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News, schools, and views from a uniquely Lowell perspective

Re Baehr op-ed

Baehr a good choice as ed commissioner

By Jackie Doherty published in The Lowell Sun, Jan. 16, 2008

I am outraged by Kathleen Madigan’s article disparaging Lowell schools and the leadership of Superintendent Karla Brooks Baehr. Ms. Madigan’s misuse of an outdated report is as disheartening as her motivation, which apparently is more about her strident charter-school agenda than telling an accurate story regarding Lowell schools. (Ms. Madigan neglects to mention she led a charter-school management company and actively advocates for charter schools.) Charter school fervency is not the yardstick for measuring educational leadership, and I am writing to set the record straight.

As a four-year member and current vice chair of the Lowell School Committee, I have seen the results of Dr. Baehr’s work firsthand and witnessed the transformation in our classrooms due to her focus and tenacity around consistent, standards-based curriculum and high-quality instruction. Dr. Baehr was an extraordinary education leader in Lowell and would make a great commissioner.

Lowell is one of the state’s more successful urban districts as a direct result of Dr. Baehr¹s leadership. Of the five largest school districts, Lowell has the highest percentage of schools that made Adequate Yearly Progress in English, and only Worcester exceeded Lowell in math. Also, Lowell is one of only three large urban districts where 50 percent or more of its sophomores earned MCAS scores of proficient or advanced on their first try.

Ms. Madigan attempts to downplay this progress by selectively citing from an EQA audit covering 2001-2004. Yet EQA’s 2007 preliminary report contradicts those claims and clearly states: “Data is at the center of the identification of priorities and improvement planning.” The latest EQA report describes the district as “a learning organization (where)…consistency in the implementation of district priorities is clearly reflected at the K-8 level…”

Ms. Madigan tries to diminish our measurable improvements by focusing on negatives without providing context. For instance, she notes a drop in reading scores for Lowell third-graders but doesn’t mention the decline in third-grade reading scores statewide. She also claims that “comparable Massachusetts districts are doing better” without acknowledging that at 29.6 percent, Lowell has the state’s highest percentage of Limited English Proficient students (LEP). In 2007, two out of every five Lowell third-graders were still learning English; meanwhile, our LEP students outperformed their peers statewide, both facts Ms. Madigan ignores.

An avid charter-school proponent, Ms. Madigan inflates state aid to Lowell by not mentioning charter school allotments and other fund uses. Since FY2002, the state Chapter 70 aid that actually reached Lowell schools increased only three percent. In its latest report, the EQA also addresses financial issues: “During the period under review (FY2005-FY2007), the district experienced significant reductions in entitlement grants accompanied by contractual and fixed cost increases that resulted in dramatic reductions in programs, services, and personnel.” Despite these fiscal constraints, Lowell student achievement continued to improve.

After cherry picking through the outdated report, Ms. Madigan concludes that Dr. Baehr has a “disappointing record” in Lowell. She may not consider it noteworthy that 29 percent more of our students scored advanced or proficient on MCAS in 2007 than in 2005, while 18 percent more moved up from failingbut we do.

Lowell schools improved dramatically under Dr. Baehr, and the state would be fortunate to have her as Education Commissioner. (It is the only consolation to losing her as superintendent.) She has been relentless and visionary in creating an infrastructure not only to help struggling students, but to improve all student learning. Her focus on instruction, curriculum, and higher expectations has not been a quick fix; but rather, reflects what must be done if there is to be long-term, sustained improvement in student learning.

Lowell schools have made significant progress under Dr. Baehr’s leadership, yet she would be the first to assert more needs to be done: Just another reason why Dr. Baehr should be our next Education Commissionerto take us all to new heights in student learning.

Jackie Doherty, vice-chair of the Lowell School Committee, is serving her third term and is a parent of two children in the public schools. She is also chair of Urban Division IX of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and can be reached at www.jackiedoherty.org.

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