New Bedford Must Be Unified to Solve its Educational Issues

The educational attainment of our citizens impacts every issue in our City.  All quality of life issues are tied to educational attainment. Future neighborhood stability, crime rates, economic development and the very health of our citizens are all dependent upon each of our children having the opportunity to receive an excellent education.  Everyone in New Bedford agrees that our children deserve the best educational opportunity possible, and everyone in the City knows that our children’s education opportunities need to be improved.  But to identify an issue is easy, to forge solutions by bringing the stakeholders together, and we are all stakeholders, is difficult and the real challenge at hand.  It is hard to imagine improving student performance in New Bedford’s schools by vilifying New Bedford’s teachers.  The root causes of students’ educational failures will not be addressed by replacing teachers in mass.  Any turnaround plan requires a positive partnership with all stakeholders, not turning the various communities within our City, and those who depend on our school system, against each other.  Firing half the teachers in a school, terminating the principal and their staff, is scapegoating at its worst.  A carefully crafted plan that identifies the real obstacles to learning and addresses them one by one is required to provide an excellent educational opportunity. To resolve these issues we must be inclusive and display mutual respect for all.  The teachers of New Bedford have many proposals and solutions for improving our schools, and should be equal partners in developing the system’s improvement plan.  They know our children, our families and our community.  They know and understand the issues that each of our children face and how they affect our children’s ability to learn. Let’s give them a real voice in devising an educational system that addresses the achievement gap issues and give our teachers a recognized place at the decision making table. Decisions made using this method will lead to buy-in and support throughout the city.

Unified and working respectfully, I have no doubt New Bedford can come together to improve our education system and resolve the complex societal problems that prevent maximum educational attainment by our children.  New Bedford can be the city where a realistic appraisal of an urban educational system’s problems are identified and effective solutions are formulated.  New Bedford has the same educational problems as all urban areas in the United States.  Student under achievement, achievement gap issues, and unacceptable dropout rates are not unique to New Bedford, they are the common story of 21st Century America.  The current educational system in the United States does not meet the needs of children who live under the poverty level; who have special needs; who speak English as a second language; or who need extra time or instruction to master a concept or subject matter.  No matter who these children are, our current educational system is not designed to provide the support they need to reach their maximum educational potential.  These difficult educational issues have not, and cannot, be resolved or improved by a system based on teaching to a standardized test.  Compounding the problem is that the teachers in our system are evaluated based on how their students’ perform on the test, and our district is evaluated on how all of the students perform on the master test.  In this matrix, all students are deprived of a full education because of the never-ending emphasis on cumulative test scores.  Under this test driven system, the teachers and administrators, who are doing their best to see their students excel, are blamed for the education reform system’s failure.  It is time to challenge the unintended consequences of education reform and the test that forms the basis for determining whether a public school district, its teachers, or its students are successes or failures.  In urban districts throughout Massachusetts and the Country, education reform has not addressed the persistent achievement gap issues, and high dropout rates. The reforms have produced uninspired and incomplete curriculums which all but eliminate art, music, physical education, health studies and other important subjects from our children’s school days.  A careful examination of education reform in urban areas reveals that it has not increased overall attainment nor has it narrowed the achievement gap.  This is not an indictment of the system, but rather it is a fact.  The accountability measures which accompany the education reform system as we know it, create constant instability, and detract from teaching efforts in “underperforming school districts”. Amazingly, as a result of “ lagging” test scores these “underperforming districts” now comprise two-thirds of the school districts in Massachusetts, the state that ranks number one in education in the United States.   It is time to rethink the reform system that is built upon teaching to a test that is administered and required only of public school students. It is time to question a reform system which provides very little in the way of collaboration for school districts from the federal and state departments of education, other than constant, uninformed criticism, unfunded mandates, unrealistic expectations, and ultimate threats.  It is time to acknowledge the reality that we are creating an education caste system that will, and is, shutting out a significant percentage of our students from any meaningful opportunity to participate in our society, earn a living wage, and become engaged citizens.  New Bedford, in addressing the need to improve our public schools, must confront these issues and develop programs which address the failings of the current education reform, in order for all of our children to have an equal opportunity to receive the highest quality education.

To begin this important process I suggest the following necessary steps:

First, stop the scapegoating of teachers, no threats by either side, no boycotts by the Union. All parties must fully cooperate in good faith to devise an improvement plan for the sake of all of our children and our City’s future.

Second, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the Superintendent should remove from the discussion any turnaround plan that arbitrarily displaces 50% of teachers at the High School or at any school.  Let all stakeholders including all of the nonprofits who dedicate their mission to supporting all of New Bedford’s youth, work together to create a Transformative Improvement Plan which addresses the issues at our High School, and at all of the city’s schools.  A true district wide improvement can only be accomplished if every student in conjunction with their families has a personal education plan written and implemented for their success.  “One size fits all” plans will not provide individual student needs.  Every problem that prevents our students from obtaining or receiving an excellent education must be identified.  Real solutions for these problems must be found and implemented.  Successful implementation of the plan is what will determine each individual student’s success or failure.  The development of this plan must be transparent with no hidden agendas, and its only goal should be the betterment of all of the students in our City.

Third, begin a dialogue with the teachers as full partners, to increase long-term educational opportunities for all students and the people of our City.  Set realistic goals and begin to understand the limitations of a high stakes test driven educational system.  Bring the DESE to the table; invite representatives of UMass Dartmouth, Bridgewater State University and Bristol Community College and all of New Bedford stakeholders to participate in these discussions. In this process, conduct open meetings with full public participation to  create a public education system that provides advanced and remedial educational opportunities which will result in  employment opportunities for our citizens.

New Bedford’s future success is directly related to an educated citizenry.  We can develop a comprehensive and effective equal opportunity public education system if we unite, have an honest dialogue, and work together.  Let’s meet these challenges united for the betterment of our children and for the good of our City.