State takeover of school districts no ‘silver bullet’

Study finds no evidence of clear benefit from interventions 

A YEAR AGO this month, the state board of education took up a proposal to temporarily suspend annual performance reviews of Massachusetts school districts because the MCAS test they would be based on had been canceled in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic. During the discussion, Michael Moriarty, a board member from Holyoke, said reviving the state accountability system that tracks school performance would be particularly crucial following the pandemic for districts like Holyoke and Lawrence. The two districts, which have majority Hispanic student populations, are characterized by high poverty rates and have experienced years of very low student achievement scores. 

“We know they can’t change themselves, ‘cause they never do,” Moriarty said.

His comment was met with sharp criticism from the mayor of Lawrence, Kendrys Vasquez. Vasquez issued a press release calling on Moriarty to resign. He likened his comment to “a dog whistle” and charged that “what you really want to say is that ‘immigrants are lazy people who do not care about education.’”

Moriarty publicly apologized for his remarks and insisted he never meant to “disparage people who live in Holyoke and Lawrence,” and was referring only to their school systems. His blunt phrasing may have been impolitic, but Moriarty was, in essence, stating official state education policy. Both districts – along with the Southbridge schools – were put into state receivership over the past decade because of chronic underperformance and other problems that led state education leaders to conclude that the only solution was to take control of the schools away from local officials, who had been unable to drive needed change. 

The takeovers were made possible by a 2010 education reform law that supporters said reflected the urgency of addressing problems in long-struggling school districts. The law allowing takeover of chronically underperforming districts also reflected a growing appreciation across the country that it is state governments, ultimately, that bear responsibility for ensuring quality schooling for all children. 

The controversial idea of state takeover of school districts has received fresh attention in recent weeks with news that the state education department planned to carry out a review of the long-troubled Boston public schools. The review comes only two years after a devastating state report chronicled widespread problems in the district on everything from student achievement to special education and English language learner services. A third of the district’s students attend schools ranked in the bottom 10 percent statewide, and just 70 percent of the district’s high school students outside its three selective-admission “exam” schools graduate. State Education Commissioner Jeff Riley stopped short of recommending receivership at the time of the 2020 report, but said it could be justified based on “vast and persistent challenges” the review documented. 

It’s not clear whether, following the new review, state officials will actually consider taking control of the largest Massachusetts school district. But findings from a study examining the impact of state takeovers across the country provide good reason to pause before embracing the move as  a surefire strategy to raise persistently low student outcomes. 

NO SILVER BULLET 

In the wake of moves by states to assert growing authority over struggling school districts, Beth Schueler, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia, and Joshua Bleiberg, a researcher at the Annenberg Institute for Education Reform at Brown University, recently set out to examine the impact of state takeovers of districts. They looked at the effect of state takeovers in the 35 districts, spanning 14 states, that were taken over by state authorities between 2011 and 2016. These included Lawrence and Holyoke, but not Southbridge, where 2016-17 was the first full school year under state control. 

“Overall,” they wrote, “we find no evidence that state takeover improves academic achievement.” In what they say is the first attempt to systematically evaluate state takeovers, Schueler and Bleiberg say there was no clear evidence of gains in English and math outcomes. What’s more, there was even the suggestion of “disruptive” effects on student outcomes in the early years of takeovers, particularly in English language arts scores. 

“My takeaway is, on average, this doesn’t seem to be a particularly silver-bullet, promising approach to turning things around,” Schueler said in an interview. “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.” 

Massachusetts officials have put stock in the receivership model because the state is home to one of the districts most often touted nationally as an example of takeover success. 

In 2011, the state put the Lawrence schools in receivership. The move came not only after years of low student achievement, with some measures even getting worse, but after three straight superintendents were fired because of allegations of wrongdoing. The last one landed in jail, convicted on fraud and embezzlement charges related to misusing school department funds and having district employees carry out personal errands for him. 

Lawrence marked the first use of the authority granted to state officials in the 2010 education reform law to take a chronically low-performing district into receivership. State education officials tapped Riley – now the state education commissioner – to serve as the Lawrence school receiver. 

The law gave Riley, then a veteran Boston school principal and administrator, nearly unbridled authority over the district of 13,000 students. It effectively sidelined the elected school committee, which no longer exercised any formal control of the schools, and gave Riley the power to dismiss teachers and other staff at will, restructure the school day and curriculum, and make other changes, as he saw fit. 

State education commissioner Jeff Riley, who served as the state-appointed receiver for the Lawrence schools. (Photo by Llyr Johansen)

He chose to apply a fairly light touch when it came to classroom teachers. Riley initially dismissed less than 10 percent of the teaching staff, but he replaced half the district’s principals, saying school leadership was a major source of the district’s woes. Riley then sought to give principals more autonomy at the school level. He also instituted “acceleration academies” in which struggling students got targeted academic support during vacation weeks, extended the school day, and made wide use of tutors in the district.

Riley also sought to remake the teacher compensation system, which was based on seniority and education level, replacing it with a performance-based system that included “career ladder” rungs that teachers could climb. 

The district showed significant gains in math and modest improvement in English scores. The share of students in grades 3-8 scoring proficient or higher in math jumped from 28 percent in 2011 to 38 percent in 2013 and 41 percent in 2014. English proficiency rates went from 41 percent to 44 percent over that period. By 2016, the graduation rate had increased 19 points in the five years since the receivership started, and it has climbed another seven points since then.

“Nobody’s claiming victory, but we’ve had some strong results,” Riley said in 2017 when he stepped down as receiver.

His measured tone was well-considered, as performance gains in Lawrence have largely flattened out since then. 

In their study of district takeovers, Schueler and Bleiberg concluded that the gains in both English and math scores seen in the first years of the Lawrence receivership stand as “an outlier” among the nearly three dozen districts they examined. 

AMBITIOUS GOALS

In Holyoke, which would put in state receivership in 2015, the graduation rate jumped 10 percentage points over the following five years, but achievement scores have shown only modest gains – with English proficiency up from 14 percent in 2017 to 18 percent in 2019, while math proficiency rose 2 points from 10 to 12 percent. 

Devin Sheehan, who until January had served for 11 years on the Holyoke school committee, said the community had a good relationship with the original state-appointed receiver, former Boston principal Steven Zrike, and with the current receiver, Holyoke native Anthony Soto, who took the reins last year. And he pointed to positive things that have happened under receivership, including rapid expansion of pre-school and dual language programming. But he said state control of the schools, which came after years of other state involvement in the district short of full takeover, has hardly been the salvation that it was touted to be in 2015. 

“Holyoke has shown some gains, but not the rapid gains that former commissioner Chester was talking about,” Sheehan said, referring to late state education commissioner Mitchell Chester, the driving force behind all three district takeovers in the state.

Chester and state officials set ambitious goals for the takeovers that today look much more aspirational than necessarily attainable. 

In Lawrence, for example, where 87 percent of students came from low-income households and 75 percent did not speak English as their first language at the time the receivership began in 2012, state leaders launched the takeover by saying they wanted to close the gap in English and math proficiency rates between the district and statewide averages within five to seven years. The most recent MCAS scores show a yawning gap in those measures, with the English proficiency rate for 3-8 graders in Lawrence standing at 18 percent, almost 30 points lower than the state average of 46 percent. In math, Lawrence 3-8 graders score proficient or higher at less than one-third of state average – 10 percent versus 33 percent. 

As secretary of education under Gov. Deval Patrick, Paul Reville was one of the prime movers behind the 2010 reform law that established the receivership option. He hasn’t given up his belief that strong intervention measures may sometimes be needed in struggling districts. But Reville, who was also a key player in passage of the state’s 1993 education reform law that introduced today’s system of statewide tests, standards, and accountability, has become increasingly convinced of the limitations of those interventions. Without a robust societal response to the many injuries of poverty, he said, school reforms alone can’t drive sustained performance gains in schools that overwhelmingly educate poor children.

“School turnaround and school reform is necessary,” said Reville, now a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “But until we pay attention to the lives of the children who inhabit these schools, we can’t expect to turn the schools around with a relatively weak intervention involving 20 percent of their waking hours. It’s too heavy a lift for schools to do on their own.” 

BRINGING ORDER TO CHAOS

Jeffrey Villar, the state-appointed receiver in the small Southbridge school district, has had to face head-on the challenges of turning around schools under the sort of conditions Reville points to. Ninety percent of the district’s 1,800 students are classified as “high needs,” a measure that combines low-income students, English learners, and those with disabilities. 

When the state put the district in receivership in 2016, the district had the second lowest achievement scores in the state. Nearly 20 percent of students at its combined middle/high school had been suspended at least once in the previous year, and a third had failed at least one course. As for district leadership, the previous five years had seen seven superintendents cycle in and out of the small Worcester County community. 

“When I got here, I described this place as post-apocalyptic education,” said Villar, who says the central office was in shambles and the atmosphere in schools was not geared toward learning. “There were not good systems in place around finance, there were no good systems in place around curriculum and instruction.” 

Jeffrey Villar, the state-appointed receiver for the Southbridge schools, in a kindergarten classroom at Eastford Road School. (Photo courtesy Southbridge Public Schools)

Villar brought in consultants from the University of Connecticut to analyze discipline data and develop student and staff surveys on school climate used to try to shift the culture in Southbridge schools. He also brought in curriculum experts in literacy and math to bring some coherence to instructional practices that he said were in disarray, and has overseen expansion of a dual language program. 

Achievement scores have yet to show clear gains and there has even been a drop in the district’s already low math proficiency rates, which went from 19 percent in 2017 to 10 percent in 2019, the last test given before the pandemic. Villar says he’s not surprised and suggests that putting new curriculum in place can initially lead to an “implementation dip” in scores as teachers and students pivot to new approaches. He says there have been encouraging recent signs in interim reading assessments the districts carries out. “It’s a sign of life, as I might describe it,” Villar said, and all the more encouraging amid what he calls the “headwind” of the pandemic.

But Villar says getting traction on student achievement is a long-haul process, and changing what had been a chaos-filled school climate in the district is the first step. 

Four years ago, Villar said, the district handed out nearly 1,000 suspensions to a middle school population of just 450 students. This school year, he said, as of February, there had been fewer than 60 middle school suspensions. “We’re instructing students on expected behaviors, and providing positive reinforcement” for those who aren’t disruptive, Villar said. 

Andrew Murch, chairman of the Southbridge School Committee, said “the climate and culture shift has definitely gone toward the positive side.” Murch, who was elected in 2019 and is the only school committee member with a child in the district’s schools, said the system was clearly in crisis when the state takeover was ordered. “There was a large amount of disciplinary issues with students, morale was at an all-time low,” he said. He also said the prior school committee was inserting itself too much with “day to day input” on operations of the district. He likened the parade of superintendents coming and going to “a carousel at Canobie Lake.” 

Villar said he has not used the sweeping powers of receivership to dismiss teachers, but has instead used the autonomy he has from school committee politics to try to set the district on a positive path with decisions about curriculum, discipline, and other areas of school operation. “Receivership has created a buffer that ensures these decisions are made free from the political influences that exist in other districts and allows for a hyper-focus on what we believe is best for our students – without fear of retribution,” he said. “The massive leadership turnover in the years prior to receivership does suggest such retribution was a real threat to change agents.”

Murch said the dismal state of things in Southbridge required state action. “It honestly, in my opinion, was necessary for somebody to come in and say, no, you can’t fix this, we have to, because the students have to benefit,” Murch said of receivership. But he sees one major flaw in the takeover statute. “There’s no end game,” Murch said of the uncertainty over when the schools will be returned to the control of the local school committee.

John Daniel, chair of the Southbridge Town Council, echoes that view. “We understand why the intervention took place,” he said. But “at some point we’d like to get back in the driver’s seat.”

The state takeovers in Lawrence, Holyoke, and Southbridge did not come with fixed end dates, and they have been renewed regularly by the state for three-year cycles. “We want to see across-the-board improvements in student achievement, including MCAS scores and graduation rates, and evidence that the district has the capacity to sustain those improvements,” said Russell Johnston, senior associate commissioner in the state education department. “In our estimation, it took a long time for districts to get in the place they’re in, so it understandably takes a while to get out.”

Southbridge and Holyoke currently rank as the two lowest performing districts in the state. Lawrence is 16th lowest.

Villar said he agrees with Reville, the former state education secretary, about the huge role of out-of-school factors on student learning. He’s added social workers and adjustment counselors to the schools, and Southbridge has begun working with City Connects, a Boston College-based program that places staff in schools to coordinate support services available in the school and community. 

“We need to create wraparound services and support to get kids where they need to be,” said Villar. But he said he’s convinced all students can succeed, and said the goal before any end to receivership is considered must be “to start to see the needle move” on academic outcomes, attendance, and graduation rates. 

Villar said he told community members when he arrived that he thought that could take five to seven years, a timeframe he now says he may need to revise to seven to nine years in light of the pandemic disruption to learning. 

BOSTON NOT SO STRONG

At the state education board’s monthly meeting in March, when the issue of the Boston schools came up, Education Secretary Jim Peyser said he doesn’t know what “the right path forward for Boston should be,” but said he is “absolutely convinced the department cannot simply sit on the sidelines,” given the dire state of the district described in the state review released two years ago. 

The Pioneer Institute, a conservative-leaning Boston think tank, recently called for Boston to be put in receivership. “There is no clear strategy for improving schools,” said Jim Stergios, the group’s executive director. And the answer, he said, is not “repeatedly hiring and removing new superintendents with new priorities.” 

Riley, the state education commissioner, sought to wave off discussion at the education board meeting of potential receivership for the Boston schools, saying he will report to the board later in the spring on the findings from the new district review the state is conducting. 

Mayor Michelle Wu made clear her views clear to the state board. “Receivership would be counterproductive in light of our ongoing transition and in light of the progress we’re making in collaboration with the state,” she said during the public testimony section of the meeting, referring to the current search for a new Boston superintendent and an agreement the district and Riley made two years ago to jointly oversee the district’s performance. “No one is better equipped to accelerate the progress Boston has made than our Boston public schools communities.” 

Meanwhile, a member of the Lawrence School Committee, which has continued to operate despite having no formal authority over the schools since the state put the district in receivership, railed against the takeover model. “Why do you still believe that takeovers are saving our educational system when you have been in control of Lawrence Public Schools for 10 years and you have failed us?” Jonathan Guzman told the state board, calling the 2010 law that allows for receivership “racist legislation.” 

Schueler, the University of Virginia researcher, said the state takeovers have often been guided by a sense that there is nowhere to go but up. “The theory tends to be that we’re talking about situations where things have gotten so bad that it’s hard to do worse. A lot of it has to do with righting the ship, and leadership replacement and redirection,” she said. 

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.

Schuler said she is sympathetic to that impulse. “If you’re sitting in the state leadership position and you know that this district has really been undeserving and underperforming for years, the state has a constitutional obligation to schools,” she said. But that imperative coexists uneasily with the evidence that state takeovers are hardly a slam dunk remedy. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that we should give up on it as a tool,” Schueler said. “But I think we should be very careful about judiciously deploying it.”