Even partial state takeover is a bad idea for Boston Public Schools

Democratic governance, not top-down oversight, should be the path forward

WRITING RECENTLY ABOUT the potential for a state takeover of Boston Public Schools (BPS), Michael Jonas notes that research has found mixed success – at best – from takeover efforts in Massachusetts and elsewhere. In light of this, some have speculated that leaders at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) may pursue a sort of compromise with BPS: a so-called “empowerment zone” modeled after the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership (SEZP) in which a subset of schools are governed by a board composed of four DESE appointees and three district appointees.

I visited SEZP schools for three years – from 2015 through 2018 – leading interviews with school- and district-level stakeholders as part of a state-contracted evaluation of “underperforming” schools. I also reviewed improvement plans for all SEZP schools, and I was either the lead writer or a partner on annual evaluation reports for each school during that time. Based on that experience, I feel compelled to break traditional silence around program evaluation to publicly state that an empowerment zone model is, simply, a bad idea for Boston. In Springfield, state partnership has reduced student learning to test preparation, and, seven years later, it has offered no evidence of success. Ultimately, my biggest concern is that the model in Springfield is undemocratic to its core.

Schools, of course, are targeted for state control based largely on their Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) scores. As a result, school leaders are under intense pressure to raise test scores. It is ultimately the only way to get out from state control and the stigma of “underperformance” that comes with it. While this is a concern for all schools facing state oversight, flexibility in the SEZP model allowed schools to take test prep to a bizarre extreme. In the process, SEZP schools drilled the joy and social relevance out of learning.

Take, for example, the school I visited on Friday, January 20th, 2017. In between focus group interviews, I used my phone to check in on the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump. When students came in for my focus group, I started the conversation with the events of the day. I was surprised, though maybe I shouldn’t have been: most students were completely unaware that the inauguration was happening, and those who did know didn’t seem to care.

To be clear, I do not blame the students. At this particular school, they had double blocks of math and ELA all three years. Yet, at a critical transition point for our country, most of the students in my focus group – as was true of the school as a whole – didn’t have the opportunity to learn about society in a social studies class. Instead, to make room for MCAS subjects, the school offered just one year of social studies in 7th grade. That’s it.

Though it took different forms across SEZP schools, I saw a variety of unproven and unsettling test-preparation strategies. As I recently outlined on Twitter, another middle school extended the school day, but cut theater, art & all foreign language. At another school, every math class all year was taught by a computer program. The math teacher merely monitored the room and helped individual students with problems, every day for the entire school year. Yet another school piloted a teacher “professional development” program where the classroom teacher wore an earpiece and a “master teacher” whispered key phrases in the teacher’s ear from the back of the room.

Although the focus on test preparation clearly affected all students, the impact was most troubling on special education students. As it was implemented in Springfield, programs favored by leaders in the charter sector now had entry into traditional public schools through the flexibility granted under the empowerment zone model. However, because charter schools generally do not serve students with moderate to severe special needs, leaders now found themselves in charge – sometimes for the first time ever – of the learning experiences of vulnerable students with complex needs. The treatment of special education students in Boston is a focal point in DESE’s current review. In my time as an evaluator in SEZP, I did not see a promising model for special education support. Instead, leaders created barriers to mainstreaming or used harsh discipline in place of more nuanced socio-emotional support.

SEZP proponents have been quiet for the last few years. But, they’ve emerged recently and, of course, they will tell a very different story. As revealed in this memo and a recent presentation at the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, SEZP leaders point to the autonomy offered to school leaders in decisions about budget, curriculum, staffing and the school schedule. Proponents also note that SEZP schools offer opportunities for teacher voice in how leaders use their autonomy.

I always found this argument confusing. Massachusetts state law already offers a model that allows for the exact same flexibility promoted by the empowerment zone model. To become an innovation school, applicants must develop an innovation plan with other community stakeholders, and the plan needs to be publicly reviewed by the district superintendent. To convert an existing school to an innovation school, two-thirds of teachers have to vote in favor and launching a new school requires negotiations between the applicant, teachers’ union and superintendent.

And, this is the real difference between the two models: while one is built on rigorous safeguards for community engagement, the other opens a backdoor for DESE to shape district policy from afar. Especially in Boston, and especially now, this would be a big step in the wrong direction. In the state’s only mayoral control district, Boston residents have long been distanced from direct engagement in BPS policy. Last November, however, 79 percent of Boston voters approved a non-binding resolution to return to a fully elected school committee. it would be detrimental for the state to step in and silence them.

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Make no mistake: It’s all connected to the inauguration day story at the start of this essay. On one side, there’s a belief that schools are primarily factories for teaching tested subjects, that schools don’t necessarily need to teach skills for democratic engagement nor do they necessarily need to be governed democratically. On the other side, there’s a belief that the leaders and teachers closest to students – when finally and truly empowered – know what’s best for students, that schools can and must teach the skills for democratic engagement while modeling it in how schools operate. My research in SEZP convinced me of the folly and harm of that former approach.

Never mind, even, that SEZP doesn’t have a track record of success on DESE’s own flawed yardstick. Even if it were to succeed in its narrow and obsessive focus on testing, it would fail the students it sets out to serve and the fragile democracy that depends on them. Ultimately, if math and ELA scores improve, but students are not engaged in major events that shape our society, can we honestly argue that they have been empowered?

Peter Piazza is director of school quality measures at the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment.