Think tank calls for state takeover of Boston schools
Pioneer Institute report calls receivership ‘best hope for recovery’
A NEW REPORT from the Pioneer Institute says problems with the Boston Public Schools run so deep that a state takeover of the system represents the best option for improving the district, which has suffered from leadership turnover and years of low performance at many schools.
The report comes as Boston prepares to mount a search for its sixth superintendent in 10 years and it follows a scathing state review issued two years ago by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that portrayed a district with problems in almost every area.
“This is the largest school district in the state, and most of the kids are not being given the opportunity to succeed,” said Cara Candal, the report author and managing director for policy at Excel in Ed, a national education organization.
The report from the free-market-oriented Boston think tank says the widespread problems identified in the March 2020 state review can only be addressed with the kind of comprehensive reforms that could come with receivership. “The district has had generations to turn around chronically low performing schools. Despite some small pockets of progress, the district has been unable to sustain even small improvements,” the report says.
The 2020 state report on Boston’s schools, issued just as school closures and pandemic lockdowns were announced, said roughly a third of the district’s students – more than 16,000 students – attend a school ranked in the bottom 10 percent of all schools statewide. “The district does not have a clear, coherent, districtwide strategy for supporting low performing schools and has limited capacity to support all schools designated by [the state] as requiring assistance or intervention,” the report said. The report said special education services in the district were “in disarray” and it pointed to particularly serious problems with the instruction being provided to English language learners.
“Opportunity and achievement gaps abound in the district,” said the report, which pointed out that districtwide averages “obscure substantial differences in outcomes among different student populations and schools.”
It highlighted that the district graduation rate of 75.1 percent reflected a rate of more than 97 percent at Boston’s three examination high schools and a rate of just 53 percent among students attending open enrollment high schools.
As for student achievement, while 35 percent of students overall in grades 3 through 8 met or exceeded expectations on the 2019 state MCAS assessment in English, only 25 percent of black students and 26 percent of economically disadvantaged students hit that benchmark, while 63 percent of Asian students and 62 percent of white students met or exceeded expectations, according to the state report.
The report was issued along with a memorandum of understanding between state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley and Cassellius that outlined goals for improvement over the coming three years, including raising student MCAS scores, gains in English proficiency for English language learners, and increased graduation rates and decreases in the dropout rate.
Riley said in a letter to Cassellius at the time that state receivership or a “zone model” that puts the lowest-performing schools under oversight separate from the district “could be applied here given these vast and persistent challenges,” but he was instead proposing an approach involving a collaboration of state and local officials.
Among the factors Riley said argued against a state takeover were the fact that the district had a new superintendent – Cassellius had been on the job for only eight months at that point. But Cassellius is now set to depart in June, her tenure cut short by a “mutual decision” reached last month with Wu, who took office in November.
The Pioneer report said grade-appropriate curriculum and instruction are being delivered unevenly in Boston. “They’re haphazardly implemented,” said Candal. “No one is coming and sitting with literacy coaches and math coaches, especially in the lower-performing schools.” She also said too many schools operate with “unchecked” autonomy, enjoying flexibility in how they operate but with little accountability for outcomes.
The Pioneer report lays out two less sweeping options for the district – staying the course with state oversight, as spelled out in the March 2020 memorandum of agreement, or creating a state-run zone within the district that includes Boston’s lower-performing schools, similar to a model now in place with a handful of schools in Springfield. But it concludes that a full state takeover is the best hope for addressing “systemic issues” across the whole district.
Under receivership, Riley would appoint an organization or individual to run the district, and they would have largely unfettered power over curriculum, staffing, and the school day schedule.
The report acknowledged that Wu “has not indicated support for receivership,” but expressed hope that she might “with the encouragement of a popular outgoing Governor.”
That does not appear to be in the cards.
“Receivership would be destabilizing for Boston Public Schools staff, students, and families,” said a spokesperson for Wu. “The administration’s focus is on a strong finish to the school year, and in finding a new superintendent who can empower our school communities with the tools to succeed.”
Cassellius also rejected the idea of a state takeover. “Long-lasting reform in our district is happening. We are urgently investing in the strategies that will enhance our academic offerings and provide students with the support they need to be successful,” she said in a statement.
Cassellius has successfully ushered in one key change that the state has called for – approval by the School Committee of a new policy that will require all students to complete the state-sanctioned course sequence known as MassCore, which is regarded as the baseline curriculum needed for college and career success.
Cassellius said the district looks forward “to continued partnership with leaders at [the state education department], but receivership is not the remedy for the issues we face.”
For his part, Riley has given no indication that he is preparing to shift course from the 2020 agreement he reached with the district – even if he will soon be working with a new superintendent to implement it. In January, Riley told members of the state board of education that he will update them in the spring on the memorandum of agreement with Boston.
The Pioneer report acknowledges that receivership is “not a magic bullet” and that the literature on successful state takeovers of districts is “scant.” But it says one example where such a move yielded clear improvements in student outcomes is Lawrence, where Riley served as the state-appointed receiver before being named education commissioner.
Though he had broad authority over the Lawrence schools, Riley kept nearly all teachers, but replaced about half of district’s principals. He also extended the school day and deployed a system of intensive tutoring, and launched “acceleration academies” that provided added instruction during vacation weeks. Lawrence saw significant increases in math scores and modest gains in reading.
While focusing mainly on student instruction and district leadership, the Pioneer report also delves into Boston’s school finances. The report says Boston has the second-highest per pupil spending among the country’s 100 largest districts, at more than $25,000 per student, behind only New York City.The report says the district needs to reckon with a steep enrollment decline that has seen its school population drop by 10,000 students over the last decade. The district is “seemingly unwilling to come to terms with the long-term financial impacts of declining enrollment,” says the report. It cites research by the nonprofit Boston Schools Fund showing that the district is sending $33 million this school year in extra funding to schools operating below capacity so that they can maintain basic services to students. These so-called “soft landing funds” went to more than three-quarters of the district’s schools and represent almost all of the entire district budget increase from last year.
“No one wants to close schools,” said Candal. “It’s a horrible thing for communities. But the district is putting that off by blowing tons of money on soft landing funding.”