Held back

We know what it might take to turn around failing schools. Are we willing to do it?

Nearly 75 percent of the students in the Holyoke public schools come from low-income families. At the city’s Lynch Middle School, that figure is 84 percent, giving it one of the highest concentrations of poverty of any school in the state. Paul Hyry, the school’s principal, easily ticks off more figures that fill out the school’s profile. Like the fact that roughly one-third of its 300 students are classified as “English language learners.” Or that nearly 30 percent of Lynch students are deemed “learning disabled” and receive some form of special education services. Or that, as a result of redrawn school boundaries, the Lynch district now includes the lion’s share of the 174 homeless family shelter units in Holyoke, meaning that new students from the most unstable families in the Commonwealth appear at the school’s door throughout the school year, some of them having been in no classroom for months.

“None of this is an excuse,” says Hyry, a 40-year-old marathon runner who comes off as both patient and determined, an indispensable mix in a job that puts a high premium on perseverance. On one wall of his cramped office are two posters for the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, a national organization that provides college tuition assistance. The slogan on the posters targets a powerful message to students at Lynch, 85 percent of whom are Puerto Rican. DEFY EXPECTATIONS, it reads. The truth is, however, that most of them do not.

On the eighth-grade MCAS exam for English last year, just 29 percent of Lynch students scored “proficient” or “advanced,” the two top categories, while 44 percent fell into the “needs improvement” category and 26 percent failed the test. For eighth-grade math, just 19 percent were in the top two categories, with 21 percent deemed in need of improvement and 60 percent failing outright.

Students at the Lynch School, like many in the state’s poorer communities, are stuck at the bottom of the achievement ladder. When the Massachusetts Education Reform Act was passed 15 years ago, it ushered in a new era in which high standards were set for all students, with an expectation that the huge infusion of new state funding to poorer districts, combined with strict accountability measurements, would lift achievement there to the levels seen in more affluent districts. Call it naive — or a bold aspiration.

We aimed to “eradicate the correlation between socioeconomic status and educational attainment,” says Paul Reville, the incoming state secretary of education and one of the architects of the 1993 law. “Fifteen years into education reform, we’d have to say we’ve failed on that.”

The Lynch School is one of 114 schools on the state education department’s list of “underperforming schools.” These are schools that have failed to make enough progress for four straight years in either math or English scores to satisfy benchmarks developed as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which aims to bring all students to proficiency in the two subjects by 2014. Late last year, the Lynch School was one of six schools statewide that the state education department recommended be further downgraded by a vote of the Board of Education into the category of “chronically underperforming” schools, a label reserved for schools that have not made progress after at least two years in the underperforming category. The designation carries with it a presumption that the school principal will be replaced, and it is supposed to give the school district broader powers to hire and dismiss teachers at that school, though this provision has never been tested.

Holyoke school leaders outlined to the state Board of Education all the steps they were taking to improve student outcomes, many of them the very strategies recommended for underperforming schools. They had worked hard to align the school’s curriculum with state standards. Teachers were receiving more professional development training. They also explained that the school’s population of English language learners and special needs students had increased by approximately 50 percent over the previous three years.

In December, when it came time for the board to vote to move the six schools into the worst-performing category, it balked. “There was dead silence,” says Hyry, who is in his third year at the helm at Lynch School. “No one would make a motion.” Board members said they were increasingly concerned that the state was stigmatizing low-performing schools with labels, while doing too little to help them improve.

Fifteen years after education reform established a new era of accountability for schools, no one seems prepared to answer the question of what to now do with schools that are still failing to educate kids to an acceptable level. For a state rightly heralded as a leader of the standards-based education reform movement, and one at the top of several national rankings of overall student achievement, it has become the elephant in the room.

“If we have an accountability system, it implies that we know what to do and that we’re willing to help,” says Reville. “To have an accountability system that publicly calls out underperformance but does nothing to remedy that situation is irresponsible.”

LIGHT TOUCH?

The knock on the state accountability system is that it is much better at diagnosing those schools and districts where achievement is lagging than it is at curing what ails them.

Assistance has largely consisted of education department officials and outside consulting groups working with schools and districts on strategies to boost student achievement. A school designated as underperforming must develop a school-improvement plan laying out steps it will take to address curriculum shortcomings, teacher training deficits, or other things that may be impeding achievement.

As part of a set of new regulations passed by the Board of Education in 2006, the state also identified a list of what it termed “10 essential conditions” that underperforming schools should meet. They include regular meetings among faculty to discuss individual student progress and after-school tutoring programs. The most far-reaching of the 10 conditions calls for the school principal to have “authority to select and assign staff to positions in the school without regard to seniority.”

Education department officials have taken to calling this list “the 10 Commandments.” But the districts are merely instructed to make an effort to follow them. Principal autonomy over staffing decisions, regarded by many as a linchpin of meaningful school reform, must be negotiated with teachers’ unions, which has effectively prevented implementation of this measure in the state’s 114 underperforming schools. Other conditions, such as the requirement to have after-school tutoring available (also a mandate of the federal No Child Left Behind Law), are also routinely ignored, says Jim Peyser, the board of education chairman who helped craft the new regulations in 2006. “It is a reflection of a lack of urgency and a tendency to put the adults first and the students second,” says Peyser.

The “10 Commandments” for low-achieving schools could more appropriately be called the “10 Suggestions.” And that distinction underlines what critics say is a go-slow approach to what ought to be viewed as a public education crisis.

“Because the more intrusive and disruptive makeovers are politically and bureaucratically unpalatable, every state and district has nearly always picked the least intrusive option,” says Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a national education policy organization. “You shouldn’t be surprised that the schools aren’t much better; the interventions aren’t very strong.”

Principal Paul Hyry is determined
not to let Holyoke’s Lynch Middle
School fall victim to low expectations.

Holyoke is one of four entire school districts in Massachusetts that have been declared underperforming, a designation that was first applied in 2004. At that time, the state funded a national consulting firm, America’s Choice, to work with the district. The firm has had a full-time consultant based in Holyoke since 2005, working with school officials on everything from curriculum planning to teacher and principal coaching.

Achievement scores in Holyoke have not shown improvement, but Rochelle Herring, the consultant based there, says it takes time to get at the root causes of underperformance. “We’re seeing progress in the student’s day-to-day work,” she says. Still, she expressed uncertainty about a timeline for clear improvement, citing the constant churn of students entering and leaving the Holyoke schools.

A growing chorus of education experts is questioning whether such school improvement efforts are aggressive enough to turn around troubled schools. Outside help like that provided by America’s Choice is “necessary and important, but it’s not sufficient to turn around failing schools,” says Andrew Calkins, senior vice president at Mass Insight, a Boston–based research and policy organization.

Unless such partners have shared authority on hiring decisions and are themselves held strictly accountable for student achievement “the chances of success beyond minimal improvement are minimal,” said Mass Insight president William Guenther at a mid-March panel discussion in Washington on strategies to turn around the country’s worst schools. In the biggest study to date involving low-performing schools, conducted in 1999 by the American Institutes for Research, 21 of 24 different comprehensive school reform initiatives failed to show clear evidence of a benefit in raising student achievement. “That sort of stuff might work with schools in the middle of the achievement spectrum, but it’s not working for these schools,” said Calkins.

WHAT WORKS

“Most of what’s been taking place over this 15-year period is identifying a problem and hoping that when you identify a problem, people fix it,” says Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “If people knew how to fix it, they would have done it already.” A big hole in the standards-based reform effort has been the belief that underperforming schools would be able to boost achievement levels once the right set of accountability measures were put in place.

Not knowing what to do to help low-performing schools would be cause enough for alarm. The reality today, however, is both better and worse. “The thing that should be keeping us all awake at night is that now, for the very first time, we have enough achievement data with enough specificity over a number of years to show us that in fact it can be done,” Calkins said at the Washington conference.

Last November, Mass Insight released a blueprint for improving the nation’s worst schools, which it calls “the crucible of education reform.” It dismisses the “light touch” strategies employed by most districts and states. Instead, the report says the model should be the small number of existing schools that have met the challenge posed on the wall of Paul Hyry’s office in Holyoke: They have defied the expectations of their demographic profile.

These so-called “high-performing, high-poverty” schools almost invariably combine three elements, says the report, no one of which can be left out of the equation. The first is termed “readiness to learn,” which means students are in a safe and inspired environment and have close relationships with teachers and other adult mentors. “Readiness to teach” means there is a “missionary zeal” among staff to boost student achievement and to work on their own professional development. Finally, the report says, these schools have a “readiness to act,” with school leaders having wide latitude to make “mission-driven” decisions on hiring, budget, and curriculum.

“Having a few such schools means it’s possible to have such schools,” says Finn, the Fordham Institute president. “The actual proves the possible.”

The University Park Campus School, a Worcester public school, is showing that it’s possible. The 7-12 grade school, located in one of the poorest sections of Worcester, offers an honors-level curriculum to all students. The school also has a close partnership with nearby Clark University, and upper-grade students take classes there as part of the school’s college preparation strategy. Every member of the school’s nine graduating classes has gone on to seek a higher education degree.

It doesn’t come without intense focus from the school’s staff — or its 230 students. There is a tough love dimension to the school culture, says June Eressy, the school’s principal. “We need to stop making excuses for these kids,” she says. “You need to hold them to same standards you would hold your own children to.”

A similar culture of high expectations pervades the classrooms and hallways of the Match Charter Public High School in Boston. Housed in a former auto parts dealership on Commonwealth Avenue near Boston University, the school has a relentless focus on academics and preparation for success in college. Serving a high-poverty population — more than 70 percent are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches — many of whom would be the first in their family to attend college, the school’s leaders realized that high achievement would not come easily. “A lot of our kids come in not being able to add a quarter and a half,” says Match staff member Ken Wang. To make up for lost ground and then get students learning ahead of the curve, the school day runs from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., four days a week, with a shorter day on Fridays. All entering ninth-graders attend a five-week summer orientation academy. And just sliding by doesn’t cut it, as a grade of 70 or higher is required to pass any course.

On last year’s MCAS test, Match ranked first out of all 341 Massachusetts high schools in the percentage of 10th-graders scoring proficient or advanced in math, and for the third straight year, every 10th-grader passed the MCAS English and math tests, the high-stakes graduation requirement for all Massachusetts high school students.

Match student Luis Sanchez says he was “in and out” of two different Boston middle schools and missed six weeks of school in eighth grade. “I got D’s; they passed me,” says the 18-year-old senior.

Four years later, Sanchez, who sports twin earrings, a shiny necklace, and a confident air, is getting ready to graduate and head to Boston College this fall. “It’s a pretty tough school. It’s a rigorous schedule. But if you stick with it you’ll make it through,” he says.

It’s the combination of students who “stick with it” and a school that sticks with them that make for success at Match. Four years ago, the school ramped up its existing tutoring program by launching Match Corps, a program in which 45 recent college grads spend a year providing intensive tutoring to Match students.

“We’ve flooded the zone with tutors,” says school founder Michael Goldstein. Each Match student spends two of the eight periods of the school day with a tutor. “Think about the hundreds of hours a high-literacy parent would spend reading to their kid,” says Goldstein. “We are trying to make up for that, one-on-one.”

Luis Sanchez, a senior at
the Match Charter Public
High School, in Boston:
“If you stick with it, you’ll
make it through.”

“If a kid arrives behind grade level, whatever the complicated causes that lie behind it, the only plausible way for that kid to get caught up is to exert a ton more effort,” says Goldstein. The close bonds teachers and tutors form with students are part of the strategy for motivating students to work hard. “Most people think of the job as delivering instruction,” says Goldstein. “Successful schools think, ‘How do you generate enormous student effort?’, and from that effort the kids will learn a lot.”

Reville, the incoming secretary of education, who has served as board of education chairman since last August, says the school reform movement underestimated the hurdles to high achievement faced by children from low-income families. “What you see at University Park or at a Match School is what it will take to get students there,” says Reville.

But what will it take to have the outside-the-box thinking and practice of those schools become the rule, not the exception, in low-performing schools? Or, as Calkins, the Mass Insight vice president, put it at the Washington conference on failing schools: “How do we take the DNA that is present in those high-performing, high-poverty schools, and understand it and dissect it, and then embed it in the systems that serve all the other schools?”

DNA TINKERING

Massachusetts has made no wholesale moves to reconstitute the basic genetic makeup of underperforming schools. But it has begun taking pieces of the DNA found in high-achieving, high-poverty schools and inserted them into a handful of other schools. One hallmark of nearly all these high-achieving schools is a longer school day. So, in the 2006-2007 school year, the state approved funding for 10 schools to extend the standard six-hour school day by about 90 minutes, making Massachusetts the first state to pilot a longer school day. This year, the state roughly doubled its initial appropriation, earmarking $13 million for the plan, which allowed nine more schools to join the initiative.

Our nine-month school year and six-hour school day are relics of an agrarian economy that relied on all hands in the field during harvest season, and which set a low achievement bar for most students. That schedule, say many education leaders today, is entirely inadequate to prepare students for success in a 21st-century global economy, especially those not from middle-class homes fortified with reading, music lessons, or other kinds of enrichment.

“We have to reinvent education dramatically to succeed,” says Chris Gabrieli, chairman of Massachusetts 2020, the nonprofit advocacy group that has driven the extended school-day effort.

The idea is to provide added time for English and math, while also making room for arts, music, and other subjects that often get crowded out by the emphasis on core academic subjects in the standards-and-accountability era. The initiative is open to all Massachusetts schools, but the bulk of those now on board are in urban districts and serve large numbers of black, Hispanic, and lower-income students — the groups at short end of the achievement gap in US schools. In the initial cohort of 10 schools, 75 percent of all students are from low-income families, compared with 29 percent of public school students for the state as a whole.

In the first year, extended-learning time schools narrowed by more than one-third the gap between the percentage of their students reaching proficiency in English and the statewide average, which is driven heavily by scores from higher-income suburban districts. “It’s not good enough, but it’s a start,” says Gabrieli. “If on the second year the gains accumulate, we’re on the road to something big.”

At the Edwards Middle School in Boston, which is completing its second year in the extended-day initiative, principal Jeff Riley says the focus should shift from the achievement gap to “the opportunity gap.” The longer day has allowed the school to expand the time and rigor of core academic studies, while also providing drama, music, and sports programming. “It compares to a suburban experience,” says Riley. “And when they get the same kind of access, they perform as well as anybody else. The test scores are rising, and we believe they’ll continue to rise.”

In 2006, the state also began an experiment that gave a handful of the state’s most troubled schools the sort of management autonomy that often accompanies high-performing high-poverty schools. With four underperforming schools facing designation by the board of education as chronically underperforming, then-chairman Chris Anderson proposed as an alternative that they be allowed to become “Commonwealth pilot schools.” Pilot schools, which are part of regular district school systems but share many of the attributes of charter schools, including leadership discretion in hiring and budgeting, have been popular in Boston. But this marked the first time the model was proposed as a strategy for underperforming schools as part of the state’s accountability system.

Sue Quick, principal of the Academy
Middle School, in Fitchburg, says a
longer school day brings opportunities
but also new challenges.

The Academy Middle School in Fitchburg, a struggling 5-8 grade school, had already applied for a grant to join the extended school day initiative when it faced the day of reckoning over its flagging achievement scores. With its back to the wall, Academy, like the other three schools facing designation as “chronically underperforming” that year, opted instead to pursue the new Commonwealth pilot school model.

Opening last fall as both a pilot school and an extended learning time school, Academy is getting a strong dose of school-turnaround medicine.

Using the scheduling autonomy granted by the pilot model and the longer school day funded by the state, Academy expanded by more than a third the amount of weekly instructional time devoted to core academics. Teams of teachers from each grade spend three hours each week in meetings to discuss issues involving individual students as well as curriculum planning. During that “common planning time,” outside community partners lead classes in everything from poetry to weight-room conditioning and woodworking.

Sue Quick, the school’s principal, says the common planning time sessions are not yet as productive as she would like them to be. And the enrichment classes that the longer school day has allowed for have been a discipline nightmare, as the well-meaning community partners often lack the classroom management skills that are particularly crucial in urban schools. “We’ve remedied it for next year,” she says of plans to integrate school staff into the enrichment periods. “But we’ve still got a whole quarter to go.”

“It’s been a challenging year,” agrees Andre Ravenelle, the Fitchburg superintendent of schools. “It’s like Extreme Makeover: School Edition,” he says of Academy’s conversion to a pilot school and the move to an extended day all in the same year.

“It hasn’t come to fruition like we wanted, but there’s real potential for it to,” says Sarah Priestley, an eighth-grade English teacher. “It was very discouraging for a long time,” she says of the mood at Academy. “We needed to do something drastic.”

One big question hanging over the pilot experiment is whether troubled schools can innovate their way out of an achievement hole on their own. The pilot model is based on schools that are often already doing well academically, where staff and parent interest in school-based autonomy drives the effort to seek pilot-school status. “There’s some caution to have when you are essentially imposing a model of freedom and autonomy on a school,” says Dan French, executive director of the Center for Collaborative Education, an education nonprofit that has helped drive Boston’s pilot school movement and which is providing consulting help to the four Commonwealth pilot schools. “There’s a little irony there.”

WHAT IT WILL TAKE

As promising as the early findings are from the extended learning time project, and despite hopes that the pilot school model might help the four schools now employing it to climb out of the achievement cellar, what’s needed is a coherent plan of action to deal with all of the state’s lowest performing schools.

At the Lynch School in Holyoke, Paul Hyry says there’s a limit to what his school can accomplish in a six-hour school day. “We have absolutely maximized instructional time on language arts and math,” says Hyry, voicing support for a longer school day.

As for the state accountability system, he says the “chronically underperforming” designation that the school dodged last December might actually have been worth swallowing if it yielded significantly more funding and conferred the sort of school management autonomy that many reform advocates say is needed. “If the label brought substantially increased resources and it brought the kind of principal superpowers that are suggested, then you could start to think, ‘Yeah, go ahead and give us the label,’” says Hyry. But the added leeway granted by the education reform law to remove teachers from chronically underperforming schools has never been tested. When Hyry and Holyoke school leaders asked state education officials about that provision, he says, “The clear message was: ‘It’s not going to be that easy.’”

Education leaders recoil at the “underperforming” label, not so much because it isn’t true, but because they say it puts an undesirable stamp on their school, making it hard to recruit and retain teachers but not bringing meaningful help. That equation needs to be turned on its head, says Guenther, the Mass Insight president. “The state needs to figure out a way to make these groups of schools into clubs that the schools actually want to belong to,” he says.

The report that his group issued last year calls for just those kinds of clubs. It advocates the formation of school turnaround zones, in which underperforming schools would make heavy use of outside partner organizations, but would also have charter-school-like freedom over hiring and budgeting.

Paul Grogan, president of The Boston Foundation, says bold moves like that are needed if the state is serious about living up to education reform’s promise to close the achievement gap between students from wealthier and poorer communities. “We know a great deal about what it will take,” says Grogan. “There’s just been tremendous timidity. To let these districts drift along in a kind of limbo, or with these kind of light improvement plans, not only guarantees they won’t improve, but it sends a message that the whole accountability plan isn’t serious.”

Mass Insight proposed a version of a statewide turnaround plan three years ago, with the backing of a group of urban superintendents and business leaders. The plan called for creation of a special zone for 100 of the state’s lowest performing schools, with $25 million in funding to support longer school days, curriculum assistance to schools, and a zone administrator who, working with district superintendents, would have broad authority to reassign staff and revamp curricula. Facing funding concerns and union objections, the plan never got off the ground.

The concept could find fresh support from the state’s new education commissioner, Mitchell Chester, who took office in May. Chester’s first major task will be to provide direction for the state’s floundering accountability system, and he seems receptive to the Mass Insight concept of turnaround zones. If the Commonwealth pilot school approach seems to bear fruit, says Chester, he’ll aggressively promote it. If it doesn’t, he says, “I think we need to carve out space and opportunity for folks who are willing to try new approaches.”

Meanwhile, Reville is a leading proponent of longer school days, especially for low-performing schools. He also recently voiced support for higher teacher pay for those who work in lower-performing schools and for those in schools that record significant achievement gains. The Massachusetts Teachers Association supports the idea of higher pay in tougher schools, but opposes any system that ties salary increases to student performance.

Even the best ideas, however, must compete for limited resources. Gov. Deval Patrick has sounded strong support for extending the school day. Building out the extended school day initiative to serve a quarter of Massachusetts students, however, would cost $300 million a year, according to the nonprofit Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. Patrick’s budget plan for the coming year proposed a doubling of current spending on extended school days from $13 million to $26 million. However, the House version of the budget proposes a much more modest increase to $17.5 million. (The Senate budget had not been released at the time CommonWealth went to press.)

Meanwhile, funding for accountability efforts and technical assistance to troubled schools, which was $9.1 million this year, was cut by $100,000 for the coming year in the House budget, despite the inevitable growth in the list of underperforming schools that will occur based on the No Child Left Behind Act standards.

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.

Fifteen years into the state’s education reform era, Reville worries that there may be little appetite for bold change or big increases in targeted spending for the large swath of children who are still being left behind. “The challenge is, we don’t necessarily have the public will to make radical changes in our education system, neither do we have the resources to launch a robust set of interventions designed to bring poor kids up to standards,” he says.

It will be up to him and Chester, the state’s two top education officials, together with the governor and other leaders from the public and private sector, to try to change that. Otherwise, when it comes to the state’s most troubled schools and students, we seem destined to continue to muddle along, even as evidence accumulates on the kinds of schools that work. Without renewed resolve, including a willingness to fight for funding and the kind of school makeover that’s needed, education researcher Robert Gaudet says our vow to educate all children to a high standard is as flawed as the 2004 Rumsfeld declaration about making do with the military we have in Iraq. “We essentially are going through education reform with the schools we have,” says Gaudet, “not the schools we need.”