Mary Cummings, Arlington teacher, activistMary Cummings, veteran Arlington teacher and activist at home.

UPDATED, June 29: The teachers you remember are those with sure voices, those who led you through a thicket of fact to a path of understanding.

For 22 years, Mary Cummings has brought the voice of a memorable teacher to Arlington classrooms -- for learning-disabled students, and to the public arena, warning about charter schools and seeking teacher representation on the state Board of Education.


INSIDE ARLINGTON:
Among our many-faceted residents


In a two-hour interview in a sunny living room at her home abutting Menotomy Rocks Park, Cummings used that voice to explain how, in her 43 years as an educator, her life reflects a key phrase in her résumé:

"Passionate defender of public education and social justice."

From where did that passion arise?

Roots of passion

Not at school. Born Mary Kelaher and reared Catholic, she found parochial schools rule-conscious, sterile. Growing up in the Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant section, she was introduced early to a firsthand look at America's inequities. Her response was not to shrink from them.

 

For spark, and a route to her future, she was inspired by an aunt, who taught English as if it were breathing. Her classes were "like a conversation."

Her Aunt Mary (Hoopa) commuted from Brooklyn to Staten Island daily on subway, ferry and bus. "I did go to observe her a few times and heard a lot about her classes from her friends and students as well as herself," she said. "I became close to one couple who were good friends of Hoopa's. They urged me to go on to grad school. They were real Renaissance people, and I was astounded by all they knew."

Teaching offered a life-giving possibility, so she pursued and received her bachelor's at the Fordham School of Education.

That sense of justice? Recalling some of the public reactions to the 1970 U.S. invasion of Cambodia -- fliers, calls for strikes: "End the war," they said. "I was a hippie," she said with a smile, looking nothing like one now at age 67.

"I was indeed an anti-Vietnam activists, seriously angry, especially after Cambodia," she said. "I demonstrated with everyone else, but I didn't like flag burning or boycotting classes, which proved nothing except that we were lazy bums."

In any event, at the time, she was inspired to work with young people. "I got hooked on speech-and-language pathology through a course I took in college called 'Speech Correction Theory.' Stuttering is the specific area that drew me in, but language/learning disabilities has been the greatest part of my career."

No regrets

Drawn to social activists, she migrated to Cambridge.

While in graduate school, at Emerson, she found she had "the touch or something" for working with kids. She said she has never regretted her career decisions for a minute. I deeply regret what politicians and billionaires have done to education, with charter schools at the top of my list."

Fast-forward through years that included teaching in Braintree public schools eight years, a year sabbatical to do research in preventing language disabilities through parent training and then 15 years in private practice as a speech/language pathologist, Gillingham reading therapist, learning-disabilities specialists and writing coach.

Her Arlington years -- teaching at Stratton, Ottoson and Thompson -- have stretched over the period following the 1993 Education Reform Act. Her hackles rise as she recalls the fallout over what she sees as testing mania and financial pressure on public education from charter schools.

Increased testing was launched, first via MCAS, as a way to focus on educational accountability. That is, how do we know how much students learn? Answer: Give all the same test.

Cummings says the process, to which many parents have become increasingly accustomed over two decades, "led to the MCAS police" and "teaching to the test." She calls PARCC, which Arlington is embracing, "the latest incarnation."

 

Testing effects on teachers

You may see your son or daughter's nerves fray during testing weeks, but what does this environment mean for teachers?

In effect, it dumbs down the classroom, Cummings says. The pace to keep up with testing does not give teachers the time to provide proper background so students can better understand what they are learning, she says.

To her, it's clear: Too often, education now is like floating on a pond without ever diving deep. "Kids are missing context that teachers used to take time to explain,." she says. "It's hard to persuade students that this [whatever you are teaching] is real."

Once swimming atop the waters that testing creates, she arrives at a whirlpool, one caused by charter schools, as they suck needed funds from public schools.

With sadness, she recalled the work of Albert Shanker, the New York union leader who proposed the idea for charters, in 1988, before moneyed interests reshaped how they work.

Shanker was inspired by a visit to a public school in Germany, in which teams of teachers had considerable control over how the school was run, as well as the curriculum and how to teach it. In 1993, the year Massachusetts adopted the education-reform law that brought charters here, Shanker had a change-of-heart when he learned that for-profit organizations saw it as a business opportunity.

Sees trend continuing

Cummings sees the same trend in this country and in this state. For example, clearly outpacing the once-touted Horace Mann charters is the Commonwealth brand. She sees the former as an ignored opportunity and the latter as profit-driven.

She said the original charter vision veered farther off-course in 2009, when President Obama introduced Race to the Top. States competed for grants aimed at encouraging innovation but that also led to expanding charters. This occurred, she said, under efforts to push such schools led by Eli Broad, the entrepreneur who sought to double the number of charters in Los Angeles; Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Walmart founder Sam Walton

Her blunt assessment of Race to the Top: "The money should have gone for teacher training."

Her long focus on the primacy of teachers is illustrated in no better way than her nine-year push to do what may seem obvious to some -- have the state board of education include a teacher. As the Arlington teachers' union website says: "AEA member Mary Cummings is single handedly trying to change this rule."

Seeking key role for teachers

The steps involved in the following timeline show how she has tried to give teachers a voice:

 

-- In 2007, she gathered a group of Arlington citizens and officials to start a local Readiness School group with Gov. Patrick's program, at which School Committee member Paul Schlichtman said teachers were barred from the state board.

-- About 2008, she brought together a group of legislators and educators to discuss the impact on laws affecting public-school classrooms written in the State House. Major concerns included the amount of burdensome paperwork and regulations, charter schools and the lack of teacher representation on the state board.

-- In subsequent years, the group met several times, with Patrick and then-Secretary of Education Paul Reville joining them once. Patrick said he had not known there was no educator on the state board and established a teachers' advisory council, which lasted briefly.

-- Sen. Ken Donnelly and Rep. Sean Garballey have filed bills to put teachers on the board, but they died in committee.

-- In 2016, with the help of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, 5,000 signatures of teachers and other citizens were collected to support such bills.

Her testimony

Cummings' testimony to the Joint Committee on Education presented Sept. 9, 2015, supporting Senate Bill 269/House Bill 375, which would put two active, classroom teachers on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE):

"Massachusetts' schools are the best in the country, thanks to the expertise, dedication and tremendous efforts of our public school educators. Nevertheless, current law forbids public school teachers to serve as members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which governs their profession.

"Most teachers are not even able to attend board meetings, since those meetings are almost always held during school hours. Individuals who stand to profit from decisions made by the BESE are welcome to a seat on the BESE. A high school student is a voting member of the board but not one active teacher.

"There are 11 members of the BESE, but not one of them actually does the direct work of educating our children.

"For virtually every other licensed profession, Massachusetts law requires at least one active practitioner on its governing board. It's time for the board of education to include the experts in the field they govern."

Now the vice chairman of Arlington Democratic Party and the Senate district coordinator for Massachusetts Teachers Association in Donnelly's district, she is making her voice heard among those supporting keeping the cap on charter schools. A forum addressing this issue was held June 28 in Lexington. 


Globe, April 7: State Senate approves charter bill

Globe, March 28, 2016: Racial aspects tinge Mass. charter debate

Globe, March 31: Charter school hopefuls keep faith despite odds


This story was published Saturday, June 25, 2016, and updated June 29.