Wu’s school challenge: Put Black, Latinx, and low-income kids on path to success

The new mayor inherits a district that has been failing students for years

IF MAYOR MICHELLE WU focuses her upcoming State of the City speech solely on the state of Boston Public Schools (BPS), she would need to convey difficult truths about how the city is failing our Black, Latinx, and economically-disadvantaged children. Perhaps her greatest challenge as mayor will be the transformation of Boston Public Schools, a transformation that eluded her predecessors.

The pandemic continues to exacerbate existing inequities. Academic performance is suffering further and more of Boston’s children are falling through the cracks. The most recent common assessments (spring 2021 MCAS) showed that almost 80 percent of non-white students are not meeting expectations in English in grades 3-8; almost 90 percent in math. Among white students, 40 percent are not meeting expectations in English; 55 percent in math.

But, let’s be honest. Academic performance in the Boston Public Schools was abysmal prior to the pandemic, and the structural issues preventing progress existed long before it. More than 30 percent of BPS students (16,656 children) attend a school that ranks near the bottom of all public schools statewide. To understand the scale of the problem, it is worth noting that these students would make up the fourth largest district in Massachusetts if they were their own district.

A comprehensive state audit in March 2020 highlighted the district’s numerous shortcomings: growing achievement gaps, slowing graduation rates, and declining enrollment, while other performance measures were stagnant. The audit found no evidence of a plan to address these issues, and hinted at receivership as the cure.

In 2019, less than a quarter of non-white students in grades 3-8 met expectations in English or math. That’s three out of every four non-white students not performing at grade level. In grade 10, about one-third of these students did not perform up to grade level standards.

Source: Boston Schools Fund

Grade 10 scores dropped among all students between 2017 and 2021 as the state set higher standards for high school graduation, but plunged among non-white students – exposing a widening achievement gap between white and non-white students.

Source: Boston Schools Fund

Source: Boston Schools Fund

We know these poor results are not caused by a lack of funds. BPS is near the top in per pupil spending for an urban district, both in Massachusetts and nationally, spending $25,000 per pupil, according to state data. That’s a third more than BPS spent in 2015. Additional money will be flowing into the schools over the next several years from federal COVID relief programs and the state’s Student Opportunity Act. Those funds should be used to specifically address the system’s shortcomings.

BPS receives MCAS results every year, but little attention is given to analyzing the data and actually addressing the glaring gaps in learning. Instead, opponents of standardized testing use low MCAS scores as an opportunity to question the validity of the test in order to abandon it altogether.

Low scores on MCAS don’t create inequities, but they do reveal them. MCAS results provide vital, grade-level insights into students’ academic needs, and scores during the next several years will be even more valuable in helping schools respond to students’ pandemic-induced unfinished learning.  We would never disregard criminal justice or economic data simply because we were uncomfortable with what the data revealed. Instead, we would use this powerful data to make progressive change and take the critical action needed to right a structural problem that impacts the most vulnerable members of our society.

Blaming MCAS tests could be an easy excuse for the poor performance of Boston’s students if the results didn’t correspond with other academic indicators like the NAEP (often called “The Nation’s Report Card”) and Advanced Placement tests. More than three-quarters of white and Asian students complete advanced courses in high school compared to half of Black and brown students.

Attendance is another major red flag. Research shows students who miss more school than their peers fall behind academically. During the 2020-2021 school year, Boston’s Black, Latinx, and economically-disadvantaged students’ chronic absenteeism rates were more than twice as high as those of their white peers, an average of 35 percent vs. 15 percent.

College matriculation rates among high school graduates (2018-19) show familiar achievement gaps. In Boston, 79 percent of white students enroll in college compared to only 63 percent of Black, 53 percent of Latinx, and 58 percent of economically-disadvantaged students.

Another troubling trend is the precipitous drop in Boston’s district enrollment, which fell below 50,000 students for the first time in decades to a little over 48,600 students this fall. Declining enrollment will spell trouble for a district that just embarked on a rebuilding plan for its 122 school buildings. Consolidation is a necessity, but is also a political landmine.

Taken together, the data lead to a clear and undeniable conclusion: Boston’s Black, Latinx, and low-income students are lagging far behind their peers academically, which in turn leads to inequitable outcomes for the rest of their lives.

As a mother of BPS students and Boston’s first woman and first person of color to be elected mayor, Michelle Wu must become a truly transformational figure when it comes to our schools. And she knows she cannot fix what she cannot measure. Addressing generations-long inequities means using all data sources, including MCAS scores, in crafting a bold plan to transform BPS and then turning that plan into real change. Boston deserves nothing less from its new mayor.

Keri Rodrigues is the founder of Massachusetts Parents United and a Boston Public Schools GED recipient (1995).