Without accountability, why bother with superintendent evaluations

By Mike Flaherty | Nov 15, 2017

Like many parents, I reacted with dismay upon learning Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Shaver-Hood received a raise during her evaluation of “Proficient” at the Nov. 1 meeting of the Wareham School Committee.

On the one hand, the disappointment is symbolic. Only one week prior, the teachers’ union appeared before the committee with a letter signed by 181 educators highlighting the “clear and negative impact” of a dire substitute teacher shortage. They cited large class sizes and low pay (amounting to less than minimum wage) as causes.

On the other hand, the frustration has much more substantive underpinnings. I think Committee member Geoff Swett put it best when he outlined a sobering indictment of district-wide student achievement during Shaver-Hood’s four year tenure at Wareham Public Schools.

After pointing out numerous initiatives and programs that have been implemented in Wareham during this timeframe which may be seen as very exciting, Mr. Swett ultimately lamented “Something isn’t working.” He continued, “Wareham, from 2013 to 2017, the numbers for proficient or better dropped 20 points ... but the state average dropped less than 10. So why is it that in those four years, we dropped more than twice as much as the state average? That’s troubling.” He also pointed out how graduation rates have fallen and dropout rates have dramatically increased. Still not finished, he turned his attention to the pre-high school grades and compared student growth percentiles as reported by the state noting, “The 8th grade and below have not done well during this four-year period.”

Mr. Swett then juxtaposed underwhelming student achievement with exceedingly high teacher ratings. He said, “In the end, the thing that troubles me the most is the fact that I don’t see a culture of accountability even in year 4.” He continued, “It is very hard to reconcile the fact that we’ve got 96 percent of our teachers proficient or better and the number of exemplary teachers twice the state average, and yet we’ve got student performance that isn’t even close to the state average for grades 3-8.”

I don’t intend to single out Mr. Swett. In addition to his selfless and tireless devotion to the children of this town and to public service in general, I have always appreciated his capacity for fact-based analysis along with his candor. You will not read or hear me speak ill of him. I served as a School Committee member with him and I have too much respect for him. I am quoting him here repeatedly because his evaluation provides the richest and most articulate set of facts to describe where Wareham Public Schools now stands under Dr. Shaver-Hood’s duration here. That said however, respectfully, in the final analysis what good is candor if there isn’t the will to act upon it.

There is a clear disconnect here. Just as Mr. Swett highlights the discrepancy between exceptional teacher ratings and an absent corresponding increase in student achievement, the same can be said about there being no accountability or consequences at the School Committee level as well.

What Mr. Swett describes is not opinion. He uses independently verifiable facts that everyone has access to. As a result, one would think that after arriving at such a demonstrable and troubling assessment that it would be senseless to reward the Superintendent with yet another raise year after year. Alas, that is exactly what did occur again this year when four of the five committee members voted for to give Dr. Shaver-Hood a raise of 2 percent, with only Mary Morgan voting against it.

Even more confounding was Committee Chair Judy Caporiccio’s justification that the Superintendent actually deserved the maximum 3 percent raise allowed for proficient performance. After the vote Ms. Caporiccio then insisted that the committee must now immediately enter into negotiations with the superintendent to further extend her contract. She argued that this evaluation represented the second proficient rating in a row which would automatically trigger contract negotiations. To Mr. Swett’s credit, considering he was the one who signed the current contract as chair at the time, his recollection was much different and he questioned the urgency of needing to begin now. I looked myself. According to that contract, it runs from Aug. 1, 2016 through July 31, 2019. In other words, the second year of the current contract hasn’t even finished yet and therefore the superintendent has not been evaluated for it. In fact, from my reading of the contract, the school committee isn’t obligated to enter negotiations with the superintendent until August 2018 assuming that the committee continues to rate her as proficient or above.

I am no longer on that committee, but if I were and contract negotiations were reopened, I would offer the following perspective to my fellow colleagues as someone who, like Mr. Swett, was a sitting member at the time Dr. Shaver-Hood was hired in 2013. I asked her then what I asked all of the other final candidates: “If you were to become the next superintendent of Wareham Public Schools, how long do you think it would realistically take for you to move our district from its current Level 3 status.” She impressed me when she answered, “Realistically, I would tell you probably two to three years.”

To refresh folks’ memories, a Massachusetts School District is ranked by its lowest performing school. At the time Dr. Shaver-Hood was hired, the only Wareham school performing at Level 3 was the Middle School. In fact her predecessor, Dr. Barry Rabinovitch, handed her a Level 1 High School on his way out. This was a great source of pride for the community, as Level 1 is a distinction given to the top 20 percent performing schools in the state.

Alarmingly in those same two to three years that Dr. Shaver-Hood cites, the high school plummeted from Level 1 to Level 3 in a single year. There it remained Level 3 for the next consecutive year and it has only just now crawled back up to Level 2 status in her fourth year. The Middle School has not improved and still remains at Level 3.

I wish I could say that as upsetting as all of this is, it is in the past. Live and learn as the saying goes. Unfortunately, given the history, I don’t have much reason to think it will change when the school committee keeps ensuring that the superintendent continues to do well, even while far too many students do not.

Moving forward, I will offer this, though. If the current school committee truly still believes Dr. Shaver-Hood can turn things around and still wishes to extend her contract, there are ways to do so and finally actually instill real accountability into that decision. I recommend the following ...

1) Renew the contract for less than three years. For some reason everyone seems to think that contracts need to be renewed for three-year periods. There is nothing that says you can’t simply extend it for only one year. Doing so puts the superintendent on notice that she will be accountable not only if she wants to receive a raise but also if she wants to keep her job.

2) Perform a mid-year review to serve as a progress report on how goals are being or not being met. The Massachusetts guide for evaluating superintendents describes performing a mid-year review in public. The importance of this step can’t be understated with regard to accountability. As the guide states, “This is an important strategy for giving a “heads‐up” to potential weaknesses or to commend successful performance and offer encouragement.” It is the responsibility of the chair to schedule the mid-year review on the agenda. Ms. Caporiccio has not done that, nor did her predecessor, Mel Lazarus, the year before. This really was a disservice to everybody involved. It could have corrected or at least mitigated so many shortcomings before it was too late at the end of the year. It also allows the public to compare notes with what the superintendent believes she has accomplished to date with their own experiences within the district.

3) Don’t tie the hands of current and future school committees with predefined raise intervals that are hard-wired to rigid point scales. One thing I railed against while on the school committee is that it chose to ensure there would be at least minimum-level raises awarded based completely on the total score. For example, the score for “Proficient” is defined between 80-89 points and the pay raise for Proficient is hard-wired between 1-3 percent. Why do this? Isn’t performing at a proficient level simply to be expected by someone already receiving over $155,000? By changing the eligible raise level instead to 0-3 percent, it would give the committee the flexibility to give an honest evaluation without necessarily being forced to pay out a raise when a superintendent is simply doing what she is expected to.

To be sure, one can readily point to numerous student-achievement success stories within the district. For instance, it is always a proud day when the Abigail Adams Scholars are recognized. Indeed, my own child happens to do very well in Wareham. He often scores Advanced on MCAS testing and one year he actually scored perfect on the Math portion. He credits the outstanding teacher he had that year. I credit the dual enrollment program that gave him the access to that teacher at the high school while he was an 8th grader at the Middle School.

However, I’m not writing this because too many students are excelling. I’m writing it because too many are falling behind. This is especially important in the younger grades because these kids will never get those years back and it only makes it harder for them in the later years.

Folks often point to a loss of higher performing students who leave Wareham for other school systems, whether public or private, as a factor for why we are where we are today. I’m sorry, but that has been occurring long before Dr. Shaver-Hood came to Wareham and while we still had the high school at Level 1. And I’ve got news for you. It isn’t only the brightest kids who leave. Many students of all achievement levels are leaving hoping to find better. In the end much of it balances out. People also point to Wareham’s low-income demographics. Again, that has been the case long before the current superintendent arrived. While these things do present challenges, we must not let it be used as a crutch to justify perpetual lagging performance.

I think Wareham Middle School teacher Bonnie Lasorsa put it best when she enthusiastically retweeted a slide that read, “Our job is to teach the kids we have. Not those we would like to have ... Not those we used to have ... Those we have right now! ALL of them!” Indeed, that’s an attitude we should all embrace.

I’m not an educator, and I don’t have all the answers to improve our district, but that’s why we hired someone who said she could. If school committee members can’t or won’t hold her accountable past, present, and future, then why bother with an evaluation at all since it won’t make a difference – and don’t hold it against principals if you find there is little accountability within their schools too because they are just following your lead.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Mike Flaherty | Nov 15, 2017 20:44

There was an interesting development tonight at the School Committee meeting.

 

According to Superintendent Dr Shaver-Hood, they had appealed with the state that Wareham should not be listed as a Level 3 District. The state has responded in agreement.

 

If I understood correctly, the argument was that since some grade levels took the Next Generation of MCAS, those grades were rated at "No Level" because this is the first year of the test and it is so much different that it can't be compared with years prior. So, as the argument goes, Wareham should be rated instead only by its school that is still under the Legacy MCAS system.

 

So if I infer currently, the DESE website will be updated to show Wareham at Level 2 because that is what the High School is rated at.

 

I have mixed thoughts about this.

 

By putting the other schools as "No Level", it seems to be the functional equivalent as "Not Applicable".  So those schools are taken off the table when trying to rate a School District.  In other words, it leaves a huge question mark in place and offers little if anything to measure accountability.

 

 

So while I'm happy that on paper it looks like we improved, I'm worried that it was made possible by apparently taking so many grade levels out of the equation and we really don't know if we improved or not for those grades.

 

 

This article from the Eagle Tribune seems to go into it a bit with regard to superintendents hitting the "reset button"...

 

http://www.eagletribune.com/news/haverhill/superintendents-hit-reset-button-with-new-mcas-scores/article_f16bed55-872a-5547-b21d-9f9b47e595dd.html

 

 

An excerpt...

 

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Due to the changing statistics, the state this year is holding districts “harmless” in their accountability levels – listed as no level in the provided data – as it works out a new system.

 

“I think it's really important we don't read too much into this first baseline year,” Price said. “That's why the state held us harmless

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