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Brookline

Departing 'numbers guy' likes schools' odds

Lang is upbeat as he exits post

''The School Committee and superintendent are thinking about things in the right way,'' says economist Kevin Lang, who is leaving his committee seat after 13 years. ''The School Committee and superintendent are thinking about things in the right way,'' says economist Kevin Lang, who is leaving his committee seat after 13 years. (ARAM BOGHOSIAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Andreae Downs
Globe Correspondent / March 29, 2009
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He started on the School Committee when his youngest daughter was in kindergarten. He's retiring now that she is a college freshman.

In the intervening 13 years, economist Kevin Lang has left a distinct imprint on this highly reputed school system.

He is also remarkably sanguine about the future of the public schools here.

Of course, he worries about whether the last four years of larger-than-expected kindergarten classes will continue. He is concerned about how federal and state rules and assessments may warp Brookline's system. Tighter budgets in a downturn also give him pause.

But Lang feels the schools are in good hands.

"The School Committee and superintendent are thinking about things in the right way," he said, pointing in particular to a more rigorous system of curricular review that helps administrators "figure out if kids know what we think we are teaching them."

Yet he hopes that the board will remember some of his "almost trite" axioms - such as that correlation doesn't mean causation. By way of example: Just because a study shows that most kids taking algebra in ninth grade go on to college doesn't mean that algebra is the reason - it could be that they have parents pushing them into college prep courses, that the schools are of higher quality, or it could have to do with genetics.

Another of his axioms: The world is a complicated place. "There are no simple solutions, and we don't know all the answers" in part because education is such a complicated venture.

Lang's background made him a real asset to the committee, said Helen Charlupski, who has served there since 1992.

"He thinks differently than a lot of us," she said. "He is always questioning, 'How do we know this is the right thing to support?' "

Apparently, the committee found a way, since Lang thinks the schools have vastly improved since his election in 1996.

"Expectations for students at all levels have risen," he said. He attributes this partly to education reform, but also to internal changes. "Everyone is pushed hard. You can't get through high school without a good grasp of math now."

Inequality, which is the subject of one of his recent books, is also better addressed in Brookline's public schools, Lang said.

"It was recognized 13 years ago, but there was no real effort to change it," he said. "The achievement gap is now a real focus of the system."

When Lang first won election as a member of the School Committee - he has been reelected twice - he was seen as the numbers guy.

He had, after all, studied town budgets as chairman of the Financial Planning Advisory Committee, which had a somewhat larger mandate than that of the recent Efficiency Initiative Committee in assessing and prioritizing where town funds could be cut or should be spent. Many of their recommendations remain town fiscal policy.

Lang and fellow committee members then laid the foundation for both the town's first general override in 1994 and a debt-exclusion override to support the high school renovations in 1995, both of which ventures he successfully led.

Other school board members used to turn to him, he said, and ask: " 'Well, can we afford that?' And I would always say, 'Sure - what are you willing to give up?' "

But his answer reveals his approach to decisions: Every one has its consequences. A move to reduce class size, he said, can mean more classrooms with less experienced teachers, for instance. Saving one program usually means cuts in other areas.

"It's hard to say how much we'll miss him," said Henry Warren, who now chairs the board, and who worked with Lang on the financial planning committee in 1993-'94. "He's held the School Committee's nose to the grindstone on the need to make priority choices."

Lang retires this May with a reputation as a workhorse. His proudest achievements, he said, are not all in applying data, although that's how he likes to justify them.

For instance, he is happy that the high school no longer requires teacher permission before a child signs up for an Advanced Placement course. Instead of the predicted massive increase in AP students who needed to change to less rigorous honors courses mid-year, the result was a doubling of kids in AP classes, with the same percentage scoring high, Lang said.

"It proved to the high school that more kids were capable of challenge," he said. "We're now working on the next step - making sure that kids who might not be pushed are challenged to do that."

Similarly, he feels kindergarten entrance should not be a function purely of age. While a hard cutoff means less staff time spent evaluating each child, he doesn't see any data to justify raising or lowering the age of entrance.

"I think our obligation is to treat kids as individuals," he said.

Lang's resignation means that two challengers, former teacher Barbara Scotto and former state mental health commissioner Elizabeth Childs, will run for three seats with incumbents Judy Meyers and Ira Chan.

The election is scheduled for May 5.

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