elementary schools. There is also a new educator evaluator system in place.

For genuine reforms to take hold, the schools need to know what knowledge students are retaining, not just how they perform on standardized tests. And they must take to heart Fryer’s insistence that schools create a climate of high achievement.

Parents need look no farther than the Salem Academy, which Newsweek ranked in the top 500 high schools in the country and which Boston magazine deemed the best charter school in the Boston area, for a shining example of the kind of school the president has supported.

The progress to date in district schools and at Salem Academy is heartening. It is what the Obama administration intended in shifting from the stick of No Child Left Behind to the carrot of Race to the Top. Obama’s approach forced district leaders and the teachers’ union to join together and come up with a plan for how to spend federal grant money in good ways. That’s how the president leads schools toward reform even if it’s messy and sparks controversy.

But it would be a mistake to believe Salem is on a straight line out of the dire straits that invited a state takeover. The risk of complacency and stalled progress is too high. It takes sustained effort to challenge entrenched practices and a fatalistic mind set. Students have to know that the adults will keep their priorities straight and put their interests first.

Such changes do not come easily or quickly, and, while grants surely help, money is only part of the answer. The leadership provided by the Obama administration must be reinforced by his Democratic colleagues locally for sustained success.

Leadership on every level is essential. There is room for continued leadership at the state level to build on Governor Patrick’s 2010 bill responding to Obama’s Race to the Top.

Students need to spend more time in school and need help from well-trained and comprehensively evaluated instructors. The shackles on charter school expansion must be removed. The good news is that we’ll have four more years of an administration in Washington that is focused on results.

Driscoll clearly understands the mission. She said at a public meeting in September when she introduced Fryer, “We can do this, and we have to do this.”

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Liam Kerr is the Massachusetts director of Democrats for Education Reform.