Boston failing thousands of students, says reform group

New education organization says 40 Boston schools leaving kids behind

A new education group is sounding the alarm on dismal outcomes in Boston schools, saying thousands of students remain mired in failing schools, a situation that demands urgent action and a willingness to adopt bold reforms.

Families for Excellent Schools says that, in 40 low-performing Boston schools, fewer than one in three students are at grade level in math or English. These schools educate some 19,000 students, more than a third of the total population in Boston public schools.

“What’s happening is a travesty,” says Raiyan Syed, Massachusetts state director for the group. “This is not acceptable, and parents want to see a path forward.”

A report being issued by the group says an ambitious Acceleration Agenda launched five years ago under former Boston superintendent Carol Johnson has led to only small gains in achievement and in closing the gaps separating whites and Asians from black and Hispanic students.

Although the state has adopted reforms in recent years that give districts more leeway to intervene in underperforming schools, the report says 30 of the 40 low-performing Boston schools don’t fall into the state-designated accountability category that marks schools for turnaround interventions. These state-sanctioned measures often include a longer school day, as well as mandates to bring in a new principal and force all teaching staff to reapply for their positions.

The report calls the high failure rates for Boston students “a catastrophic failure on the part of our school system, one that has devastating consequences on our children’s future success.”

Of the 19,000 students attending the 40 schools identified by the report, 16,400 are low-income and 16,600 are black or Hispanic. While white and Asian students in the system have average proficiency rates of 70 percent when English and math rates are averaged together, combined proficiency rates are just 40 percent for Hispanic students and 37 percent for blacks.

Families for Excellent Schools, which opened an office in Boston this fall, was founded in New York in 2011, and has mainly focused there on pushing for more charter schools. Earlier this month, the group organized a rally in New York City that drew more than 20,000 charter school supporters.

Critics in New York have pointed to funding the group has received from Wall Street honchos. In August, Boston Teachers Union president Richard Stutman told the Boston Globe that the group is “just one more organization that is seeking to exploit the charter school privatization movement.” Stutman declined to comment on the group or its report on Boston.

Syed says the Massachusetts office is funded by private local donors and foundation grants.

He says the organization will focus in Massachusetts on ensuring high-quality schools for all students, whether they are charter schools or district schools. The organization also says it won’t hesitate to criticize low-performing charter schools. The report on 40 schools includes one charter school, Dorchester Collegiate Academy, where achievement has lagged badly.

The group’s aim, says Syed, is to organize parents across the city to lead the push for better schools. The Massachusetts office has a staff of five, including three field organizers who have held more than 200 one-on-one meetings with parents and have conducted a set of workshops for parents on education policy.

“We believe when the parent voice is at the table, when parents are organized, we can push for more urgency to get the results we need,” says Syed, who came to the organization from the community service group City Year.

Boston’s independent charter schools are among the highest performing charters in the country, and Syed says if parents are interested in more charter school options, “that will be part of our organizing.”

He says the group believes parents should lead the conversation on the steps needed to bring dramatic improvement to low-performing schools. Although the report does not, therefore, include a call for specific steps to be taken, it highlights a set of six Boston schools serving predominantly low-income minority students that have all shown impressive student achievement results.

All six have some type of structure granting more leeway over staffing or the structure of the school day. The six include independently-run charter schools, an in-district charter school, and a district school that is using the flexibility from its status as a turnaround school to provide added support to English language learners, who make up half its student body. At UP Academy Dorchester, an in-district charter school that took over the former John Marshall Elementary School, math proficiency rates soared in one year from 13 percent to 60 percent.

Boston public school officials say they look forward to working with the group, and they don’t dispute the report’s call for marked improvement. “We certainly agree that there’s a significant amount of work to be done, and it has to be done rapidly,” says school department spokesman Lee McGuire.

Some of the urgency that the group says is needed will have to go beyond extending the established turnaround powers to more schools. The list of 40 troubled schools includes some that already have that autonomy and have been touted for their success in tackling low achievement, most notably the Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Roxbury. Both Gov. Deval Patrick and US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have visited Orchard Gardens and held it up as a model of urban school improvement.

But Orchard Gardens was recognized for the striking improvement in its achievement scores, which had been among the lowest in the state, not for absolute achievement levels. After millions of dollars in added funding and the staff restructuring that came with its 2010 designation as a turnaround school, Orchard Gardens absolute achievement levels remain low, with just 32 percent of its students scoring proficient or higher in English on the most recent MCAS exam and 40 percent reaching proficiency in math.

What further changes the group would recommend at schools like Orchard Gardens is unclear.

Just last month, Duncan visited another school cited by the report, the Mildred Avenue K-8 School, to recognize its involvement in President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, which focuses on the challenges facing minority boys and young men. Achievement scores at the Mattapan school, however, are dismal, with just 23 percent of all students proficient in English and only 11 percent proficient in math.

The report cites the Mildred Avenue school as an example of one that still has a Level 3 designation, one level above the state category that qualifies a school for turnaround interventions, despite its abysmal achievement outcomes.

School department officials say they have moved to address low performance at the school, and have not let its Level 3 classification serve as a barrier to aggressive reforms. During the 2013-14 school year, administration officials used a provision in the teachers’ contract that allows the superintendent to convene an intervention team at his discretion, which includes three teachers selected by the superintendent, three selected by the Boston Teachers Union, and one teacher mutually agreed upon to make recommendations for changes at a school.

Among the steps agreed to were that only teachers who had been ranked as proficient or exemplary, the top two out of four categories, under the district’s new teacher evaluation system were eligible to return to the school this fall. Drew Echelson, a network superintendent overseeing a group of district schools, including those in Mattapan, says 16 teachers did not meet that standard out of 35 to 40 at the school and were replaced this year. The school department also agreed to have teachers and parents from the school work with Echelson in interviewing candidates to take over as the school’s new principal. A new principal came on board this fall.

The school department also reached an agreement with the teachers union on added pay to allow the school to add 40 minutes of instructional time to the school day as well as 60 hours per year of professional development training beyond what is required by the district-wide contract.

Echelson says the department has established groups of educators, dubbed Academic Response Teams, to go into other low-performing schools even if they have not yet been designated for state-sanctioned turnaround reforms.

“We are trying to scale this forward,” he says. “We are creating a structure within BPS that gives us the ability to rapidly transform schools even though they are not Level 4.” Echelson says two other schools that he oversees, both on them on the list of 40 in the Families for Excellent Schools report, will be targeted started next month by an Academic Response Team.

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.

Paul Grogan, president of The Boston Foundation, which has pushed aggressively for more charter schools and more autonomy for low-performing district schools, says the group’s report applies needed pressure on schools. “I welcome it,” he says, “because it’s a reminder that we have so far to go here in terms of absolute achievement levels and of the large-scale failure that’s still occurring.”

In 2006, Boston won the Broad Prize, a national award given annually to an urban US school district showing the greatest performance and improvement in student achievement. Leaders in Boston regularly cited the award as evidence that school reform efforts are paying off. The poor outcomes eight years later at dozens of Boston schools underlines just how steep the challenge is facing urban education, and how far schools in Boston have to go.