Second of two parts.
Berkshire County Education Task Force Chairman William J. “Bill” Cameron Jr., also a Pittsfield School Committee member, recently retired from an extended 20-month tenure as interim Superintendent of the Lenox Public Schools.
Cameron had retired in 2014 as superintendent of the Central Berkshire Regional School District. Earlier, he had been assistant superintendent for personnel and negotiations for the Pittsfield public schools, superintendent of schools in Salem, and interim superintendent for Shaker Mountain School Union 70 (Hancock, New Ashford and Richmond).
In the second of a two-part conversation, he shares insights on countywide issues, including MCAS and other standardized tests, the impact of school choice on Pittsfield, Lenox and neighboring districts, and the prospects for collaboration among the county’s school districts. Excerpts follow, edited for length.
Q: In your continuing role at the Berkshire County Education Task Force, the main mission has been to explore the benefits of school district consolidation. Only two districts, Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire, are having very preliminary discussions. Is it a disappointment that consolidation has met with such resistance?
A: I’m not sure it’s met with as much resistance as indifference. There has been some outspoken resistance, but not very much. I think most people on the street would have no idea what you’re talking about. Those who do, the reaction frequently is, “That sounds like a pretty good idea, but it will never happen, for political reasons.” So I don’t expect us to see large-scale consolidation in Berkshire County anytime in the near future. But something’s going to happen as the enrollments keep declining here. When I started work in Pittsfield in 1979, there were 12,000 kids in the district. Now, there are 5,000. That’s not an uncommon thing. Something will have to be done, mainly because it’s inequitable, depending on what their zip code is what kind of education kids get. What we’re trying to do is not use a crowbar to force the consolidation idea, what we are trying to do, pretty successfully, is to start collaborative projects. We’re constantly looking at ways to foster collaboration among districts. The fact that Southern Berkshire and Berkshire Hills are talking to one another means there’s at least a common perception that there’s a need here for something to happen, and I think that will be the case in other places as well.
Q: There’s some resistance to MCAS tests and other standardized tests. How important are such tests?
A: Those tests are used by the state to measure the accountability and quality of school districts. Success on standardized tests is less a credit to the school system than it is to the economic and social status of the people who send their kids to the school. As Pittsfield has become an economically poorer community with more families coming in whose kids are encountering major challenges to success at school, those problems have persisted. I don’t object in principle to any kind of state assessment. It’s an attempt by government to justify to the public that the money it’s putting into the schools is actually accomplishing something. I don’t see that some sort of assessment testing is unwarranted. Placing an enormous emphasis on it is sort of flogging school districts that are underperforming to turn around problems that are fundamentally social, not educational in character. That strikes me as, I’ll say, misguided. Teachers know whether or not students are mastering material; you don’t need statewide tests to tell them that. If you’re going to insist that kids, whatever their background, are supposed to learn in lockstep because of their age and grade-level placement, then you are bound to have failures all over the place, because nobody who’s ever been around children thinks they’re all the same. But the education assessment system assumes they should be.
Q: The percentage of school choice students rankles some local people in Lenox who argue that “we’re educating students from Pittsfield and other communities.” So far, the counter-argument that seems to carry more weight is that by taking 40 percent from out of the district, the local schools are able to offer programming that it wouldn’t otherwise be able to present, academically and nonacademically. Do you see any danger that the percentage will have to increase in order to maintain enrollment?
A: At the Berkshire County Education Task Force that I chair, we have a lot of data, an enormous amount of information about population trends. All the school districts in Berkshire County, with the exception of McCann [in North Adams], have seen a pronounced decline in the residential number of students. Two districts, Richmond and Lenox. have immunized themselves to the effects of that, so far. Lenox has a steady enrollment, year by year, about 750, but the population of resident students is gradually declining. So, to maintain the enrollment, they’re going to have to accept over a period of time a larger percentage of choice students. … The people who’ve made those decisions see the benefit of having a full, comprehensive educational program. There’s concern about the character of the schools, whether it’s a majority of residents or not. That’s not an educational argument, that’s an argument that belongs in a different forum. Maintaining the viability of the school as a system is clearly heavily dependent on choice. If choice were abolished and everybody went back to where they came from, there would be about 450 kids in K-12, you’d have 35 to 40 kids per grade.
Q: There’s a feeling that some School Committees have become politicized on issues like names of holidays. Do you see a concern along those lines and that in some areas committees are delving into curriculum decisions that often have political overtones?
A: School committees are inherently political entities; they’re elected. Given the framework of education in Massachusetts, they’re elected to oversee what’s going in the school districts, and they’re supposed to delegate a great deal of responsibility to the superintendent and other administrators. That said, if a community elects people who espouse certain ideas about what should or shouldn’t be going on in the schools, I don’t think it’s out of line for school committees to get involved in that. If native Americans don’t want their names affixed to things, why continue to do it? I don’t see that as politically objectionable. By and large, what you make of history is an ongoing process. There are essential elements of American history that have been papered-over or completely ignored. They should be given due weight. I don’t think any teachers should be in public schools to promote political views. What does have a place is to foster students’ ability to look at things critically, try to understand them and make well-informed judgments about what’s going on. What you look for is a comprehensive view, not one that willfully or ignorantly excludes some large segment of what has happened in the U.S. since its founding, or even before it was founded as a nation. I don’t think school committees fostering scrutiny, in and of itself, is an objectionable thing.