Culture of excellence
I believe every student and teacher in the district should not just succeed, but excel. We have the resources to do that. We just don’t have the culture. When I mentioned this to a school committee member, the response was that, by definition, not all students can excel. This was backed by a statement about some students needing to be in low percentiles on achievement scores, by definition of a percentile.
That’s not what excellence is about.
Excellence comes from focus, passion, and interest in specific topics, of which there’s an infinite variety. Almost all students at MIT excel, whether that’s by competing in solar car design competitions, teaching in China, or organizing nerdy cultural experiences for freshman.
You don’t need to be MIT for that to happen; I’ve seen the same culture at many schools. My high school had that culture in its journalism program. Students pursued whatever they were doing – be it editorial writing, news reporting, graphic design, advertising, business development, photography, IT, or otherwise – with passion and excellence. MIT students succeed based on that culture, combined with a very strong Pygmalion Effect, where everyone believes they will succeed. The demographic differences count for much less than one might think.
Students who excel at their academic interests – almost no matter what they are – will pass basic math and writing exams as a side effect. Whether students learn to write on a school newspaper, crafting a business model, or writing a grant proposal, they’ll learn to write well, to target an audience, to be clear, and to communicate. They’ll learn all of these skills better than they would through artifical essays in traditional grade school literature courses.
We have a proof of how programs focused on excellence work in CPSD already. Amigos is the top-performing school in the district. Chinese Immersion bumped MLK up several tiers. The Ola program is small enough that it’s hard to have hard numbers, but from what I’ve seen (I spent a day visiting a classroom), it is a district-leading program as well. The language immersion programs, originally criticized for piling too much on students, have proven that students excelling at something will dramatically outperform students in traditional classrooms.
Now we need to spread and expand such models.
A footnote on diversity
Learning to support all the different ways students may want to excel is at the core of resolving many of the diversity issues in the district and supporting all learners, regardless of background or level.
Several school committee members describe Cambridge as a town divided between town and gown, and further divided on racial lines, further among levels of students, and so on. While this segmentation seems technically correct, I’m not sure labeling students is helpful to resolving the problem. It leads to stereotype threat. Multiplication is for White People is an excellent book about how this plays out, and the effects it has.
CPSD’s model of diversity defines it in terms of race, gender, LGBTQ status, and income. This segmentation misses groups which aren’t well-labeled or currently politically fashionable: introverts, closet Republicans, members of less politically popular religions, less disadvantaged immigrants (who are still often lonely and isolated), and just about anyone else who doesn’t fit one of the labeled molds. Perhaps more importantly, it even misses people who only partially fit the molds of the population studies.
What’s great about pursuit of excellence as a model is that it fits all students by design, regardless of culture, background, or group. It integrates rather than divides. Whether a student wishes to develop leadership skills by becoming a community activist, delivering a rousing church sermon, or teaching in Mexico, that student will be supported by the school system.