Soundings : On letting students learn
When G. Paul Dulac, the Vineyard's interim superintendent of schools, was named principal of the Edgartown School in early 2006, I jokingly congratulated him by observing that this might be the only district in the Commonwealth where going from superintendent to principal is a promotion.
Looking back at the Island's superintendents over the past three decades, it's tempting to read a deep ambivalence about the post from the way our school committees have filled it. We've had our strong superintendents, men (as it happens, all of them) with a point of view and a willingness to champion it. Some of these men have enjoyed remarkably short terms on the job.
Occasionally, between these strong superintendents, we've had warm and avuncular figures who kept the district on an even keel, ceremonial presences whose enemies were few but whose accomplishments were less than monumental.
The strong leaders rocked the boat, clashing with the Island's tradition of local school control. The ribbon-cutters left us wondering, shouldn't we be getting some leadership for all the money we're paying this guy? And so, pendulum-like, we vacillate in our choices for superintendent.
Dr. James Weiss, one of the smartest superintendents I've known in nearly 30 years as a journalist here, knows this community and its schools well enough to understand that imposing a traditional K-12 regional structure here is politically impossible. "It's not going to happen," he says flatly. "The notion of local control here is too strong."
Mr. Weiss has set for himself a more realistic goal: "I want to tweak at the edges to try and save as much money as I can, to make things as much more efficient as I can, without taking the realities of the Island away."
Mr. Weiss believes that in cases where an identifiable regional need reaches a critical mass, his office can deliver services regionally and save the towns money. It's because he has expanded this effort, he says, that the superintendent's office has the fastest-growing budget in education on the Vineyard.
"The thing about this office that people don't get," he says, "is that we really do two major functions. We are administrative. We are also instructional - we run programs that are more cost-effective if we do them than if they are replicated in school buildings across the Island. Special needs, the elementary strings program, the algebra program. These are the shared services."
Where Mr. Weiss does insist we need systemic change is in building a consensus about what we teach our children in the elementary schools, so they'll have an equal opportunity to succeed at the high school.
Mr. Weiss's effort to start a conversation about the curriculum has become tangled up in the hot-button issue of the MCAS test. He takes pains to be clear about this: "The message I've tried to give everyone from day one is that the goal of the MCAS test, of 100 percent proficiency, is unreachable. That, in and of itself, is one of the real fallacies of MCAS. It's bogus."
That said, Mr. Weiss firmly believes the Island schools need a systemic curriculum. The bottom line issue, for him, is giving each child the opportunity to succeed. It is, he argues, a matter of simple fairness: "If you're taking the brightest math kids in Oak Bluffs, and the brightest math kids in Edgartown, and the brightest math kids in Tisbury and West Tisbury, they all ought to have a fair shot at making the elite track, if you will, at the high school - and if they don't, it certainly shouldn't be because we didn't prepare them. Because we all feed into the same high school, if we don't have some shared vision of the curriculum, we'll have winners and losers, and that's not fair to the kids."
When the content to be taught is dictated from outside the classroom, teachers are inclined to bridle - and MCAS is the biggest imposition of outside force on curriculum in the history of Massachusetts public education. But again, Mr. Weiss insists that when he talks about a shared Island curriculum, he's not talking about the state test.
"Forget the test," he says. "Let's put that aside. This is not about meeting the MCAS standard. It's about trying to reach a level of consensus and understanding on the part of the people doing the teaching here on the Island. For my entire career, I have advocated for a balanced approach which allows individual teachers to make 99 percent of the decisions, but in the context of that consensus: They have to work with other teachers to decide some of the core things."
Asked to recall his own favorite teachers, and what distinguished them, Mr. Weiss says: "Certainly their passion for what they were doing - the subject matter, the content, and the way they worked with the students." These teachers, I suggest, would not be happy marching to a daily lesson plan. "No," he agrees, "but they also would be teachers who wanted their students to have a fair shot at success."
In the end, Dr. Weiss hopes his legacy as Vineyard superintendent will someday be twofold. "One is in the financial zone: where there are ways to save money, or use money more efficiently, I hope I can do that job. Because many of the things we do now are not efficient. Second, educationally, I want to help the staff across the Island come to some common understandings of what it is they want to see all of our students get, educationally. I want to help make that happen."