Agreement on Boston schools must be call to action

Pact with state education department is only the first step

THE RECENT AGREEMENT between Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is a welcome development. It’s not cause for celebration, but a good sign nonetheless.

The necessary first step was always getting the adults to set aside calculations of power and instead focus on the work of halting the decline and crisis that now defines the Boston Public Schools (BPS).

The state’s alarming 188-page follow-up review of BPS laid bare the challenges—for example, inadequate services for English language learners and special needs students, unreliable transportation services, an inability or unwillingness to provide the public with accurate data, and no progress in improving the nearly a third of BPS schools that rank in the bottom 10 percent statewide.

And the daily barrage of news coverage on systemwide bullying makes clear that BPS’s list of ailments goes well beyond what was in the audit.

Over the summer Mayor Wu and DESE will begin a tenuous dance of action and oversight, with newly appointed superintendent Mary Skipper joining in the fall. As they once more attempt to improve the city’s schools, I hope they will keep these lessons from the last decade of “reforms” in mind:

Words on paper are not actions. Following the 2020 state audit, DESE and BPS entered into a memorandum of understanding designed to identify and address the district’s most critical shortcomings. That effort failed because BPS was unable to maintain focus and execute on key reforms. Whether given the official designation by the state or not, BPS is a chronically underperforming school district.

Prioritize student learning. After the 2020 audit, not enough attention was paid to raising academic performance. Currently, a majority of students are not being taught material on which they will be tested. DESE and BPS’s negotiation documents don’t mention the need to align the district’s curriculum with MCAS standards.

Don’t ask DESE to do what it cannot do. DESE is a compliance office and has never excelled at technical assistance. BPS’s call for $10 million for accountability system improvements makes sense, but only if the state education department is allowed to audit district progress, bring in specialists, and identify underperforming programs and personnel. Otherwise, there is no reasonable hope of success.

The central office must be restructured. Improvement is not possible with a BPS central office that issues untrustworthy data and obstructs school reform. The maze of 700-plus bureaucrats is hugely out of proportion with other districts, especially now that district enrollment has fallen to 46,000. Right-sizing the bureaucracy will free up tens of millions of dollars that can be redirected to classroom instruction.

If there is a silver lining in the prolonged arm wrestling between the city’s top executive and the state education department, it is that a real debate about BPS was necessary after a mayoral election that studiously avoided the topic. News outlets have given Bostonians a chance to see the full extent of the system’s dysfunction, notwithstanding a per student investment of more than $26,000.

The civic square—from parents and residents to employers—must commit to keeping the focus on what must be Mayor Wu’s top priority.

Meet the Author

Jim Stergios

Executive Director, Pioneer Institute
In 1993, Massachusetts began a journey to becoming the nation’s leader in public education by enacting reforms that traded new money for high standards and accountability for the adults in the system. Across much of the Commonwealth, the money was generously delivered and so were high academic standards and accountability.

Almost 30 years later, BPS got the money, but high standards and accountability never materialized. I ask the mayor and DESE to change that.

Jim Stergios is executive director of Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.