Mass. Audit Cites Accountability Problems In Cambridge Schools

By Alan Richard — February 23, 2000 2 min read

A state audit says the public school system in Harvard University’s backyard is far behind other Massachusetts districts in adopting state accountability requirements.

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Cambridge Superintendent Bobbie D’Alessandro, who requested the state audit of the district’s operations, doesn’t dispute the findings, which mainly criticized her predecessor. She says changes are under way to address the state’s main complaint: that the 7,900-student district, across the Charles River from Boston, couldn’t prove it was providing good schools, even by spending higher-than-average amounts on each student.

“We had some outstanding things going on in the district, but our curriculum wasn’t aligned to state standards, so how could how our test scores be high?” she said. “In Cambridge, they’re very active parents, and they’re interested and they question. I value that. I need to give them answers, and I need to have processes in place that can make us credible.”

Michael Sentance

Michael Sentance, the chairman of the state committee that oversees such audits and the governor’s education advisor, said he didn’t know Cambridge would be so far behind.

The audit, released earlier this month, found that the district had no systemwide professional-development plan, no extensive principal evaluations, limited teacher evaluations, and that it prevented principals from hiring teachers at individual schools—some of which is contrary to state requirements.

“It was as if you had set up the district to be ineffective,” Mr. Sentance said. “Cambridge is in the bottom tier of schools in terms of how they have managed their schools and how they try to promote student achievement.”

What made the findings particularly troubling to the state committee was that Cambridge spends about $11,260 a year on each student—more than double the state average, Mr. Sentance noted. “We find it hard to understand why anyone would feel comfortable with that kind of performance, given the level of investment,” he said.

Independent Tradition

Some of the changes, including the beginnings of curriculum alignment, had begun under the previous administration, Ms. D’Alessandro said last week.

The superintendent offered some explanations for the high per-pupil spending: One in four students has special needs. And the 18-1 ratio of students to teachers is enviable in Massachusetts.

Ms. D’Alessandro, who joined the district in 1997, said part of her challenge in convincing some teachers and other employees of the need for change has been the independent spirit of some staff members and schools in the district. She said the city’s 15 schools once acted independently of one another.

Robert S. Peterkin, who was the city’s superintendent from 1984 to 1988 and now directs the Urban Superintendents Program at Harvard, confirms the independent spirit in Cambridge schools. “It was like pulling teeth for people to think about this as a system,” he said.

Ms. D’Alessandro said the state audit was at times too critical of her predecessor and other educators in the district, but added that many changes were needed.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2000 edition of Education Week as Mass. Audit Cites Accountability Problems In Cambridge Schools


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