Study of black and Latino boys excludes charter success
Report finds little to cheer about in Boston Public Schools, but examples of high achievement in area charter schools are plentiful
Researchers conducting a study looking for effective practices that are helping black and Latino boys close the achievement reported a stunning finding this week: No Boston schools are succeeding at doing this.
But the study would not have had to look very far to find examples where high achievement among that population is, in fact, the norm. Many Boston charter schools consistently record high achievement scores for black and Latino boys — as well as all other students. The study released earlier this week, however, only looked at schools within the Boston district system.
“I was surprised no one contacted us to see what we had learned,” said Owen Stearns, CEO of Excel Academy, which runs two charter schools in East Boston and one in Chelsea. “We’ve been one of the top middle schools in the state for seven years, and 75 percent of our students are Latino. We would love to be part of the conversation.”
Excel’s East Boston middle school, where 71 percent of students come from low-income households, regularly outperforms schools in the state’s wealthiest suburbs. On the English portion of MCAS exam, 100 percent of the school’s Latino male 8th graders have scored proficient in each of the last four years. For math, 100 percent scored proficient in two of those years, while the proficiency rate in the other two years was 95 percent and 87 percent.
A recent Stanford University study of charter schools in 41 urban areas identified Boston as having among the highest performing charter school sectors in the country.
Charter schools leaders say they were particularly surprised that their schools weren’t included in the study because the Boston School Committee and the city’s charter school leaders struck a historic agreement four years ago aimed at promoting cooperation between the two sectors and sharing of best practices. Catholic schools operated by the Boston Archdiocese later also joined in the new Boston Compact, which got initial funding from the Gates Foundation.
The Boston Compact actually started a working group to look at the exact goal of the recent study – identifying schools across the three sectors with strong outcomes for black and Latino boys and examining their practices — but the effort didn’t get off the ground.
The study released this week, which cost $510,000 and was jointly funded by the Boston Public Schools and the Barr Foundation, was carried out by researchers at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University and the Center for Collaborative Education, a Boston policy organization.
The study was the second part of a two-phase study. The first part, which was released last fall, documented poorer outcomes among black and Latino males in the Boston system on multiple measures, including lower MCAS scores, lower graduation rates, lower enrollment rates in advance work classes and the system’s exam schools, and higher suspension rates.
The new report set out to find exceptions to those patterns, but the researchers said they found no Boston district schools where black and Latino boys were achieving at levels that matched or exceeded state averages. “We did not find any schools that were consistently exceptional,” said Rosann Tung, director of research and policy at Annenberg Institute and the report’s lead author. The researchers then decided to look at four Boston schools where outcomes for black and Latino boys were at least better than for other Boston district schools. MCAS proficiency rates at these schools for black and Latino boys were generally in the 40 to 60 percent range.
The researchers said these schools tended to follow effective practices seen in all higher-performing schools, such as strong professional collaboration among teachers, tailoring instruction to individual students, and fostering a caring school culture. But the study was particularly interested in practices that have been linked specifically to the needs of black and Latino males. Those include the use of “critical race theory,” which brings discussions of race and racism into the classroom, and “critical pedagogy,” which the report says “posits that the purpose of education is to empower, pose problems, and lead to reflection and action.” The four target schools were not consistently applying these practices, the study found.
“Cultural competency is important,” he said, but it doesn’t come close to making up for things that are the foundation of any high-performing school, including teacher quality, which Stearns called “the highest driver of whether a classroom is going to be successful or not.”
One example cited in this week’s report as a way to empower black and Latino males seems to cut against the grain of what leaders in the Boston district system and charter schools believe is crucial to improving outcomes for students such as black and Latino males, who have lagged behind.“Critical pedagogy,” said the report, “is the use of instructional techniques such as having students reflect on a current inequitable practice (such as the standards and testing movement) to produce a performance or service that showcases their understanding of its harmful effects on students like them.”
Wilson, the BPS chief of staff, said the idea that standards and testing are harmful to students is not a view the district subscribes to. “We don’t agree with that,” he said. “We think high standards are important and we think assessments to know how our students are doing are important as well.”