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If You Can’t Make History Try Re-Writing It (opinion)


By: Ralph Wilbur – May, 2005

 

Ralph Wilbur

Ralph Wilbur

During the “Public Participation” portion of the North Andover School Committee Meeting on April 12th, Ms. Cynthia Jalbert rose to complain about the brochure I distributed before North Andover’s recent town election. Specifically, she suggested that my praise for Dr. Ormsby’s efforts to improve the quality of education in town was misplaced, and that he really didn’t deserve credit for the greater focus on academics that has emerged.

Of course, those that know the personalities involved understand that it is really all about politics. Ms. Jalbert really can’t cope when a School Committee member puts better academic results ahead of bigger budgets. She knows Dr. Ormsby will be up for election again next year and it is time to start the attacks.

 Let’s see what Ms. Jalbert had to say.

 

Cynthia Jalbert0

Cynthia Jalbert0

Ms. Jalbert: “I received a copy of this lovely document the day before voting, and it contains what I feel to be gross inaccuracies directed at this board, the parents, the teachers and the town in general. I’d like to point out a few of them, and then I’d like to tell you why I brought it up. According to this document, when Dr. Ormsby was elected on this board, he ‘determined that our Elementary Math Program was detrimental to our children.’ I’d like to understand – when the parents raised it, when the teachers raised it, when two years of failed or poor MCAS results brought that issue up, why that wasn’t considered being raised?”

 My Response: Ms. Jalbert should know that raising an issue and doing something about it are two different things. My brochure never stated that others did not have concerns about the math program, but what Ms. Jalbert doesn’t quote from my brochure was that Dr. Ormsby actually took action.

After determining that the math program was detrimental, he “insisted on finding a suitable replacement.” I went on to state that he conducted considerable research on alternative math curricula and wrote several articles to inform parents and the public on more traditional curricula (published in The Valley Patriot, The North Andover Citizen, and, subsequently, in The Education Reporter).

 Not stated in my brochure is that he also put together a 73-page compendium of articles explaining the failings of our TERC math program and similar fuzzy math curricula and then distributed it to the other School Committee members. Dr. Ormsby contacted experts in math instruction (including the ex-Chair of the Harvard Math Department and numerous other math professors) to discuss the merits of different curricula styles.

 My brochure mentioned that Dr. Ormsby teaches Calculus at UMass. Lowell, but it doesn’t mention how that came about or why. Dr. Ormsby began teaching college Calculus because he wanted a better understanding of the problems students have in math when they enter college math/science courses. While teaching, he developed and administered tests to the students focused on basic math skills that confirmed the failings of “fuzzy” math programs like TERC and Everyday Math. These results were brought back to North Andover to argue against the Everyday Math program being piloted.

 Finally, Dr. Ormsby requested copies of the curricula materials for all three programs being piloted, and conducted a thorough review of them to understand whether they taught and expected mastery of the fundamental algorithms of arithmetic and fractions. The results of this review for the Everyday Math program were presented at a School Committee meeting to a less than enthusiastic response…because the results clearly showed the deficiencies of Everyday Math. In short, he did everything possible, including innumerable discussions with the Superintendent and other Committee Members, to ensure that elementary math would be the highest priority curricula to be improved.

 This is not to say that others on the Committee were not supportive of a change – they were. But it is hardly an exaggeration to suggest that Dr. Ormsby took a more active role than any other member of the Committee to ensure that our failing math program was replaced AND that its replacement would, in fact, represent a significant improvement over its predecessor.

 Even today, his concern about our elementary math program continues. When the Houghton Mifflin program was selected, Dr. Ormsby made it very clear that this was only one piece of what was needed. The other pieces were better math skills of elementary math teachers (a significant deficiency that needs to be corrected), higher standards and expectations for student mastery of math skills, and greater parental involvement. We are not assured good results in math yet…and the pressure toward that end must not let up.

 Ms. Jalbert then quotes again from my brochure: “Within months, he [Dr. Ormsby] developed an initiative to dramatically increase Advanced Placement enrollments in our high school.” I have spoken to high school students in AP classes; I have spoken to high school students not in AP classes; and I’ve spoken to parents. I’ve reviewed the minutes from your meetings and I, for the life of me, cannot find out what those initiatives were that we developed. I think this town spent a lot of money to get kids in AP classes and I think we’re sitting in it. [She then goes on to explain that the new high school attracted many students previously attending private schools so, of course, AP enrollments went up.]

 My Response: What an insult to the students that were with us before the new high school was built to suggest that we must depend on an influx of private school students to increase our AP enrollments! Attracting students from private schools is not what Dr. Ormsby had in mind when he spoke of raising AP enrollments. Dr. Ormsby thinks the students we had prior to building this school “we’re sitting in” were capable of doing AP work and that we should raise academic outcomes sufficiently to at least double AP enrollments.

 Ms Jalbert says she can’t find the initiatives championed by Dr. Ormsby to increase AP enrollment. Maybe she should read the study he conducted before running for School Committee, comparing AP enrollments in North Andover with other similar schools in Massachusetts. It indicated that our AP enrollments were half of those schools. This report was provided to all School Committee members for their review. Maybe Ms. Jalbert can research their response…I’ll save her the effort: There was none! This was one of the key issues Dr. Ormsby spoke about during his campaign for “Education” Committee in the spring of 2003.

 The next thing Ms. Jalbert missed was Dr. Ormsby’s first initiative shortly after being elected. He moved that a committee be put together to investigate for increasing the number of students taking AP courses. The wording of this motion was coordinated with Dr. Harutunian even before he became superintendent, and it was supported 5-0 by the School Committee. (This is outlined in the minutes of that School Committee Meeting. How did she miss it?) At the time, Dr. Ormsby requested that he be an ex-officio member of that committee. The committees findings are too numerous to review in depth here, but suffice it to say that they clearly demonstrated that our schools were not adequately challenging either our middle or high school students, and that both students and parents desperately sought greater academic challenge.

 Although the committee created a great legacy of information regarding the lack of challenge in our academic programs, it failed to create bold recommendations for action that would spur change – in fact, if left there, this would have been just another study sitting on a shelf with no real impact. This is not surprising – committees are often better at developing information than charting a bold strategy for change. It was because of this failing that Dr. Ormsby proposed, outside of public session, that specific goals (broader than just AP participation) be developed and presented to the whole School Committee for formal adoption. Goals that would challenge the status quo and force change.

 The history is clear: Both the original AP/Honors Committee and the pressure to formally adopt academic outcome goals were championed by Dr.Ormsby. It wasn’t some routine progression of nature as Mr. Perry implied later in the meeting.

 Dr. Ormsby is quick to credit the School Committee with fully supporting the proposed goals, and Dr. Harutunian for not only supporting the adopted goals, but also for accepting the responsibility for making sure the District’s employees vigorously pursue them. Dr. Ormsby has also emphasized the support provided by Chairman Murphy in behind-the-scenes discussions. But the history of these initiatives are what they are. Ignorance is bliss for Ms.

 Jalbert, who can’t seem to fathom progress without higher spending.

 Maybe Ms. Jalbert should get on board some other, no-extra-cost Ormsby initiatives like: high-expectation homework guidelines for the high school, teacher competency testing, instituting a Pay-For-Performance compensation plan, placing greater emphasis on phonics in our elementary grades, increasing graduation requirements to 4 years of English, 4-Math, 4-Science, and 4-Social Studies from the 4-3-3-3 currently required. The list goes on … but when will Ms. Jalbert catch on?

 Ms Jalbert later stated: “So, I’m frustrated because every taxpayer in town received something [my brochure] that isn’t true.”

 My Response: Well, Ms. Jalbert, I stand by my statements. Nothing she has said adds up to anything when you plug in all the facts. I like to think that the citizens of North Andover are intelligent enough to sense the difference between someone providing a positive influence toward improving education in North Andover and someone simply spewing political hot air. It is clear that Ms. Jalbert still retains the belief that an appropriate measure of improvement in public education is the amount of money spent. Under the “No Child Left Behind” law, this method of gauging educational progress has become obsolete. Academic results are the new criteria, and it’s about time!

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The Valley Patriot is a free monthly journal of news, commentary, and events, serving Northern Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire.

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