Fixing failing schools
Can the state's new tools for struggling schools get troubled districts on track?
(Illustration by James Steinberg)
DEVIN SHEEHAN, THE vice chairman of the Holyoke School Committee, welcomed Rob Curtin to the board’s monthly meeting in early March, but no one there was particularly glad to see him.
Curtin, the director of district accountability for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, was there to present the results of a recent state-ordered review of Holyoke’s school system. Mitchell Chester, the state education commissioner, ordered the report because of his concern with the district’s long history of low student achievement, and everyone in the room knew it was a prelude to a possible state takeover of the Holyoke schools.
The review painted a picture of a district plagued by years of low student achievement and acrimonious relations between the administration and the teachers union. Only one in three students is proficient in English language arts and barely one in four is proficient in math. Despite recent gains, Holyoke’s 60 percent four-year high school graduation rate is the lowest of any district in the state.
In late March, Chester announced that he will recommend that the 11-member state education board vote in late April or May on a proposal to place the district in state receivership.
Chester’s announcement has set off anger in Holyoke. A group of about 50 students at the high school staged a walkout in protest. The teachers union has vowed to organize the community to oppose a state takeover.
While acknowledging the district’s past struggles, Sheehan says there are real signs of progress under a new superintendent Holyoke hired in 2013. “We need to take the groundwork we’ve laid and build from there,” he says. “There is so much more benefit to having local control over our schools. The people running the schools know our community, know the environment, know the whole needs of our students that a receiver may not.”
Chester seems unbowed. “I am distressed about Holyoke,” he says. “I see no evidence that we are on an improvement trajectory there.”
“I approach this work with a tremendous amount of humility,” says Chester. “I don’t claim that we’ve figured out how to turn around low-performing districts with a great deal of certainty. But I also approach it with a great sense of urgency. Simply sitting back and hoping that if we let things run for another two years maybe we’ll see better results is clearly not a strategy.”
The unfolding drama in Holyoke highlights how charged the situation becomes when the understandable wish of communities to maintain control of their schools collides with a state determination that allowing that would only continue to saddle students with dismal prospects for a decent education.
In 1993, when Massachusetts enacted landmark education reform legislation, its architects had an admittedly audacious goal. They hoped that a huge infusion of new state funding for schools, lots of it targeted toward poor districts, combined with rigorous new academic standards for all schools, would be the right mix of resources and heightened expectations to help all students reach proficiency in basic skills.
It was a bold gambit, but it has, in certain respects, run its course. Billions of dollars in new state education aid has been accompanied by strong gains in student performance that have seen Massachusetts move from roughly the middle of the pack among all states to the top ranking in nearly every measure of student achievement. But despite those statewide improvements, most students from low-income households lag well behind their better-off peers, and urban districts where poverty is most concentrated struggle with widespread low achievement and high dropout rates.
There is a growing consensus that the state needs to think beyond the “grand bargain” undergirding the 1993 law if it hopes to get large numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds achieving at high levels.
Among those who have come to that conclusion is Tom Birmingham, the former state Senate president and one of the main authors of the law. In 1993, Birmingham was co-chairman of the Legislature’s education committee. He brimmed with optimism about what the new law would mean for students with the kind of upbringing he had in a working-class Chelsea family.
“With a large infusion of public dollars, progressively distributed, and clear but attainable standards, I had hoped everybody would get up to the proficient level,” says Birmingham. “But the class-based achievement gap stubbornly persists. We have to do more than what I candidly thought back then would be enough. Like anything, you have to learn from experience.”
The state’s new education secretary, Jim Peyser, agrees. “We’ve been, in theory, turning around low-performing schools for well over a decade, maybe even two. And it sure feels like we haven’t made a whole lot of progress,” says Peyser. “For me, it’s pretty clear we can’t just kind of work harder and better within the same constraints and expect significantly different results.”
That thinking helped drive state leaders five years ago to pass the most sweeping update to state education laws since the 1993 reform bill. The 2010 law includes provisions giving superintendents and principals added latitude over curriculum, staffing, and scheduling in chronically underperforming schools. Some schools have made progress using those tools, but many have not. The widest degree of freedom in the law was reserved for the state education department, which was given authority to take full control of individual schools or entire districts that failed to respond to those initial, district-driven interventions.
Paul Reville, the former state education secretary, was involved in the push for the 1993 reform law and was the principal author of the 2010 measure that sought to build off it. He has become increasingly convinced that schools educating lots of kids in poverty need more flexibility, more time, and more resources. “Simply pressuring a district to do more with a model that isn’t up to doing the job isn’t going to get the job done,” he says.
LEARNING FROM LAWRENCE
In 2011, when state education officials took control of the Lawrence school district, it marked the first and, thus far, only time the state has taken an entire district into receivership under the new law. It was not all that hard a call.
Three Lawrence superintendents in a row had been fired because of allegations of wrongdoing, with the last one hauled off to jail after being convicted on five fraud and embezzlement charges related to misusing school department funds. What’s more, the city’s mayor wrote to state officials urging them to step in. Only half of Lawrence’s students were finishing high school. Less than 30 percent were scoring proficient or higher in math, and just 41 percent reached that mark in English.
The history of state takeovers nationally has often involved bringing in a high-powered administrator who vows to bring a dysfunctional district to heel under a sweeping, and usually very prescriptive, turnaround plan imposed by the state. The results have been almost uniformly dismal.
With that history in mind, officials devised a plan for Lawrence with a dramatically different premise. Rather than a fixed turnaround regimen for all 30 schools overseen by a take-no-prisoners new superintendent, the plan called for responsibility for improving schools to rest with principals and teachers, who were given broad authority over curriculum and the structure of their school’s schedule.
The state-appointed receiver, Jeff Riley, a former Boston school principal and administrator, brought in organizations that have run successful charter schools to operate two schools within the Lawrence system. A third school is being run by a Boston-based nonprofit that operates two schools within the Boston district as part of turnaround efforts there. Meanwhile, the teachers union in Lawrence, which opposed the state takeover, was put in charge of overseeing one of the city’s elementary schools.
The Lawrence model has drawn visits to the district from US Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Randi Weingarten, president of the national American Federation of Teachers, two figures who are more often clashing on education policy than celebrating the same reform.
But the model they both praised is not the usual reform. Instead of the standard top-down mandate of district systems, says Riley, “what we’re saying is, you want to drive decision-making down to the school level, where teachers and parents, with the principal, get to decide what’s best for their community.”
“It’s a radical change from the way we typically do business,” Chester, the state education commissioner, said at the time.
The schools have all added time to the standard school day—the partner-operated schools have an eight-hour day rather than the standard six-and-a-half. The other schools have added time to their day that works out to the equivalent of 20 to 25 more school days per year.
They are using the extra time to redouble efforts on core academic subjects, in which many students are far below their grade level, but also to include art, music, and other “enrichment” subjects.
“We want our students to have the same opportunities suburban kids have,” says Riley, who maintains that schools shouldn’t have to trade off rigor and accountability on core academic subjects for a well-rounded curriculum.
The early results have been encouraging. In two years, the number of Lawrence schools in the top state accountability ranking (based on MCAS scores and growth in student achievement) has tripled from two to six. Math proficiency rates have risen 14 percentage points since the receivership started, while English proficiency rates are up 3 points. In perhaps the most important early indicator, Lawrence’s growth scores have seen among the highest gains of all districts in the state over the last two years. These measure how students are advancing compared with demographically similar peers statewide who have tested at similar levels.
The schools have formed leadership teams that include a group of teachers along with the principal, who direct decisions on curriculum and the school schedule. “We vote on those issues and they truly are school-based decisions,” says Ellen Baranowksi, principal of the Frost Middle School and a 30-year veteran of the Lawrence district. “We have had a lot more latitude than we ever did in the past.”
Riley had the power to unilaterally let go any teacher at the time he took the reins in early 2012, and he could effectively void most provisions of the collective bargaining contract. He’s used the powers fairly sparingly, however, letting go only about 10 percent of the teaching force when he came on board. He made much bigger changes in school leadership, replacing about half the principals. He also decided to sit down and negotiate a new contract with the union, though he was not required to do so.
“The initial evidence is extremely positive,” says Reville, the former state education secretary. “Jeff Riley has been incredibly adept in his role as receiver. He’s been restrained in his use of authorities and bent over backwards to do reform with the [local education] field, not to the field.” He’s been willing to listen, “but not afraid to act.”
“Jeff, more than anyone, has done it in a way that hasn’t set everything on fire and burned the place down,” says Justin Cohen, who oversaw a school turnaround initiative as president of Mass Insight Education, a Boston policy organization, and is now writing a book on school reform. “Lots of places get a lot less results with a lot more strife.”
Riley says he’s looking for ways to avoid the pitched battles that poison a lot of education debates these days, while still insisting on changes that he thinks are necessary to best serve students. “I call it ‘the radical center,’” he says. “That makes it sound less boring.”
The hiring autonomy, longer days, and school-based decisions over curriculum and scheduling in Lawrence are all hallmarks of charter schools. Leaders of high-performing charter schools say these are all crucial elements of the success they have enjoyed. But nothing prevents such features from being adopted in district public schools, and these types of changes are at the center of many district reform efforts across the country.
“People say that local control was lost,” Riley says of the state receivership. “We actually made it more local because decisions are happening at the school level with parents, the teachers, and the community. So in an ironic way, in our model, it’s actually more local control than anywhere else, in my opinion, in Massachusetts.”
Frank McLaughlin, the longtime president of the Lawrence Teachers Union, says the receivership meant he and Riley had something of “a shotgun marriage.” The union opposed the state takeover and unsuccessfully tried to challenge some of the turnaround plans. McLaughlin says teachers are not crazy about the new pay structure put in place, which bases salaries not on years of service and degrees but solely on performance reviews.
But the 36-year veteran of the Lawrence schools says he is now putting his best face forward to make the marriage work. He and Riley have developed “a real good working relationship,” says McLaughlin. “We have a shared vision for the children of Lawrence. How we get there—that’s what our conversations are about.”
The Lawrence turnaround plan has one big friend now in a very high place. Gov. Charlie Baker regularly pointed to the signs of school progress in Lawrence during last year’s campaign, and he gave a shout-out to the city in his inaugural address in January, saying that “a renaissance is underway in their public schools.”
“There’s a certain sense of momentum and positivity there, borne out not just from the numbers but from the atmospherics,” Baker says in an interview. “I’m not a big atmospherics-alone guy. But I’ve been impressed by how much those two things seem to be dovetailing there.”
The lesson on using the new state authorities that he takes from it all: “With the right leadership and the right structure, you can make some real progress in a pretty short period of time,” says Baker.
Peyser, Baker’s secretary of education, is reluctant to declare victory in Lawrence. But against the dismal national record of district turnaround efforts to date, he says, it provides some grounds for real hope. “Whether it’s a proof point, I don’t know yet,” he says. “I think, overall, it’s probably been more promising than just about anything else we’ve done. So that’s really encouraging.”
Peyser oversaw the Baker transition team effort, including the reports prepared by policy advisory groups organized around five big issues facing state government. The education group urged a “laser focus on specific communities with large numbers of low-performing schools” and said the state ought to target “another city (or cities) for a Lawrence-like transformation effort.”
Peyser says the state must be willing to take big steps in chronically low-performing districts, but cautions that the success of such efforts ultimately depends on finding the right people and organizations to lead them—and on a degree of buy-in from the affected community.
“I do think we need to find a coalition of the willing,” says Peyser. “The question is, what if no one’s willing?”
That question is the one state officials are now contending with in Holyoke. A once vibrant mill town now long past its industrial-age heyday, the Pioneer Valley city of 40,000 has a lot in common with Lawrence—high poverty and a long struggling school system made up overwhelmingly of Hispanic students—but with a crucial difference when it comes to possible state intervention: Holyokers seem to want no part in it.
More than a decade ago, in 2003, Holyoke became the first district to be declared “underperforming” by the state. Things haven’t improved much since. Despite hundreds of thousands of dollars of added state funding, and various state-directed curriculum efforts, student achievement in Holyoke remains among the lowest in the state on various indicators.
The report from the review team that spent five days in Holyoke in January only seemed to add to the view that state receivership might be the only way to bring meaningful improvement to education there. “My level of concern for Holyoke is extremely high, and it’s not at all clear to me that, short of some very aggressive intervention in the school district, we’re going to be able to change that flat line,” says Chester, the state education commissioner.
Holyoke school leaders disagree with Chester’s bleak assessment. They say Sergio Paez, the district’s third superintendent in five years, is finally making some headway and should be given time to show more progress.
Holyoke’s district enrolls about 5,600 students, 78 percent of whom are Hispanic, and 85 percent of whom come from low-income households.
Paez points to the district’s improved graduation rate, a doubling of professional development training for teachers, and 100 new pre-K seats as tangible signs of progress. But, says Paez, who arrived in Holyoke in 2013, “in a year and half it isn’t possible to show the kind of improvement the commissioner is expecting.”
The state review praised Paez and his leadership team for the work they’ve done to align the district curriculum with state standards, but the report found that this wasn’t translating to the classroom. The review found “the quality of classroom instruction in the district was inconsistent, lacked rigor and high expectations, and failed to incorporate technology as a tool for student learning,” Curtin, the state education official, told the Holyoke school committee.
The review team observed 113 classrooms. Their report said that only a third of teachers provided multiple opportunities to engage in higher-order thinking skills or consistently modified instructions for English language learners or special education students. Only half of the classrooms, according to the report, met the standard for lessons “involving rigor and high expectations.”
Chester says even if Paez is “a phenomenal superintendent,” he questions whether he can make sustained progress “under current conditions.” Those conditions include a highly acrimonious relationship between the administration and the Holyoke teachers union, which the report called a significant hindrance to moving the district forward.
The union president, Gus Morales, was let go by the district at the end of the 2013-14 school year. He did not yet have tenure job protection that comes with three years of teaching in a district, but won reinstatement after taking his case before the state Department of Labor Relations.
Morales claimed he was let go in retaliation for speaking out against the district’s use of “data walls”—the posting on classroom walls of test scores identified by student names. Paez says he cannot comment on personnel matters, but says he apologized last year over the data wall issue. Although there was a presentation on their use during a training session, Paez insists teachers were not ordered to use them, and that it was never intended for student scores to be identified by name.
He offers no apologies, however, for insisting that the district use data to maintain a focus on student achievement.
“We have to use the data to get better,” says Paez. “We are 15 percent proficient in reading,” he says, referring to the district’s alarming English language arts proficiency rate for 3rd graders, a benchmark considered a crucial predictor of long-term outcomes. “We have to acknowledge that we have a problem. The best way to acknowledge we have a problem is with data.”
A major division in education thinking these days concerns the role of poverty. Opponents of high-stakes testing frequently say children living in poverty can’t be expected to meet high standards until the hurdles they face out of school are addressed. Those on the other side, including state education leaders, say we can’t wait until every social ill is first addressed. Moreover, they say, we have good examples of schools where children in poverty are achieving at high levels.
Paez is trying to convince state officials that Holyoke is fully committed to raising student performance regardless of students’ background. “We are not offering any excuses for the underperforming status of our kids,” he says. “We are not blaming poverty, we are not going to blame the state, we are not going to blame standardized testing.”
But it’s clear that not everyone in Holyoke is of one mind on the issue.
Morales has been an outspoken critic of testing, and was a part of the insurgent push by some union locals that elected testing critic Barbara Madeloni president of the statewide Massachusetts Teachers Association last year.
“What standardized tests predict is socioeconomic status,” says Morales. “It’s not so simple to say our students aren’t doing well. They’re wonderful, they’re very intellectual. Just not in the way some people would have them be. As long as we continue to subscribe to the idea that our students can be measured by standardized tests, we continue to discriminate mainly against students of color, mainly in impoverished communities.”
Morales dismisses with pointed words the idea that a state takeover could bring improvement to the schools. “All snake oil salesmen are good at one thing, and that’s selling a false bill of goods and selling something that doesn’t work,” he says.
Madeloni testified in February against a Holyoke takeover before the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which must ultimately sign off on such a plan. “The history of [the state’s] involvement with Holyoke is based on a punishing system,” she says. “It’s all been about focusing on testing, which we know to be one of the most meaningless ways to understand what’s happening in a school and classroom.”
Holyoke’s mayor, Alex Morse, who also chairs the school committee, is the one elected official there who seems to have staked out a more modulated stance on receivership. Morse has said he favors maintaining local control, but he calls the abysmal student achievement levels in the district “unacceptable” and suggests it will be hard to change things under existing conditions.
“I think a lot of folks have been making a lot of assumptions about what receivership is,” he says. “I think it’s important that we look at other communities, and what we have seen is, I think, there are a number of promising things happening in Lawrence.”
After Chester announced that he was moving toward receivership, Morse penned an op-ed on the potential takeover for the Springfield Republican. He said it will be up to everyone in Holyoke to make receivership work, if it comes to that, and he highlighted the school-based decision-making it has brought to Lawrence. “If there’s a lesson to be learned from Lawrence,” he wrote, “it is that the future of our schools is still very much ours to shape.”
There were two big elements to the thinking behind the 2010 reform law, says Reville, the former state education secretary. For districts that had long struggled with low achievement, “we wanted to send a message that dramatic change was clearly indicated if you reached that level, and there would be people with the authority to make that happen,” he says. “The second half of it was the idea that the threat that this kind of dramatic change could be executed would drive districts on their own to make some of those very changes to preserve their local control over schools.”
That second half is exactly what’s now playing out in Springfield.
Three middle schools there have been struggling despite turnaround plans aimed at reversing years of lackluster performance. They were likely this year to be taken into state receivership under the 2010 law, which allows individual schools as well as entire districts to be put under state control. (Four individual schools, two in Boston and one each in Holyoke and New Bedford, were put under state oversight last year.)
As the state began contemplating a takeover of the Springfield schools, however, conversations turned toward possible alternatives to full receivership. Key to those conversations was the involvement of one-time gubernatorial candidate Chris Gabrieli. The successful Boston businessman has become deeply involved in education reform efforts through three nonprofits he started. Gabrieli has also become well-respected in Springfield, where he chaired a financial oversight board from 2007 to 2009 that the state established as a condition of helping the city dig out from a severe fiscal crisis.
What emerged last fall from these conversations was a plan to break the middle schools out from the district system and put them under the control of a newly constituted authority. The Springfield Empowerment Zone will employ many of the same rules developed under the Lawrence receivership. School leaders will have complete autonomy over hiring decisions, curriculum development, and the structure of the school day. There will be an added salary stipend for teachers in schools that adopt longer days, and the teacher salary structure will be based on performance reviews, not the types of degrees teachers hold or years of teaching experience.
The zone will be overseen by a seven-member board that represents a hybrid of state and local control. Four members were appointed by Chester, the state education commissioner, including Gabrieli as board chairman. Three local seats are held by the Springfield mayor, the school superintendent, and the vice chairman of the school committee.
Empower Schools, one of the Boston nonprofits Gabrieli directs, which promotes vesting more authority in individual schools, will provide technical assistance to the Springfield effort at no cost. The organization has also worked extensively on the Lawrence receivership.
Chester says he told Springfield leaders that any plan they developed “has to be more than incrementalism for me to feel confidence that we’re on the right path without exercising the receivership authority.” The empowerment zone, which will kick into operation this fall, represents a “very innovative approach,” he says.
Springfield leaders also went beyond just putting into the new zone the three schools that were on the verge of state takeover, including three more that could have wound up in receivership over the next couple of years. “The typical reaction would have been, only the ones that are at absolute death’s door will we even talk about,” says Gabrieli. “They said, no, we get that this could be an amazing thing. This is about partnerships and being willing to do something much bolder.”
Springfield has had some success with turnaround efforts in its elementary schools, says Daniel Warwick, the district superintendent. But he says school systems have to be willing to think differently and try different approaches.
“It’s clear to me after 40 years working in urban schools that, in high poverty urban schools, traditional models are not going to work and we have to look for innovative designs,” says Warwick.
“You don’t really find any large middle schools with 90 percent poverty that are really working using a traditional middle-school model. So we were looking for something dramatically different, and looking at the situation in Lawrence and collaboration with the department of education.”
Tim Collins, the president of the Springfield teachers union, talks about the empowerment zone in terms similar to Lawrence union president Frank McLaughlin’s “shotgun wedding” characterization of his partnership with the receiver there.
“We had a gun to our head,” Collins says of the union choice of agreeing to a plan like the empowerment zone that would pass muster with the state, or having at least three schools go into full state receivership.
At the same time, Collins acknowledges some real potential for upsides to the plan. He says the focus on school-based decision making—the empowerment zone will have the same type of school leadership teams as Lawrence schools—is just the sort of structure teachers have long wanted.
“The worst thing in the world is top-down command control, because you give people the excuse not to feel bad about their failures—I did exactly what you said, don’t blame me if it didn’t work,” says Collins.
“I always say we’re never going to have true education reform until the people living and doing the work in the school buildings—the teachers, the assistant principals, the principals—are the architects of the reform,” he says. “We’re always the object of the reform. So I’m hopeful with this new contract.”
WRITING A TRUCE STORY
The idea that districts struggling with chronic low performance need significant reform and restructuring has gained traction nationally. New Orleans has moved to a system almost entirely made up of charter schools, while other states are trying different approaches. All of it, says Andy Smarick, a former US education department official, is being driven by an overarching reality.
“We have not had a single high-performing urban district for half a century,” he says. “We’ve had tens of millions of poor kids assigned to urban systems that just don’t work for kids who desperately need schools to work.”
For 13 years, the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation has given an annual award, along with $1 million, to the urban district showing the greatest performance and improvement in student achievement. Boston won the Broad Prize in 2006. In February, however, the foundation announced it was suspending the award because it was disappointed in the pace of school improvement in larger urban districts.
“Before we give a trophy, we want to make sure the kids are winning,” says Bruce Reed, the foundation’s president. He says efforts like the turnaround plan in Lawrence seem more promising than continued attempts by districts to just push harder under the same structures that have not delivered very good results. “We want to see more states and cities try these new approaches instead of just running the same play over and over,” says Reed.
One question looming over reforms like those being implemented in Lawrence or contemplated in Holyoke is, what happens when the state receivership ends? Or when there is a push to end the Springfield Empowerment Zone and fold its schools back into the district system?
“The big problem is, when the intervention inevitably comes to an end, things inevitably revert back to the way they’d been,” says Smarick, who is skeptical of the ability of these types of reforms to be sustained.
“That’s the thing I, in some ways, worry most about,” Peyser says of the use of the state’s new authorities to shake up faltering districts. “When and if the state pulls back its receivership and Jeff Riley is gone, what’s going to happen?”
Chester says it will likely be some time before the state considers giving up its receivership role in Lawrence. When it does, he says, “if the work we’ve done in Lawrence proves itself in terms of students being better off, the changes we’ve instituted will be harder to roll back.”
That conclusion seems to rely heavily on good will and wishful thinking. There is already talk, however, of backstopping such hope with more concrete steps to guard against a rolling back of reforms. One idea already being contemplated , says Peyser, is the conversion of schools run by outside organizations to in-district charter schools, which would ensure the continuity of their autonomous operating rules.
Meanwhile, against the backdrop of an education reform debate that has become increasingly polarized, Gabrieli hopes those on all sides might take stock of the early signs of progress with the Lawrence model and specifics of the Springfield plan—and the fact that these not only give school leaders new freedoms but also give teachers a role they have long sought.
“Sometimes in these education reform wars it feels like people don’t want to make any progress,” says Gabrieli. “It’s World War I stuff. Let’s all go to the trenches we had last summer and shoot again at each other rather than saying, how are we going to get out of this trench warfare and learn from what’s happened before and go further.”In that toxic climate, he says, “There are people who think the strongest piece of evidence that what we’re doing isn’t right is that there isn’t enough screaming, crying, and bleeding going on. There aren’t enough people being fired. There aren’t enough angry protests. That must be evidence that we’re aiming too low. I understand that, given the long history of failed reforms. But I feel like that’s such a pessimistic view—that nobody will ever learn and do things differently.”
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[Clarification: The print version reports that both Jim Peyser and Chris Gabrieli say conversion of schools to in-district charters in Springfield is contemplated. Peyser said this should be considered for schools run by outside operators in both Lawrence and Springfield. Gabrieli said he has raised this as a potential fallback for any outside groups contracted to run schools in Springfield if their operating autonomy comes under threat.]