Debating state takeover of school districts
2010 reform law gave state new power over districts
WHETHER STATE LEADERS will consider unwinding some of the key pillars of education reform in Massachusetts is far from certain. What is clear is that critics of the state’s school accountability system, led by teachers unions, are ratcheting up the pressure for change, trying to force debate on policies that have been baked into how state government oversees local school districts.
The latest battlefront: a 2010 law that gave the state education department the power to take control of chronically low achieving districts.
A poll released on Tuesday by a group that supports state receivership powers shows strong backing for the law. Not coincidentally, it came a day ahead of Wednesday’s planned lobby day at the State House by opponents of the law, who are pushing for passage of a bill that would strip the state education department of the takeover authority.
The poll, sponsored by Democrats for Education Reform, found that 66 percent of Massachusetts voters support state authorization to take control of underperforming school districts. Among Boston residents, that figure rose to 70 percent.
The survey was conducted by the MassINC Polling Group, an affiliate of CommonWealth, and was based on a sample of 600 voters, with a margin of error of 4.8 percentage points.
Teachers unions and their allies, meanwhile, plan to blanket the State House on Wednesday, urging lawmakers to pass a bill dubbed “The Thrive Act,” which would end the state’s district takeover authority. The bill would also end the requirement that students pass the 10th grade MCAS exam in order to graduate from high school.
Since passage of the 2010 law, three districts – Lawrence, Holyoke, and Southbridge – have been put in state receivership. All of them remain under state control.
While Lawrence, which was put in receivership in 2011, showed some promising achievement improvements in math and English scores early on, those haven’t extended to broad-based, continued gains. The district also saw an increase in its graduation rate and a decrease in its dropout rate.
On Tuesday, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education heard from Anthony Soto, the state receiver in Holyoke, on progress in the Western Massachusetts district, which has been under state control since 2015.
Soto pointed to a 16-point gain in the district graduation rate, now 76 percent, and a halving of the drop-out rate, which now stands at 3.5 percent. He also said the district has seen a big increase in high school students taking advanced courses, including AP classes and early college programming.
What receivership has failed to consistently show in the three Massachusetts districts – and in its use in other states – is sustained test score gains in core academic subjects, the measures that state officials primarily relied on in deciding to take control of the districts.
“Overall,” they wrote, “we find no evidence that state takeover improves academic achievement.”
“My takeaway is, on average, this doesn’t seem to be a particularly silver-bullet, promising approach to turning things around,” Beth Schueler, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor at the University of Virginia, said in an interview at the time. “But there’s quite a bit of variation in the effects across districts, so the fact it’s not effective, on average, doesn’t mean there aren’t districts where it can really help.”
Schueler and her co-author, Joshua Bleiberg from Brown University, highlighted Lawrence as a bright spot with its early gains, but said among the takeovers they studied it was “an outlier demonstrating positive effects of takeover in both reading and math.”
Critics have pointed to the study to support their argument for ending the state’s takeover powers.
“The hope was that those interventions would lead to dramatic improvements for students in those districts. In fact, the opposite has happened. Districts that the state is operating are now ranked as the lowest performing districts in the state – by the state’s own measures,” says a report issued recently by Citizens for Public Schools that was commissioned by the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union.
When the 2021 study on state takeovers was released, Holyoke and Southbridge were the two lowest performing districts in the state and Lawrence was the 16th lowest.
There is a certain irony in the debate over receivership. Critics, who tend to dismiss the value of test scores in judging school quality, are quick to point to low scores in takeover districts as evidence of the intervention’s failure. Meanwhile, state officials and supporters of the receivership law cite less rigorous academic measures like graduation rates and improvement in school culture as signs that state takeover is making a difference.
In Southbridge, which saw seven different superintendents in the chaos-filled five years before the 2016 state takeover, Jeffrey Villar, the receiver now running the schools, said getting a handle on behavior issues is the first step toward improved learning in classrooms. A sign of progress, he said in an interview last year, is that suspensions are down dramatically. The district handed out 1,000 suspensions a few years ago to its middle school population of just 450 students. More than halfway through the 2021-22 school year there had been just 60 suspensions.The local school committee is effectively powerless under state receivership. Nonetheless, the chairman of the Southbridge committee last year, Andrew Murch, likened the dysfunction and revolving door turnover in the superintendent’s office prior to the takeover to “a carousel at Canobie Lake.”
“The climate and culture shift has definitely gone toward the positive side,” Murch said of the change under Villar.