The ‘third way’ in education

Education leaders seek to bridge the charter-district divide

POLARIZATION AND TRENCH WARFARE, the partisan watchwords these days in Washington, have also come to define education debates.

In Massachusetts, as much as $30 million could be spent between now and November in what promises to be a bloody showdown between charter school advocates and opponents over a ballot question to raise the charter school cap.

While there is a lot at stake in the high-profile charter battle, some of the most interesting developments in education in Massachusetts have been unfolding more quietly across the state.

Whether it’s an “empowerment zone” launched in Springfield last fall that gives a set of middle schools new freedom from district rules, or Boston’s moves to give principals greater leeway over teacher hiring, educators are drawing lessons from charter schools and incorporating them into district systems.

Those involved in the efforts say the various reforms represent a promising “third way” in education, a path that can harness the best practices of charter schools and put them to work at the scale achieved by district systems and with the community input of locally-run schools.

“This is an optimistic, forward-looking effort to get beyond the current battle lines where everyone is so dug in,” says Chris Gabrieli, founder of the Boston nonprofit Empower Schools, which is convening a gathering of education leaders – including US Education Secretary John King – on Tuesday morning to kickoff what is being billed as “The Emerging Third Way” in education. (MassINC, the publisher of CommonWealth, is a cosponsor of the event.)  

John King - (via Creative Commons flckr)

US Secretary of Education John King will give the keynote address at Tuesday’s event in Boston on “The Emerging Third Way” in education. (Photo via Creative Commons/flickr)

At the heart of the third way thinking is a belief that the sort of autonomy enjoyed by charter schools over hiring, curriculum, the length of the school day, and budgeting is a key ingredient needed to drive improvement in lower-performing schools. That was the central idea behind an effort three years ago by a coalition of education leaders to push school reform issues to the forefront of Boston’s first open race for mayor in 20 years.

The “third way” in education that is being showcased on Tuesday is therefore not the unveiling of a new idea so much as it is an attempt to give a name to a set of reforms and a collaborative approach to addressing education challenges that are already being put into practice.

“We feel this movement is much bigger than people realize, but it hasn’t realized it’s a movement,” says Gabrieli, a successful venture capitalist and one-time gubernatorial candidate who has turned his focus to education efforts.

The need for new approaches to school reform seems undeniable. While Massachusetts regularly notches first place in various student achievement measures, statewide results mask enormous gaps between communities, with less than half of students in many predominantly low-income urban districts testing proficient in math and English.

Falling under the third way umbrella are initiatives such as the Lawrence school receivership, a state-run plan that is giving more autonomy to individual schools, longer school days to most students, and that includes partnerships with several charter school organizations that are operating Lawrence district schools. Four years into the effort, math proficiency rates have risen sharply, from 28 percent to 41 percent. English proficiency rates have only ticked up slightly.

In Springfield, with three middle schools facing possible state takeover – but several others also struggling with low student achievement – district and union leaders, together with state officials, struck an innovative agreement under which nine middle schools are operating under a separate governing structure while remaining part of the district system. The schools, which are overseen by a seven-member board that includes state and local appointees, have been given broad latitude over teacher hiring, budget allocations, and length of the school day. Gabrieli is the state-appointed chair of the board.

No one is claiming these sorts of school-level autonomies are a guarantee of better outcomes for students. But reform leaders say these have all been crucial ingredients in the success of high-achieving charter schools, including those in Boston, which studies have shown to be the highest-performing cohort of charter schools in the country.

“Autonomy is a resource, not a strategy,” says Gabrieli, emphasizing that all the third way reforms being put in place require capable school leaders and teachers to be successfully executed.

For the third way effort to continue to gain traction in the state, says Gabrieli, more district leaders need to seize on existing reform opportunities, while the Legislature must also be open to new measures that could make it easier for districts to embrace new schooling models. Things like the empowerment zone carved out in Springfield, he says, could be adopted in other districts with a set of chronically struggling schools. But it will take the political will to acknowledge, he says, that simply pushing harder under the existing structure isn’t going to lead to meaningful improvement.

King, who took the reins as US education secretary in March, stands as the highest profile exemplar of the third-way effort to draw together district and charter school practices. He was a cofounder of Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Boston before eventually going on to serve as state commissioner of education in New York and now the top education official in President Obama’s cabinet.

Charter school critics have often been quick to say that the independently run, but publicly funded, schools have failed at one of their original aims: to be laboratories of innovation that develop best practices to be shared with district schools.

It’s an odd claim because charter schools have, in fact, been the model driving much of the thinking in district-based reforms over the last two decades. Whether it’s the push for longer school days in schools serving high-need students or the effort in Boston to give principals greater leeway over teacher hiring and assignment practices, charter school practices have provided the foundation for the call among district leaders to give schools more autonomy from the strictures of a top-down district bureaucracy.

By bringing those practices into district schools, says Gabrieli, school reform efforts directly address some of the criticism leveled at charters, including that they don’t always include as many special needs students or other more challenging populations as districts schools and that they don’t include a formal role for the community in school oversight.

Paul Reville, who served as the state education secretary under Gov. Deval Patrick, says the effort to bridge the charter-district divide is welcome and overdue. “They’re trying to change the conversation, trying to change the music, and it’s high time,” Reville says, lamenting what he calls the “oxygen-consuming” debate over charter schools.

Jim Stergios, executive director of the right-leaning Pioneer Institute, calls the effort to spotlight and encourage more innovative in-district reforms “really useful.” But he thinks the ongoing charter debate is healthy because it puts pressure on districts to be open to change. “Without additional market pressure on a district system that has a lot of bureaucratic inertia, I worry that these good efforts will not produce the kinds of results in the district schools that we all want to see,” he says.

Tripp Jones was the chief aide to state Rep. Mark Roosevelt when he coauthored the state’s landmark 1993 education reform act. “In my mind this is all about how do we increase the pace at which we’re able to take what we know works and change the education opportunities for our most vulnerable and at-risk children,” Jones says of the third-way efforts.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“There’s been a lot of great things that have happened since 1993, but I think by all measures not enough kids have benefited from the kinds of innovation and change we were attempting to bring about,” says Jones, a cofounder of MassINC who is helping to organize Tuesday’s event. “Massachusetts is so well positioned to be one of the real leaders again in driving the next chapter of education reform.”

 

  • Mhmjjj2012

    How about CommonWealth take an in depth look at the highest-performing charter schools in Massachusetts? The U.S. News & World Report’s highest rated city charter school is Boston Collegiate Charter School which operates grades 5-12. Boston Collegiate does not accept any students after grade 8. Even though Boston Collegiate operates a high school there is no way a student can access grades 9-12 without mostly coming up through grades 5-8. The only problem with that is in 2008 there were 88 students in grade 5 which then dropped down to 56 students graduating for a loss of 36% of those students. Are those best practices that should be shared with public schools? Lock out students after grade 8 and don’t fill empty seats?

  • Mhmjjj2012

    According to the U.S. News & World Report, the #1 public high school in Massachusetts is the Sturgis Charter Public School. Siblings of current students are guaranteed seats in each year’s freshman class which means for at least the past few years about 40% of the entering freshmen at Sturgis are siblings. That means only about 60% of seats are available through the lottery. YouTube has a video of a recent Sturgis lottery where the person running the lottery said that year had the highest number of applicants…582…which was one more applicant than the previous year…one more applicant. There were 212 seats available or 22 more than the previous year. As the lottery was about to begin there was an announcement that 79 siblings of current students were automatically included in the class and the lottery would start with seat #80. That meant 38% of seats were filled by giving a “preference” to siblings of currently enrolled students. They didn’t participate in the lottery at all. That’s a perfect example of cherry picking and in an article in Cape Cod Times, “Report, Cape official blast charter schools,” Sturgis’ executive director basically admits the sibling preference is cherry picking. Should Sturgis’ sibling preference be a charter school best practice shared with public schools?

  • Mhmjjj2012

    The state’s “landmark” 1993 education reform act came about after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled the State’s Constitution imposes on the Commonwealth an enforceable duty to provide an education for all its children, rich and poor, in every city and town through the public schools. The Education Reform Act created the Foundation budget to address the inequities in school funding and that formula hasn’t changed in 23 years. A recently released report from the Foundation Budget Review Commission identified significant funding shortfalls in that formula in areas for Special Education, Low Income Students and English Language Learners. But instead of dealing with the funding gap the Governor tweaked the formula for his FY2017 proposed budget causing some public school districts to lose millions of dollars in funding: Brockton $9,541,735 less, Chelsea $4,216,724 less, Everett $4,649,387 less, Lawrence $1,968,545 less, Lynn $8,615,652 less, Revere $6,052,601 less, and Worcester $2,057,477 less. That’s shortchanging a formula that already shortchanges those cities’ public schools…and doing it just a few months before the new budget year begins. This “third way” in education looks like it’s organized by charter school proponents to give the appearance of having a broader mission when all they want is more charter schools.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    In 2015 Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Boston had an incredibly high out-of-school suspension rate of 40% but that was down from a 2014 out-of-school suspension rate of 44.6% and an out-of-school suspension rate of 59.8% in 2013. Perhaps suspending 60% of students out-of-school is a charter school best practice that should be shared with public schools?

  • Mhmjjj2012

    Interesting choice for the “third way” keynote speaker: US Education Secretary John King. While the article notes he was a cofounder of Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Boston…there was no mention of that charter school’s consistently shockingly high out-of-school suspension rates…up to 60%…with in-school suspensions barely registering at all. If students aren’t in school then how do they learn? If students aren’t in school then how likely are they to graduate? And what about his time as state commissioner of education in New York?

  • Mhmjjj2012

    “Four years into the (Lawrence school receivership) effort, math proficiency rates have risen sharply, from 28 percent to 41 percent. English proficiency rates have only ticked up slightly.” What about science?

  • Pingback: “Third Way” Not the – Brookline Parents Organization()