Thursday, May 08, 2008

The End's Just Beginning

The new school committee seems to be breathing a collective sigh of relief to have inked the superintendent's final one-year contract this week after four months of work.

That means it's time for the rest of us to really start paying attention.

Local politics can devolve into a near-contact sport between individual electeds jockeying to fill a leadership void with what they think is best. The recent out-of-left-field push to implement the IB (International Baccalaureate) in conflict with the high school's own plans is a good example of this.

Systemic educational improvement, however, requires multi-year strategic plans drawn up by strong educators who know what they are doing. A local board can help by giving feedback to the superintendent on the plans, by crafting policy to make sure they are executed, and by explaining/supporting them in public.

Without a strong educational leader backed by a majority of a board, we could see ... who knows?

One possible and terrible future scenario was described in a post on the Cambridge Chronicle website after news about the contract broke. 'Very Disappointed" wrote: "Would you have [us] go back to the days when all the principals were basically looking out for themselves and the nights when school committee meetings were a political circus with everyone fighting for their school and their children and the school committee only cared about getting what [they] needed for their 2 or three school communities?"

In fact, I think things are already devolving. Witness the push by a SC member to open up her own school to non-residents to bolster enrollment there. You might ask how this jives with the system's plans for closing the achievement gap. The answer: it doesn't.

I witnessed and served on the board in those bad old days described so well by Very Disappointed; I've seen how much can be accomplished in more recent, getting-better ones. So I think it's critical for a majority of the committee to work with the out-going superintendent and his staff on an educational to-do list, with the whole district in mind, for the next year. That means having the courage to vote against anything that would distract from getting through the list.

I guess we'll just have to watch and see how it goes.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Congratulations to Nancy T.

Thanks to everyone who went to the polls on Tuesday. It was a lousy weather day, and I spent most of it wet, campaigning for the Progress for Cambridge slate.

Happily, one member of the three PFC candidates won a seat on the Cambridge School Committee. Nancy Tauber ran an excellent campaign and captured the sixth seat on the Committee. Gail had a respectable number of votes and could very well capitalize on her increased name recognition in 2009 if she choses. Stefan is a young candidate with plenty of opportunities ahead of him.

I enjoyed supporting these new candidates, although the slate idea garnered some criticism. Fact is, unless you come from a political family, it is darn hard to learn how to run a local campaign. You need help, you need advice. You collaborate with you slate colleagues, who may, in turn, help you on election day when the transfers kick in.

That's what happened on Tuesday.

I was happy to help because, sooner or later, you have to replace yourself in office, as in life. I was also happy to help bring some new candidates onto the scene, too. If someone has the energy, the will to serve others, and ideas that they believe in, why not run for local office?

On the other hand, no one, I mean no one, really knows how hard it is to run a competitive grass-roots campaign until they try. (For women who are most often still the primary caretakers of children, it's even harder.) Even incumbents can be taken by surprise by how much effort it takes in every election. That was certainly the case for me in my second run in 2001, when I found myself in a recount. It may also have been the case for Richard Harding who lost on Tuesday. You have to be brave to put your name on a ballot and face the prospect of losing. So hats off to Richard, as well as to those who won.

Just to dream for a bit, I would like to see Cambridge elections become a little bit easier for new and old alike. In many places in Massachusetts, running for School Committee isn't such a big deal. You don't have to raise as much money and, since the terms are longer, you don't have to run as often. If this was the case, I think more people would run.

So congrats to Nancy Tauber, whom I first met only earlier this year at a meeting about the Achievement Gap Forums. Even though we share a first name and some of the same beliefs, she's her own person. I look forward to watching her make the seat her own in the next two years.

Monday, November 05, 2007

A lot at Stake in Election Tomorrow

Dear Readers,

If you live and vote in Cambridge, you have the power to make sure our school system stays on its present path of improvement. There are at least three candidates in this race who have voted (Harding, Nolan), or say they will vote (Nolan, McGovern) to replace the top educational leader in this city.

This would be a real mistake that would shake our school system to the core, just when it is starting to soar. Superintendent Fowler-Finn has been primarily responsible (in my 10+ year perspective) for bringing a coherent approach to improvement in the NCLB era, while still making sure our kids get a well-rounded education. He's also worked with two principals at the high school to implement a new schedule and other programs that are paying off.

Here is a letter I sent to my supporters yesterday, outlining my reasons for supporting three new candidates in the race: Gail Lemily Wiggins, Stefan Malner and Nancy Tauber.

Please consider the following when you go to the polls:

Continue the Momentum -- Vote for Progress on Tuesday

Dear Friends,

In my day job as an education writer, I read many stories about districts where schools are improving -- only to experience a change in the school board that stops the momentum in its tracks.

Change is inevitable on school committees; but elections don’t have to spell the end of improvements. You have the power to make sure our schools continue to make headway in Cambridge with your vote on Tuesday, November 6.

How can you do this?

You can cast your top three votes for new candidates to the Cambridge School Committee who are committed to:

-- building on initiatives that are resulting in better student outcomes and increased confidence in our high school and 12 elementary schools.

-- collaborating with our professional school leaders and staff in a constructive way, to guarantee more positive momentum for all our schools and programs.

Please cast your #1, #2 and #3 votes (in order of your preference) for:

(in alpha order):

GAIL LEMILY WIGGINS -- an experienced manager and counselor and longtime parent-leader in the schools her sons attended (CRLS, Graham & Parks, Tobin and the Fitzgerald) who’s also been on the board of many Cambridge organizations.

STEFAN MALNER -- a policy analyst and recent college graduate, committed to expanding opportunities for students and to continuing to move CPS to a more student-focused culture.

NANCY TAUBER -- an experienced middle school teacher and curriculum innovator who has served four years as co-chair of the school council at Graham & Parks, where her two young children are enrolled.

As you probably know by now, my name will not be on the ballot this year. But I know that these candidates are as focused on the things that really drive school improvement as I have been: quality teaching and engaging, well-rounded, relevant curriculum. All of them would be excellent school committee members from day one. As one of only two women on a seven-member board, I am also pleased that two new women are stepping forward to serve.

Finally, contrary to one “robo-call” you might have received, my seat is not the only vacancy on the School Committee. ALL seats on the Committee are up for grabs and therefore vacant until determined by the voters. So please don't forget to vote on Tuesday and don't forget to spread the word to your friends. The polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

For more on these candidates, go to, which has links to the new candidates’ websites and facts about progress being made in our schools. You can also call me at 617-876-4582.

Feel free to forward this e-mail to any other interested voters you know.

See you at the polls!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Progress for Cambridge election blog

After a summer/early fall hiatus, I'm back to blogging. Lots to write about -- summer meetings, more Achievement Gap Forums, an exciting new high school renovation etc.

But for today, just in time for the up-coming Nov. 6 School Committee election, I want to put in a plug for a new blog that a group of long-time parent activists created over the summer in support of three new candidates for School Committee.

The address is:

One feature of special interest on the blog is a collection of split votes on the School Committee over the past term. Since I sat through the past four terms (eight years) of school committee meetings, I can say with authority that this past term has produced more significant split votes than possibly any other except the first committee I served on in 2000-01.

I'll write more later about what I think this pattern means to school districts and school reform, but suffice it to say that a summary of split votes is an opportunity for the electorate to see the difference in philosophies/approach to serving between members.

Since our local paper doesn't report these votes, we thought it important to put in any blog about an election.

Another important feature is "12 Important Facts to Know About CPS" located at the bottom of the blog. An unfortunate hallmark of this term has been the incredible energy spent in what I call "data wars" with the administration. Lost in this process has been the forest -- how the sum total of reforms, initiatives, and secure finances stack up for students, families and taxpayers. When you read this list, I think you will agree that CPS has a lot going for it and that it is important to elect folks who will contribute in a constructive way in order to continue Progress for Cambridge.

If you feel the same way, I hope you'll consider adding your name to our growing list of supporters. Just click on the link provided in the section entitled Who We Are on the right hand side of the blog.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

School's Out -- Again

I'm always surprised by how quickly the last month of school goes by.

Suddenly, there's CRLS graduation, which, BTW, was fabulous this year. It was an especially special and rowdy event, held in the Harvard Yard (due to renovation of the War Memorial/Field House) complete with the ringing of the bells from Memorial Church at the end.

Also, in what I think is a another first, the student government recognized some special teachers with a gift during the ceremony. I hope this is the beginning of a new graduation tradition.

After the high school graduation comes the eleven 8th grade graduations, all very different in their own ways. One School Committee member is chosen by lottery to speak at each one. This year, I drew the Baldwin. Here's my (very short) speech below.

I wish everybody a safe and and restful summer with their families and friends!!

On behalf of the entire Cambridge School Committee, I am here to say congratulations to you and your families and to the staff of the Baldwin School.

You’ve worked very hard for nine years and now you are here on the verge of entering high school.

As you prepare for next year, I want to leave you with a piece of advice; advice that I have heard for many years from many parents and high schoolers so I think it’s pretty good advice.

Right now you are at the top of the heap, so to speak. Next year, in high school, you will be the newbies, and you might feel adrift or disoriented. This is completely natural.

So it’s important that you get involved with something that makes you feel connected to a new community and to new friends.

Over the summer, think about those things that you really like to do, or want to do. This may change over time, but it’s important to pick something.

This morning I looked at the CRLS website and at the awesome list of all the activities and clubs there. It made me want to go back to high school. There are over 30 clubs including an Alpine Ski Club, a Badminton Club, a Creative Writing Club, and a Culinary Club. There's the Environmental Action Group, a Future Teachers Club, a Math Club, and a Mock Trial Club. There's a Science Team, and Student Government, and something new called the Young Women's Action Alliance.

There are also 32 sports including all the ones you would expect, but also more... like wrestling, gymnastics, sailing and golf.

There is dance, and drama, and ceramics and a host of other electives, featuring activities after school and with opportunities to perform or exhibit your work.

So enjoy your summer. Be safe, get rested and get ready to go out and find your niche this September.


Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Stepping Down, But Not Out

I have big news today. After 26 years, I am going back to school. For this reason, along with some others, I have decided not to seek re-election this fall.

I will be supporting a slate of new candidates who are running on the theme of continuing "Progress for Cambridge."

Forgive the length, but here is the press release I sent to the local press today in full below. More on this later after I make the announcement at the School Committee meeting tonight -- the last one before school ends for the year.

For Release: Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Walser Will Not Seek a Fifth Term; Will Support Slate of New Candidates

After serving four terms on the Cambridge School Committee, Nancy Walser has decided not to run for a fifth term this November and to back a slate of new candidates instead.

“I have been intensely involved in Cambridge schools for ten years and I feel that a lot has been accomplished,” said Walser, who first ran for School Committee in 1999 after publishing two parent guides to the Cambridge schools in 1997 and 1998.

“My mantra has been quality teaching and excellence in all our schools as the foundation for everything,” she said. “Many of the tools needed to accomplish this are now in place--regular, more thorough teacher evaluations and the emphasis on quality leadership, for example. These weren’t a priority before I joined the School Committee and I believe that I had a lot to do with putting them at the top of the agenda.”

“Now I think we need new energy and a new commitment to support the current school leadership and to foster a more collaborative culture in order to continue the progress that’s been made,” Walser said. “That’s why I am elated that others are stepping forward to become candidates. This is a great group of folks from all over the city who will bring a real can-do, positive energy to the board,” she added.

For her part, Walser said her reasons for deciding not to run again are mainly personal. “After my term ends in December, I hope to be going back to school to pursue a master’s degree in education policy while I continue my work as assistant editor of the Harvard Education Letter. I also plan to spend more evenings at home with my kids who are unbelievably only three and five years away from college. And after years of supporting my campaigns, my husband is starting a new business, which is like a campaign in itself. It seems like the right time to shift gears.”

Walser said she is excited to support the new slate of candidates running under the theme of “Progress for Cambridge.” The candidates are: Stefan Malner, a West Cambridge resident who works as an analyst for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection; Nancy Tauber, a Graham & Parks parent and experienced public school teacher who lives in Cambridgeport; and Gail Lemily Wiggins, a North Cambridge parent who works as a counselor for The Educational Resource Institute (TERI) in Boston.

“I am running to put the spotlight on students,” said Malner, a 2003 graduate and political science major from Ithaca College, who has also spent four years working on several recent political and issue-based campaigns.

“From my experience, education policy ignores input from the students. As a School Committee member, I would work with my colleagues to make sure that we thoroughly explore how every new initiative affects students,” he said.

“I’m a teacher, I’m a mom and I care about the public schools and this community,” said Tauber, another new candidate. Tauber taught middle school social studies for 12 years in the Newton Public Schools and currently serves as co-chair of the school council at Graham & Parks where her two children attend school.

“I think the School Committee plays a huge role in setting a tone for how others view our schools. There are some great things going on in our public schools, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it. Principals and teachers need to get more credit and their accomplishments need to be celebrated,” said Tauber.

“I’ve been a parent in the school system for 14 years and I have seen a lot of changes, many of them not constructive,” said Lemily Wiggins, who is also launching her first School Committee campaign. “I’m excited about the positive changes being made, especially at the high school, and I’d like to be a part of making more happen.”

In addition to her job connecting low-income, minority and immigrant students and adults with secondary educational opportunities, Lemily Wiggins has logged many years volunteering in the Cambridge public schools, including the Career and College Resource Center at CRLS. She has a master’s degree in education from Harvard University.

The Progress for Cambridge slate is being supported by a grass-roots group of longtime parents and public school supporters who are looking to city leaders to work collaboratively with school district personnel in order to continue the many improvements that are already underway.

“Having a School Committee operating in a high state of emotion, lurching from idea to idea or from leader to leader is not the way to make stable, consistent progress in school districts,” said Avi Green, a group member. “We need some new people who will set a new, constructive tone.”

“There’s been too much in-fighting, too much arguing with the superintendent. This doesn’t help the schools or the students,” said Mary Tittmann, another PFC member. “We need people on the School Committee who will collaborate with our school leaders and focus on what really matters: quality leadership and excellent teaching.”

“We are seeing great improvements in our schools,” said Mary Ann Hart, another PFC member, “The high school is making great strides in its academic instruction, with a great and growing variety of programs that kids can take advantage of. Our kindergarten enrollment also increased to the point where new classrooms had to be opened. Our School Committee needs to continue to support these positive changes by extending the Superintendent’s contract and supporting him in his work for all the students--not fighting for their own narrow agendas,” Hart said.

To meet the new candidates, Walser is inviting the public to a gathering at her home at 335 Huron Ave. on Saturday, June 16 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 617-876-4582 or go to

For more information on the candidates, contact:

Stefan Malner:
Nancy Tauber:; 617-576-7977
Gail Lemily Wiggins:; 617-547-3873

Friday, May 25, 2007

Back from the Forums

Someone noticed that it's been a long time since I posted. I apologize for the absence. Sometimes on the School Committee there are long bursts of activity followed (thankfully) by slower times.

During most of this spring I have been busy organizing two city-wide forums in my capacity as chair of the School Committee subcommittee on the achievement gap. (Joe Grassi and Richard Harding are the other members.)

Both forums went very well thanks to a lot of help from a lot of people, including Marilyn Bradshaw and Pat Berry of the School Committee office. My greatest lesson was learning how much work it takes to launch any type of large-scale public engagement campaign. It's really a full-time job in itself.

The first forum on "Definitions" on April 28 attracted about 120 people. You can read my summary of the forum on the cpsd achievement gap webpage.

Shortly after, on May 12 came the Student Forum with Dr. Ronald Ferguson of the Harvard University Achievement Gap Initiative. A summary of the student forum will be appearing on the cpsd website as soon as I write it.

Briefly, I can tell you that there were 65 students in attendance -- a great turnout of teens for 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning. They ate donuts and offered some great suggestions for more personalization of education at the high school, for boosting the number of internships and for more involvement through similar assemblies in the future. CRLS Principal Chris Saheed was there (as were several deans and teachers) and told the students he was listening seriously to their suggestions. Feedback forms from the students were overwhelmingly positive.

If you have the time, you can watch both spring forums via webcast. A book is in the works about the entire series and will also be posted.

The final two achievement gap forums will take place this fall: a forum for parents on Saturday, Sept. 15 and a final wrap up forum looking toward future initiatives is scheduled for Saturday Oct. 13. I hope you can mark your calendars and join us.

A planning meeting for these last forums takes place Wed., June 6 at noon in the RSTA conference room of the high school. Folks can also email me any and all suggestions.