Piotr Flawiusz Mitros

Piotr Flawiusz Mitros
2017 Candidate for Cambridge School Committee

Home address:
9 Michael Way
Cambridge, MA 02141

Contact information:
email: piotr@mitros.org
phone: 617-395-7963
Campaign website: http://vote.mitros.org
Personal web site: http://mitros.org/p
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pmitros

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Piotr Flawiusz Mitros is a new candidate this year.

Based on my background as an entrepreneur, academic, educator and educational reformer (and a long-time Cambridge resident), several parents encouraged me to run for the School Committee. My son recently started at the MLK Elementary School so I have a strong personal motivation to improve the school system. I’ve spent the past few years working with many universities to successfully improve teaching-and-learning (in essence, moving away from the lecture format), and it made sense to apply some of those skills at home.

I am new to both politics and to CPSD, and still learning Cambridge's municipal election system. Given the high level of civic engagement and the proportional representation, I am seeing whether a non-traditional approach can work. I am spending less time fundraising and door-knocking (enough, of course, to understand people's concerns, but not thousands of doors), and more time talking to educators and in classrooms. I am, of course, available to meet in person to discuss issues with anyone who wants to as well (my phone number is above). That way, I am learning about our schools, and having a modest positive impact on the system as well. I've done my best to address the fourteen points Robert Winters raised directly, specifically, concretely, and in-depth, based on my discussions and on my background.

If elected, I commit to working hard and putting in the time required to do a good job. I have a flexible schedule, so I plan to spend at least a full day in classrooms in each of Cambridge's eighteen schools during the first year of my term. While my goal is to bring the school committee up to a level where it focuses on high-level vision and strategy and acting as a genuine board-level body, that’s still best done from a detailed understanding of how our classrooms work.

The school committee works best collaboratively, and when members have different skill sets and different areas of focus. I would view my role as helping with three key issues: (1) tying discussions back to the science of learning; (2) empowerment of teachers, parents, and students; and (3) organization, governance, and policymaking.


  • Over a half-decade experience as the Chief Scientist and co-founder of an MIT/Harvard initiative to improve university education worldwide which has impacted millions (edX)

  • Experience teaching in a range of formats, including project-based, small-group, blended, online, lab-based, traditional, and others

  • Experience working with education systems across many cultures, including China, Nigeria, Jordan, and many others

  • Experience with project which have successfully narrowed or closed the achievement gaps in community colleges, state schools, and in the developing world

  • Experience with experimental education projects at MIT

  • Avid reader on the science of learning. I’ve read many books and thousands of research papers. As the interface between edX partner institutions and researchers, I am familiar with most major areas of education research

  • Serial entrepreneur. I’ve been involved in three ventures from an early stages (all valued at $200 million-$1 billion today, are equivalent there-of for the not-for-profit)

  • Policy experience working with National Academy of Education, National Science Foundation/CRA, European Commission, and other government organizations (primarily on appropriate uses of assessment, big data, and 21st century skills)

  • Author of a number of peer-reviewed research papers in education. Frequent keynote speaker/panelist on a range of topics related to education such as how people learn, big data, and educational technology

  • Polish immigrant, Cambridge resident for most of my life

Top Priorities

  • Focus on student learning and outcomes. The school committee spends excessive amounts of time on administrative matters, national politics, local politics, statements of support, and other issues which have little impact on how our children learn or develop. I would like to move those issues to the City Council and the school administration and refocus the school committee on student development. In the past few decades, we've learned a tremendous amount about how students learn. We know effect sizes for different interventions. When the school committee approaches an initiative, we should start with how we expect that initiative to affect our students' outcomes. When possible, we should tie that back to quantitative effect sizes from research and estimated costs, and when not, to qualitative data or substantive arguments. I'd like to bring that kind of rigor, depth, and focus to the school committee.

  • Empowerment. The school committee meets a few dozen times per year. We have eighteen schools, fourteen grades from JK through 12th (and some pre-K), dozens of subjects, dozens of fantastic community-run programs, students from all of the larger ethnic groups in the world, advanced learners, language immersion students, and many types of special needs students. Put together, we have a far greater range of challenges and opportunities than a board-level body can or should tackle by itself. The school committee should set an environment for innovation which empowers parents, teachers, students, researchers, community organizations, administrators, and anyone else interested in improving the school system to do so. It should also provide mechanisms for transparency and evaluation so we can identify programs which work, and mechanism for dissemination of best practices. It should not spend time engaged in individual programs directly; it can't get to them all meaningfully without micromanaging. Specific decisions are best left by the individuals running the programs or participating in them. What a school board can do is create an environment conducive to good decision-making.

  • Collaboration and organizational dynamics. The Cambridge School Committee has caring, highly-qualified individuals who bring a diverse set of talents and a good, compatible set of goals. Between the school committee, the administrators and our teachers, we have a caliber of individuals that would be the envy of most districts. However, if you've ever been to a school committee meeting, tried to fix something in the schools, or discussed with teachers how best practices spread through the district, you probably know that those pieces don't fit together very well. That's not a problem with any individual; that's an organizational and structural problem. I would like to help the school committee work together as a coherent unit where individual goals come together into a single, coherent strategy, where we support the new superintendent and the administration, and where we move away from a command-and-control approach. That involves empowerment, trust, transparency, and communications.

Top Challenges Facing the Cambridge Public Schools today
Our top challenges are organizational. The school district has many fantastic teachers, is very well funded (more than double the national average), has connections to some of the top education researchers in the world, and a large number of highly educated, highly involved parents. There is no reason we shouldn't be the top school district in the nation. Almost all of the challenges in CPSD faces have been solved somewhere in the world; indeed, many have been solved in the school district itself. However, we have problems with how we allocate our resources, with how we disseminate such solutions district-wide, with how the school committee works, and with the degree to which parents and teachers are disempowered from solving their own problems.

We're not doing badly; we're a good school system. But we have the potential to be a model school system if we can overcome three barriers: (1) Organizational issues (2) Empowerment issues (3) Use of the science of learning.

Innovation Agenda, Hybrid Middle School model
Schools and students benefit from stability. Successful innovation comes bottom-up. Everything in the Innovation Agenda was individually reasonable, but it was a large-scale top-down change to many pieces of the school system at once. That's almost guaranteed to be overly disruptive and have major elements which fail. That's largely what happened. I can see many ways in which the school system might be better designed than it is today, but for the most part, such major changes cause more harm than good. What we have is sometimes imperfect, but I would be opposed to further large-scale top-down changes to the system in the next school committee term.

So how do we address big changes? There are two paths:

  • Slowly, incrementally, and with carefully thought-out individual steps which benefit our students which add up to the big change. I'll give an example of how big changes can be broken down into small changes in the section on school choice.

  • Bottom-up. We can empower community members to run small pilots in our schools, put in mechanisms to evaluate those pilots, and means to grow and disseminate the ones which work. I'll talk a little about that in the section on the achievement gap.

Of course, there are times when we do need big, district-level changes, but those are quite rare. Looking at CPSD history, we've made big changes a little too frequently. Kids and schools do well with stability.

School Department Administration and Superintendent
We have a new superintendent. He deserves our trust and a chance to prove himself. I like both the process and the outcome of his work on the school district strategic plan. I plan to do everything in my power to support him until I have evidence otherwise. If I disagree with him, we will have a critical discussion, but unless there are serious red flags, I can agree to disagree and support him in whatever he decides. The school committee's role ought to be to:

  • Set the strategic vision

  • Hold the school administration to high expectations

  • Monitor closely, and ask good questions (but so long as answers are reasonable, not intervening even if we disagree)

  • Help, empower, and support

If something is going seriously wrong, of course, we must intervene (and pick a new superintendent). However, within the scope of reasonable differences of opinion, he's most likely to succeed if we trust him to do his job well, give him the support that he needs to do so, and not micromanage decisions.

School Department Budget and Oversight, Capital Needs
While I've read the school budget, I am not an expert on it by any stretch (and to be fair, just one or two of the school committee members are expert here, especially the longer-serving ones). Until I become an expert, I intend to defer to them.

As I'm trying to understand how we spend out money, I will point out a few things I've been surprised by:

  • How small teacher salaries are relative to local cost-of-living. By state estimates (page 207 of the budget), we spend less than 1/3 of our budget on teachers, and teacher salaries start at $52,609. According to the US Census, the mean family income in Cambridge is about triple that -- $151,584.

  • How little discretionary budget there is (especially for teachers). Teachers are allowed to spend just $400 per year -- about $20 per student -- on instructional supplies and other discretionary expenses.

  • How much we spend on transportation. Logistical improvements should be able to significantly improve on that.

  • How much we spend on out-of-district special education costs. In-district support could both cut costs and help the support the special-needs students who remain in-district.

However, on the whole, I haven't yet seen anything which would indicate serious mismanagement of the budget. In discussions, school committee members seemed aware of the issues I ran across and most were being addressed. For example, teacher salaries have been rising at a steady clip. Just a few years ago, the gap between income and Cambridge cost-of-living was extreme. I was pleased by how much it narrowed.

Achievement Gaps, Meeting the Needs of All Students
The achievement gap is an interesting beast. It's a problem we've solved many times. In most cases, the solutions involved two key elements:

  • High expectations. Teachers, students, parents, and administrators must genuinely believe students will succeed. This was first discovered in the sixties as the Pygmalion Effect. It was rediscovered as stereotype threat. Studies in effective school governance discovered this independently as well. Once we've seen a result independently discovered from so many different angles with so many different, rigorous methodologies, we can be pretty confident it's correct.

  • Learning science. There are a few basic concepts we want to apply: Learners need to be motivated. Learners need to receive a lot of feedback so they can monitor their own learning. Where there is a knowledge gap or misconception, they need to receive appropriate support to fix that gap. Learners should be able to continue to try to learn something until they've mastered it, and move on as soon as they have done so. There is a number of such core principles with strong research support. These are important for all students, but much more important for disadvantaged ones. A student with wealthy, educated parents is much more likely to be able to find such supports outside of school than a child with a single dad working two minimum-wage jobs to make ends meet.

When I first stepped into CPSD school policy, I was surprised at how central this issue was. High-expectation high-support charter schools closed the gap by heavy teachers involvement. Khan Academy closed it through the use of technology (and similar programs are now common in K-12 public education in California). I've been involved in multiple projects which closed it by using hybrid models. These approaches contrast significantly with how CPSD approaches the problem (which relies primarily on ideological principles from social justice).

I initially asked the question: Why didn't we simply bring in what worked outside the district?

As I dove into data, I was even more surprised. One school in CPSD had fully closed the achievement gap, integrating high expectations, learning science, and Cambridge's social justice principles in a thoughtful and coherent way. Critically, in addition to the above elements, the school also targeted root causes specific to Cambridge, such as access to early childhood education, the role of parents, as well as some teachers' lack of familiarity with some of the constraints of their less privileged students' lives.

To solve the achievement gap, we need mechanisms to identify, disseminate and adapt concepts which have worked both within the school district and outside of it. Teachers should visit each others' classrooms, coach each other, have the opportunity to take full sabbaticals in other schools (both within and outside the district), and take on other school roles to develop as complete individuals. High-quality professional development helps and learning-by-doing (or even by observing) is one of the best ways to do that. Such process must be thoughtfully designed. We want to disseminate processes which work, and a first step is enough visibility to identify which classrooms and programs are doing things right, either based on data or based on substantive arguments from what we know about what people learn.

Meeting the Needs of Advanced Learners
Perhaps ironically, the needs of advanced learners are often pitted against those of closing the achievement gap. In reality, both are addressed with almost exactly the same sorts of techniques. Students should be motivated (and supporting them in pursuing their own individual academically-relevant interests is a good way to do that). Students should be allowed to learn at their own speed. They should have support for remediating knowledge gaps. That's as true for an advanced elementary school student trying to master middle school algebra as it is for a remedial high school student trying to do the same. It's even true for a perfectly median middle school student too.

I've used materials from MIT with many disadvantaged populations, from Calstate schools to community colleges to students in the developing world. The first few times, I was genuinely surprised at how well this worked. As I read more literature about how students learn, I found that this is exactly the way you address gaps -- high support and high expectations. Once we put in high support for MIT students, the materials worked just fine across broad ranges of learners, socioeconomically, culturally, educationally, and otherwise.

Much of what we ought to do comes down to moving away from district-wide policies and curricula to a school system which meets students where they are and provides safety nets to catch students when they fail (and a culture with a pervasive, almost irrational lack of acceptance of student failure, and willingness to do anything to prevent students from failing). The concept of an 'advanced learner' is itself flawed; very few students are advanced in all ways. A student good at math might be behind on social development, for example, or vice-versa. The ability to take a few days off from school without a grade penalty is just as important for a disadvantaged immigrant flying to Asia for a family wedding as it is for an advanced learner traveling to a non-school-affiliated academic competition.

Controlled Choice, Student Assignment Policies
As virtually everyone else in Cambridge, I am in favor of having diverse classrooms. However, I believe there are better ways to accomplish that goal than the mechanism we have in place. We have a system that's unnecessarily expensive, poorly designed, and which generates unnecessary friction. It's exactly the right system for 1960-era education where parents wanted to segregate students. It's the wrong system in 2017 when most parents value diverse classrooms and we merely need to avoid unintentional dynamics. Our system:

  • fragments communities. We want kids playing together and doing homework together. That's impossible if they're bused in from all around Cambridge;

  • is expensive. Transportation costs eat 5% of our school budget. About half of that is out-of-district special-needs transportation, and about half of that is controlled choice;

  • burdens parents. Few parents are qualified or have time to meaningfully evaluate twelve different elementary schools. The choices made are often meaningless, random, or sometimes even unintentionally contrary to their kids' interests;

  • leads to poor attitudes. About a quarter of students don't receive their first choice assignment. That leads to negative attitudes towards the school system before students even walk in the door. Many parents simply don't apply for their first-choice programs since getting into "top" schools is impossible without language or proximity points;

  • is illegal. For students who wish to be in the immersion programs, the first experience with CPSD is of taking a stressful, illegal, high-stakes placement exam. This also contradicts advice from American Education Research Association, National Research Council, and virtually all other organizations which study appropriate uses and misuses assessment (and that's without even raising the issue of openly talking about using SES as a proxy for race); and

  • is gameable. We have strong evidence that such gaming is prevalent.

How would we fix that? Slowly, incrementally, re-evaluating next steps at every point, and providing Cambridge families with stability. I would be opposed to eliminating controlled choice in the coming years but I think it is a good time to start to slowly evaluate alternatives. Forcing students to go to integrated schools was essential in the late fifties and early sixties when, unfortunately, it did not happen. In 2017, most parents see the advantages of diverse schools and classrooms, and softer mechanisms can accomplish the same goals without the same downsides.

An example of the first steps in a plan for weaning the district off of controlled choice would consist of:

  1. fixing the lottery algorithm. CPSD uses what is likely the worst algorithm possible. Boston switched to an algorithm which gives strictly better placement for all students and does not encourage gaming. As an added benefit, once we eliminate gaming, we'll have better data on actual school preferences;

  2. recommending schools. It's quite possible that simply guiding parents to schools may be sufficient to achieve our diversity goals; and

  3. providing reasonable defaults. Parents shouldn't be required to put down choices. Kids whose parents don't do research or wait for the second round should end up with reasonable placements.

None of this would adversely affect either diversity, existing parents, or lead to destabilizing changes to the schools. Once those were in place, we could start to add targets around other goals as well. For example:

  • Community. Ideally, most kids from a single neighborhood should go to 1-3 different schools rather than a dozen. That would meet our diversity goals, cut down on transportation costs, and allow kids to have classmates in their local community with whom they could, for example, study and work on group projects.

  • Diversity. Right now, we look at income, binning graduate students with minimum-wage employees. We could look at more meaningful measures, such as cultural background, academic achievement, communications styles, parents' education levels, and others as we think through how we compose students into classrooms.

At each step in the process, of course, we should re-evaluate. If, after a series of steps like this, we found we could meet diversity targets without mandatory assignment, we could do away with it entirely, resulting in a system which is friendlier to families. We're less likely to have legal liability over soft programs without mandatory assignment, allowing us to be more aggressive with what we look at. In other words, for the same level of legal liability, we could have significantly more diverse classrooms.

If we could not, we would still end up with a system with less forced placement, stronger communities, lower transportation costs, and more diversity -- a win on all fronts.

Of course, I am also in favor of growing oversubscribed programs.

Family engagement and communication
I am still learning how schools manage family engagement. CPSD schools take different approaches to family engagement. FMA invites parents into its libraries, classrooms, and to eat lunch with their children. Ola invites parents in as volunteers in classrooms. When I spent a day there, there were four adults in the classroom, two hired and two volunteers, so most of the time, each student table had an adult helping out. I support that kind of family engagement and would like to see that in more schools and classrooms. Aside from giving more support to teachers and students, it leads to higher levels of transparency and community-engagement, both of which help school systems. There is a perception that parents in classrooms can be a little disruptive or a little chaotic. There is some truth to that, but many of the things best for learning are a little confusing, chaotic, and disruptive.

Two well-defined places we can and should improve communications are:

  1. Providing more resources online. School registration, lottery, afterschool registration, and all other such paperwork should be available digitally. Providing digital resources not only saves parents time, but also saves teachers and administrators time. Freeing up that time would also allow for a more personal, higher-touch approach for parents on the other side of the language, education, or digital divides.

  2. Early engagement. We should engage with parents, on a limited but personal scale, no later than age 18 months. I like programs like BabyU. Limited engagements early on can pay big dividends later.

Standardized Testing
There is an interesting paradox in education research. Frequent, in-depth testing helps students learn and grow. That's one of the strongest results we have in education literature. On the other hand, tying test outcomes to any sorts of stakes, whether for the school, the student, the teacher, or the district, tends to result in worse outcomes. That's also pretty well established.

Where does this paradox come from? Tests are a proxy for learning. To the extent we can provide students, teachers, and parents feedback on how students are learning, that can help guide the learning process. On the other hand, few standardized tests accurately capture many important aspects of learning, such as social development, complex problem-solving, time management, creativity, or aesthetics. Once we put stakes around tests, there is a strong incentive to teach to the test and to prepare for the test, and many more important skills go by the wayside to simple procedural knowledge and memorization, leading to worse long-term outcomes.

Tests themselves are high-focus, cognitively active tasks. Those are good for students too; there is strong research that testing itself is a good use of instructional time.

As a result, I support frequent testing of students, providing results of those test to parents, teachers, students, and researchers, and doing nothing more with them.

For a more nuanced view of my take on assessment, I'll refer people to some of my writing. I co-authored a few works on the appropriate and inappropriate uses of assessment. Probably the best of these -- mostly due to lack of filtering/editing/censorship -- were a few chapters I co-authored for Design Recommendations for Intelligent Tutoring Systems, Volume 5: Assessment Methods. Otherwise, I was also engaged as an expert on how big data will impact assessment for the European Commission, the National Science Foundation Computing Research Association, the National Academy of Education, as well as for ACM Ubiquity.

Role of the School Committee
An appropriate role for the school committee is described in The Essential School Board Book by former CPSD school committee member Nancy Walser (and the linked article provides a good summary). It's based on a series of studies which differentiated effective school boards from ineffective ones. I fully agree with substantially everything in this book. The school committee should:

  • Stay focused on student achievement

  • Focus on the big picture, avoid pet projects and initiatives, and redirect lower-level concerns to the school administration

  • Work together closely and collaboratively with each other and the administration

  • Share leadership with the school administration, teachers, and the community

  • Create a climate of care, commitment, and continuous improvement

  • Provide a stable environment with sustained initiatives

  • Support the administration and teachers to succeed in their roles

  • Provide ample opportunities for development of staff (including teachers, administrators, and school board members)

  • Use data and information to guide decisions

  • Facilitate close community involvement

Role of Teachers in shaping programs and influencing policies
Individual teachers ought to have much greater influence on programs and policy. Of all people in the district, teachers have the closest connections to the parents and students and the most experience with student learning. Teachers are also in a unique position to try new things. For the most part, our teachers are also excellent. Unfortunately, the influence of teachers on district policy has been limited. Most influence is through the Cambridge Education Association, which while able to apply pressure to big issues, is not an ideal vehicle for day-to-day policy-making and decision-making.

In order to bring more teachers into the decision-making process, we ought to have:

  • A strong institutional recognition for teachers' free speech rights

  • More solicitations for teacher input as we create policies at both the school committee and the administration level

  • Fewer restrictions on teachers to engage in continuous improvement in their own classrooms

  • More mechanisms for disseminating such changes through the district

  • Measure and evaluate. We should periodically survey teachers to see whether they feel free to speak out on policy issues and whether they feel their voices are being heard

Fortunately, as with many other issues in the district, this is something which has been recognized, and there are efforts to address it. I am glad that we have the innovation design lab to enable more bottom-up innovation to happen and surface. The new superintended seems interested in teacher input as well. In other words, the district is quickly moving in the right direction.

Curriculum and Programs
I am a supporter of:

  1. Relying on state, federal, and research support. Many disciplines have carefully thought-out, well-designed curricula available. These have had far more resources and research go into them than a single school district can afford

  2. Sharing resources which our teachers co-develop and adapt

  3. Treating curricula as guidelines rather than rules, and driving education around the individual interests of individual students and teachers

  4. Having a diversity of programs resulting in a diversity of skills in our student body, much as in our university system. Curricula should not be uniform. In particular, I am a strong supporter of special programs, such as our three language immersion programs

  5. Engaging with parents and students as early as possible. I am in favor of universal pre-K

  6. Treating social and emotional development, 21st-century skills, and character traits as core learning objectives, rather than just looking at what can be easily tested

  7. Starting on a gradual path towards curricula supporting competency education in how we frame our curricula

  8. Grading systems which encourage risk-taking, passion, and excellence

For the most part, however, I think what students learn is less important than how they learn it. There are many possible good curricula. To a large extent, it's a matter of personal preference. In contrast, we have strong scientific evidence about how students learn most effectively which we ought to follow. A few aspects of well-designed programs:

  • Motivated: Intrinsic is better than extrinsic, but in contrast to popular opinion, extrinsic can be important too.

  • Self-paced: Able to spend enough time to master material without forming knowledge gaps, and able to move on as soon as they achieve mastery

  • Appropriately supported: If a student does have a knowledge gap, there should be a support mechanism

  • Time on task: Although often over-emphasized in policy discussion, class time does matter as well. To the extent we believe music, arts, athletics, and similar skills are academically important, a child enrolled in the afterschool programs and summer programs has double the learning time of one who stays home and watches TV.

  • Actively engaged: We learn best when co-constructing information. We learn well when manipulating information. We learn very little from listening to a lecture

  • Lots of feedback: Students need to have appropriate tools to monitor their own learning and know what they do and do not know

  • Appropriately scaffolded: New knowledge should be placed appropriately within the context of existing knowledge, and appropriately sequenced. For example, in physics, it is often important to exercise individual skills before learning to use them in context and to use them in context before learning how to identify what contexts skill apply to.

  • ... and so on ...

How do we accomplish that? There are many ways. For example:

  • Group learning projects can provide motivation through social pressure, support/feedback from peers, active engagement through interactions and co-construction of knowledge with peers and scaffolding through project learning design

  • Intelligent tutoring systems can provide motivation through gamification, support/feedback through technology, active engagement by having students spend most of their time solving problems and scaffolding by careful learning design

  • Community projects can provide motivation through real-world impact and feedback from interactions with customers and mentors

  • ... and so on …

We have nice charts showing effect sizes for different interventions. Ultimately, what's less important than the particulars of the program (for example, whether support comes from teachers, peers, technology, mentors, parents, or otherwise) is that the program aligns with such core scientific principles how people learn most effectively.

To make the story very simple: For a long time, we’ve suspected students can learn much more effectively than by lectures and homework. Today, we’ve gone from suspicion to cold, hard scientific proof. Even relatively simple interventions will double learning gains in classrooms. I’ve helped many classrooms transition to a range of such formats, and I’d like to see a similar transition in CPSD. While the school committee can’t dictate that transition, the goal of my platform is to lay the groundwork to make such a transition possible.

CCTV candidate video (2017)

Page last updated Tuesday, October 10, 2017 1:59 PM Cambridge Candidates