Fox Professing
Academic Papers Opinion Columns Personal Essays Course Materials





Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

School Committee Diploma Delay

Dennis Fox

May 15, 2003

First, some 75 anti-MCAS students, parents, and teachers rallied outside Town Hall on May 1st. Then dozens trooped inside to hear the School Committee finally contemplate granting diplomas to all high school seniors meeting Brookline requirements, whether they pass the state exam or not. In the lobby, I predicted committee members would continue stalling. I was right.

A month before graduation, some of the students were getting antsy. They'd gone through channels, lobbied the legislature with parents, teachers, and school officials, written letters, testified at meetings. Now, they figured, committee members should make good on their assurances that the politically imposed punitive test did not hurt students. Seven Massachusetts towns have already done so.

They were especially concerned not for themselves -- the boycotters among them are heading to college without diplomas -- but for a few students receiving special education services who managed to pass every Brookline requirement but failed a test that ignores their individual circumstances.

The meeting held more drama than usual. It began with town lawyers David Turner and Joslin Ham-Murphy explaining that, if the committee flouts Department of Education rules, DOE might cut our funding, decertify the superintendent and high school headmaster, revoke Brookline diplomas, and more.

These theoretical possibilities are worth assessing and organizing against. Still, I was mostly reminded of Alexis de Tocqueville's 1830s observation that the United States didn't need European-style nobles because our system relied instead on lawyers to dampen public demands for action.

Next, breaking their disagreement-avoidant traditions, committee members revealed their inclinations. Some highlights:

Nancy Erdmann didn't say anything because she never showed up. Having lost her race for Selectman last week, she'll have another chance.

Dori Stern, in her final and finest committee meeting, asked her peers to "call the bluff" of right-wing state administrators and "say no loudly and clearly."

Student representative James Alexander reminded members that they declared a year ago they have the right to issue diplomas. Now it's time to act, because change happens only when people take chances. Besides, he added, any DOE declaration that Brookline education is "unsatisfactory" would not be credible. Unfortunately, the student rep doesn't vote.

Leading the opposition, Fred Wang said he's not willing to call the state's bluff. He also said students who pass MCAS deserve to have their "achievements" recognized. Adopting the state's argument didn't go over all that well.

The rest of the committee mostly hemmed and hawed or, like Kevin Lang, proposed go-nowhere, have-it-both-ways options.

For public input, twenty residents signed up to speak against the diploma requirement. Not one spoke in favor. We heard that supporters are afraid to speak publicly, but in a town that debates everything, it's more likely MCAS support is merely lukewarm, not worth the trouble of sitting through a meeting.

One person after another spoke movingly. BrooklineCARE co-chair Ruth Kaplan declared "we went through the system for three years. Now it's time for war." It was good to see her patience run out just days before her election to School Committee.

After comments came the climax: Stern moved to grant diplomas to every student meeting local requirements. Sue Senator seconded. Eyes widened.

Then came the stall.

Judy Meyers moved to table Stern's motion, explaining "I'm a lawyer." She hopes the committee can avoid deciding, either because related lawsuits might be resolved before graduation (ignoring inevitable appeals of any decision) or because DOE might approve the remaining students' MCAS-waiver appeals (ignoring the boycotters, for whom no appeal is allowed).

Meyers' final comment -- "I want to vote yes but can't tonight" -- was paralleled by committee chair Marcia Heist's despair at this "heart-wrenching issue." She wants to check her responsibility to the superintendent and headmaster, though she already knows "my responsibility to students is to get them diplomas. We need to move toward that."

Maybe next time.

In the meantime, there's a last-minute legislative push to let school committees exempt special education students from the diploma rule. So here's my newest prediction: If it passes, our committee will grab this easy route, let our boycotters leave town without a diploma, and undercut the statewide anti-MCAS movement.

Stalling might be careful, even lawyerly. But it's not leadership.

More on high-stakes testing

More on law and justice

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

Back to Gadflying Columns List

up to top

personal/political observations
Academic Papers Opinion Columns Personal Essays Course Materials
some political, most not


Page updated September 30, 2007