In 2011, Cambridge Public Schools adopted the Innovation Agenda — a controversial policy which promised to overhaul Cambridge’s elementary school system and “eliminate achievement gaps.”
Before the implementation of the Innovation Agenda, the district employed the JK-8 model of education. But as specific elementary schools began to develop advanced academic tracks or specialized curriculums, however, teachers grew concerned about unequal achievement across the district.
Cambridge Public Schools officials unveiled the Innovation Agenda as a “design for excellence” to address inequities in the middle school experience, efficiently utilize CPS resources, and better prepare students to enter Cambridge Rindge and Latin School — the city’s only full public high school.
“The Innovation Agenda is an ambitious plan that will propel Cambridge Public Schools into the 21st century, and prepare all our students for life in a world we cannot fully imagine today,” the 2011 Innovation Agenda implementation plan reads. “The Innovation Agenda is a design for excellent education rather than adequate education—merging Cambridge Public Schools’ twin goals of academic excellence and social justice.”
The Innovation Agenda reorganized Cambridge public schools, creating new middle schools within existing buildings and moving away from the K-8 model.
A decade later, some Cambridge parents are left wondering what happened to the Innovation Agenda. The once-controversial, now-forgotten policy, they say, must be reviewed.
Jean Cummings, a reporter for Cambridge Day who covered the adoption of the Innovation Agenda, said many teachers “diametrically opposed” advanced academic tracks because of disparate results across schools.
“They used to say you could tell by the color of the classroom whether it is advanced learning or not,” she said. “By separating people and telling them ‘you’re advanced, and you’re not,’ you’re condemning the other kids to thinking they’re second class.”
Cummings said inequities across the district were primarily in the type of curriculum and quality of teachers in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. As a result, students who weren’t enrolled in the advanced curriculum left for private or charter schools, depressing district enrollment.
“It was an ongoing problem — from this administration’s point of view — that some schools seemed healthy and were humming along, and there was high satisfaction from families and students and teachers, and in other schools, the middle school just started caving in on itself,” she said.
As concerns began to multiply, the district hired renowned Newton superintendent Jeffrey M. Young in April 2009.
Two years into his new position, Young proposed the Innovation Agenda, aiming to close achievement gaps by “eliminating the opportunity gaps that have existed in Cambridge for decades.” The plan specifically promised high average growth in English and Math proficiency and a 92 percent increase in reenrollment for students in sixth and seventh grade.
While school committee members thought the policy was “best for the community,” it ultimately divided Cambridge, according to Cummings.
“People had arguments in the street, people were screaming at each other,” she said.
City Council member Patricia M. Nolan ’80, who voted for the Innovation Agenda as a member of the school committee, said she believes that it is “incumbent” for officials to review the policy and its impact.
“My main concern is that we continue to see disparate achievement,” she added. “We didn’t meet those outcomes, but then nothing ever happened.”
According to publicly available data, enrollment numbers among middle schoolers have remained below those of K-5 and high school students each year since the Innovation Agenda’s adoption.
Though the Innovation Agenda promised growth in academic improvement for sixth through eighth grade students, math exam scores have consistently been below the target percentile in recent years.
“Ten years later, every single kid in the district started kindergarten two years after the Innovation Agenda passed, and yet we still have very uneven achievement across the four middle schools,” Nolan said.
Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Martin R. West, who has studied the effects of K-8 versus middle school education models on students’ academic performance, said there’s “probably not one optimal grade configuration for every school system.”
West’s 2012 study of Florida public schools found that in the middle school system, students’ academic performance was lower. Still, this education model can reduce enrollment disparities and enhance diversity by bridging students from different neighborhoods, according to West.
West added there are many factors that can go into the decision to change a school system’s grade configuration.
“Districts like Cambridge that are making decisions about grade configuration do need to be aware of the fact that the transition to a stand-alone middle school appears to be very difficult for many students and that the middle school environment is one that seems challenging for educators to get right,” he said.
CPS seniors and school committee student representatives Grace Clemente and Adelina R. Escamilla-Salomon were among the few students who did not experience the K-5 model, instead spending kindergarten through eighth grade at Amigos School because of its dual-language immersion program.
The K-8 school system allowed for “really strong connections,” according to Clemente. Small classroom sizes also facilitated “a lot more opportunity for individualized learning,” she said.
“There were enough teachers to accommodate all those students,” Clemente added.
Escamilla-Salomon said students in the K-5 system benefit from an earlier transition to middle school, which prepares them for the eventual transition to high school.
Spending time in a smaller environment until eighth grade made it “a little bit of a bigger transition to high school,” Escamilla-Salomon added.
Victoria L. Greer, CPS superintendent and former middle school teacher, said though “each and every community is different,” the middle school system is important for student development.
Students in middle schools are “in different places in their social development as well as their academic development” than their elementary and high school counterparts, she said.
“The middle is a really unique place for young people,” Greer added.
According to Greer, the district is currently developing audit plans for CPS programs, which will be available by the end of the 2022-2023 school year.
“For our district it is a best practice for us to ensure that we’re doing ongoing audits and reviews of our programs, our services, and our service deliveries,” she said. “Depending on our research questions, it will determine whether we can look into the Innovation Agenda in the 2023-2024 school year, or will it be the 2024-2025 school year?”
Eric A. Weinberger — a parent of a public school student and a vocal supporter of an Innovation Agenda audit — wrote in an emailed statement that CPS is experiencing a “kind of amnesia” for not considering an audit of the policy until now.
“Here is the chance for Cambridge to do for the country, or U.S. public education, what Superintendent Young didn’t draw on for his own proposal — what data and outcomes emerge in a middle-school system that produce true equity and social justice?” he wrote.