Wellesley letter to the editor—the challenges of Article 44

As an educator in the K-12 environment and a parent of a WPS student, I am disheartened and frustrated to see Article 44 on our Town’s warrant. The motion directs the District to focus on the “goal to restore Wellesley High School to its historical top five ranking of all public high schools in the state [sic] of Massachusetts as determined by the US News and World Report annual high school ranking.” To tie the success or failure of our teachers, students, administrators and School Committee to a for-profit media corporation that once reported on the news and can only stay relevant by creating its own systems of rankings should already be a end to this discussion. Apparently though, it’s not, so here are further reasons to reject this motion.

In my professional life, I teach a data science course and believe strongly that data can and should inform choices, however I also want to make sure data answers the questions I care about. When evaluating a child’s experience graduating from WHS I care about two questions: Do my child and his peers report a joy of learning and belonging in the community? Upon entering college or career, did my child and his peers report that The School adequately prepared graduates for future academic and life challenges including the ability to critically evaluate of media, political, and cultural influences? If the US News and World Report wants to come up with a system to properly evaluate and answer those questions, I’m interested. Until then, it’s not useful information to me when making informed decisions about school choice.

I am keenly aware that not all parents share my disregard for rankings, so for a moment I will take a quick dive into the world of rankings. I looked at the top 5 public high schools in MA that are comparable to Wellesley High. (I removed Boston Latin and charter schools as they self-select their student body and then perform well in rankings.) Here are the numbers, as reported by USN&WR (all scores out of 100):

Bromfield: 98.82
Belmont 98.82
Lexington 98.63
Dover-Sherborn 98.38
Weston 98.21

Wellesley (#17 again looking at only traditional HS’s) 96.11

So, yes, we aren’t #1. We could jump 5 spots and beat out Brookline if we gained a little over half a point. And we would be back in the coveted top 5 if we gained slightly more than two points out of a 100. Do those two points equate to a noticeably better experience and outcome for the students (as judged by USN&WR)? To attempt to answer that compare Belmont (which is effectively tied for the top spot) and Wellesley. I chose Belmont because of its similarity to Wellesley in size, location, and demographics. Of the ranking factors, the one where Wellesley has the largest gap when compared with Belmont is “Math and Reading Performance Rank”. Belmont scores a rank of #953 nationally and #19 state. Wellesley scores a ranking of #5,929 nationally and #116 at the state-level. Wellesley is nearly 100 schools below Belmont in this ranking. (The rest of the state-level disparities are 28, 20, and 6.) So, if we are to guide our priorities based on what USN&WR has decided is important, then we should start with our Math & Reading Performance Rank. They define that rank as, “How aggregated scores on state assessments compare with U.S. News’ expectations given the proportions of students who are Black, Hispanic and from low-income households.”

That is ambiguous, so I dug deeper and found this explanation: “In all 50 states, there is a very positive statistical relationship between the proportion of a student body that is Black, Hispanic and/or from a low-income household—defined as being eligible for free or subsidized school lunch—and a school’s results on state assessments. Schools performing best on this ranking indicator are those whose assessment scores far exceeded U.S. News’ modeled expectations.” Ok, now we are getting somewhere, albeit not far. We don’t have any insight into how the company arrives at those expectations, but we at least know what they are claiming Wellesley’s biggest deficit is: we are not outperforming expectations enough for our Black, Hispanic, and/or low-income students enough. So, to accomplish the goals of those in favor of Article 44, to increase our ranking, we need to ensure access to affinity groups for students and staff, continue training for faculty and staff in reaching and empowering the aforementioned groups of students, and re-evaluate the curriculum in this light. Every programmatic decision should start with, “How does this lift up our student body, particularly those who we currently are underserving?” A notion I support, but one that stands in contrast to what it appears that supporters of Article 44 are peddling, where the benchmarks proposed are tied to deeply flawed standardized testing. As an aside, this approach has been central to the reforms undertaken in WPS in recent years and I hope they continued to emphasize and expand these programs.

The language of Article 44 would endanger not only programs outlined above, but co-curricular programs in general. The language reads, “…Academic excellence shall take priority over all other programs, policies, and initiatives with regard to curriculum, text book selection, staffing, and budgeting; and that it shall expend all funds in a manner that reflects this priority in all schools and school programs…” Given the warrant in this article, each line item would have to be scrutinized for its contribution to “academic excellence.” WSC would need to start having debates on every program. Do sports programs lead to better MCAS scores? Which sports? Shall we cut any and all sports that can’t be definitively tied to every benchmark listed in the motion? If this motion passes and the District and School Committee are forced to live by its decree, the budget approval process could devolve into a nightmare scenario where programs, services, and staff that could not be directly tied to the benchmarks put forth in the motion would need to be cut.

This motion, while perhaps well-intentioned, is harmful and dangerous to our Town and its students, and ultimately may have the opposite impact as intended. Wellesley’s reputation in the Commonwealth and beyond is not and should not be tied to a ranking system, particularly one that has been developed in the for-profit sector and not by educators or using data that can be clearly tied to student outcomes beyond high school. (For more on this, see how GPAs predict college success better than standardized test scores.) Finally, it is insulting to the WPS educators to suggest that academic success has not always been central to their work. Our educators continue to recognize that academic success is the result of a program that supports the development of the full child and provides opportunities for each of them to thrive.

Jason Bock
Precinct B
Weston Road, Wellesley