State to assert new oversight of Boston schools 

Partnership with city follows harsh report on district failings  

STATE AND CITY leaders have agreed to an unusual plan for oversight of the long-struggling Boston public schools, one that keeps the district in local hands but will set firm goals for improvement and give state education commissioner Jeff Riley broad authority to monitor progress on a range of measures — and intervene if the schools fail to demonstrate clear gains.

The agreement comes in the wake of a damning 286-page state review of the Boston schools, also released on Friday, which describes a district with systemic shortcomings, special education services “in disarray,” and particularly acute deficiencies in serving English language learners. 

“Boston has some serious structural problems and there are children that are not being served like they need to be,” said Riley. “I think there was a recognition that things need to change and things need to get better for our kids, and that in a city that has a lot of resources and a lot of talent, we can do better.” 

The agreement follows weeks of negotiations between Riley, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, and Mayor Marty Walsh.

In his letter to Cassellius accompanying the report, Riley said that although state takeover of the district or creation of a state-authorized “zone” that breaks off a group of the district’s most troubled schools “could be applied here given these vast and persistent challenges, I have proposed a new model following conversations with you and Mayor Walsh.”

That model, outlined in a nine-page memorandum of understanding signed by Riley and Cassellius, sets out four “priority initiatives” in which the district is expected to show measurable progress over a three-year period: improving student outcomes at the district’s lowest-performing 33 schools; reducing chronic absenteeism; improving outcomes and conditions for serving students with disabilities; and improving on-time rates for school buses. 

Under terms of the agreement the state also agrees to play a role in helping the district in four other areas, including recruitment of a more diverse teacher workforce and assigning state officials to aid efforts to manage facilities improvements, including upgrades to school bathrooms.

The city and state each also agreed to one long-term goal, with the city vowing to create plan to improve services for English language learners, while the state will help the district develop an “earned autonomy model” that gives more freedom to higher-performing schools.

The state education department commits at least $4 million per year to support the various initiatives outlined in the agreement.  

“This work requires all hands on deck, and I welcome this partnership with Commissioner Riley, which will support our commitment to meet the needs of our students,” Cassellius said in a statement.

In an interview on Friday afternoon, Cassellius said the report was “very reflective” of what she’s observed since arriving in Boston last summer, and emphasized that lots of the problems it identified are issues she’s already targeted. “I would say it’s more instructive than it is scathing or damning,” she said. Cassellius said people often view such reports “as an accountability hammer. I’d rather use it as a flashlight that just shines a bright light on the things we need to focus on.”

Walsh said in a statement that the state report “provides us an opportunity to review our progress and identify where we can provide greater support to the students we serve, and I look forward to working with all our partners to turn our goals into true continued progress.”

The agreement follows months of speculation over what steps the state might take in response to an outside review carried out last fall that was expected to document major shortcomings in the state’s largest school district. Walsh has been adamant in opposing the idea of state takeover of any Boston schools, while Riley had signaled that he was unlikely to defer taking any state action on systemic challenges in the district. 

The plan that they agreed to manages to satisfy both positions. At the same time, there is little mistaking the harsh assessment of the Boston schools that prompted the agreement, or the fact that the state is asserting an unprecedented level of authority over efforts to change the district’s trajectory.

“I hope it goes forward in the spirit of partnership, because I think both parties have assets and experience and urgency to bring to the work,” said former state education secretary Paul Reville. “At the same time, let’s be clear: They’re not on equal footing. Boston, through no fault of the current superintendent, has been chronically underperforming for many years, and the state has a legal responsibility to take some action. While the commissioner has chosen not to take over the district, he has reserved power to reconsider at such time that the distinct is not adequately meeting benchmarks that will be rolled out in this agreement.” 

State education commissioner Jeff Riley: “Nothing was not an option.” (Photo by Llyr Johansen)

The Boston Teachers Union criticized the agreement because of its potential to lead to greater state intervention.

“While the memorandum does not constitute a state takeover, it appears to leave the door open in ways that could be dangerous for students and our communities, given the failed track record of top-down district takeovers across the country,” the union said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts Parents United, a statewide advocacy group, called it a “beginning step toward improvement,” but worried that it didn’t go far enough. The group said it would be watching closely whether the state and district “develop a very specific, detailed plan with identified strategies, definitive metrics, a timetable to determine whether the strategies being employed are effective, and consequences if BPS is unable to meet its goals in three years.”

The state report was based on a set of visits last fall to classrooms in 100 Boston schools. The state had already highlighted the fact the city has 34 schools, which educate more than 16,000 students, or nearly one-third of its 50,000 pupils, that have achievement levels putting them in the bottom 10 percent of all schools statewide. If broken off into a separate district, the report points out, these schools would constitute the fourth largest school district in the state. 

“Opportunity and achievement gaps abound in the district,” says the report, which says districtwide averages “obscure substantial differences in outcomes among different student populations and schools.” 

For example, the district graduation rate of 75.1 percent reflects a graduation rate of 97.5 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 particularly harsh in its assessment of classrooms serving students with disabilities. “The district’s special education services are in systemic disarray, do not provide appropriate learning opportunities in the least restrictive environment for all students with disabilities, and contribute to a pattern of inequitable access to learning opportunities,” it said. 

Boston school superintendent Brenda Cassellius.

Riley’s letter said the district’s problems cannot “be resolved on a school-by-school basis” and require systemwide attention. 

At the classroom level, the state report said, “instructional practices are inconsistent across subjects and are not aligned with a common definition of high-quality instruction.” It said students have “limited access” to instruction that aligns with the district’s own teaching blueprint, titled “Essentials for Instructional Equity.”

The memorandum of understanding signed by Riley and city leaders provides for a 60-day period to agree on specific metrics and targets by which the district’s performance will be measured in the four areas of concern, including in the 34 low-performing schools. 

“We’re going to hold them accountable for specific targets in each of these buckets each year,” said Riley. 

Riley said the targets would include measurable improvement in student outcomes in the lowest-performing schools and among students with disabilities, a reduction in chronic absenteeism, and better on-time performance of school buses, an issue the district has had chronic problems with.

Boston will also be expected to adopt MassCore, a set of required courses for high school graduation deemed necessary for career or college success that only a minority of its students currently take. Cassellius had already identified adopting MassCore as a priority for the district. 

The state also agreed as part of the pact to provide support to the district in four areas: helping 15 additional lower-performing schools with professional development training to deepen the curriculum instruction offered by its teachers; aiding efforts to diversify the teaching workforce; assisting the district to bring partnerships with outside companies and nonprofit agencies to all schools; and providing operational support for efforts to upgrade “essential facilities,” including school bathrooms. 

Cassellius, a state education commissioner in Minnesota, took the reins last July in a district that had been led by three different superintendents, two of them serving on an interim basis, since Carol Johnson retired seven years ago.

Earlier this year she released a five-year strategic plan for the district that calls for a range of steps to address inequities in the delivery of quality instruction across the district’s 117 schools. 

In January, Walsh pledged $100 million in new spending for schools, with a particular focus on the district’s troubled schools. 

Riley has sweeping powers to intervene in districts with schools that have shown chronic low performance — and he could still do so in Boston at any point. Among the factors arguing against state takeover now of any schools in Boston, Riley said, were the fact that the district has a new superintendent and a mayor “who’s committed to putting significant dollars” into school improvement efforts. “We’re willing to allow them the time and space to make improvements, but they’ve got to be accountable for results,” he said. “Nothing was not an option.”

Boston already spends more than $22,000 per student, 50 percent more than some other urban districts. “In general, I think Boston has a well-funded school system,” said Riley. “With that said, I think that additional dollars, particularly for social-emotional supports, for focusing on curriculum work can, when used well, really be a benefit.” 

The harsh state review is not the first report in recent years to spotlight huge shortcomings in the Boston schools. 

A report issued in 2018 offered a devastating assessment of the district’s high schools, where it said nearly 1 of every 5 students was not on track to graduate on time, a figure that was nearly unchanged from a similar report carried out more than a decade earlier.

The high school report was followed by release last month of new state data showing that the graduation rate gap between white and black students was growing and that the district’s overall graduation rate slipped for the first time in more than 10 years. 

The agreement announced on Friday seems to acknowledge the uncertain terrain of school turnaround efforts. Education leaders are struggling with recognition that the status quo in districts with lots of low-income students is not serving pupils well, but there is no quick-fix path to instant improvement. 

Riley served as a Boston middle school principal and later a district administrator before being tapped as the state-appointed receiver for the long-troubled Lawrence Public Schools. He was credited with overseeing improvement in some student outcomes and graduation rates in Lawrence, but the results of state takeover of individuals schools and entire districts in Holyoke and Southbridge have been mixed at best. 

In Lawrence, Riley replaced most principals but retained the bulk of the district’s teaching staff, despite broad powers  he had to replace personnel. 

“He’s going to be able to provide some quality oversight, which is in his authority,” Reville said of the role Riley will assume in Boston. “Yet he’s shown himself capable, as he did in Lawrence, of also showing great restraint.” 

“I just think it fits with my philosophy that you’re more likely to get better results by doing things together,” said Riley of the agreement reached with Boston officials. “That doesn’t mean we’re abdicating our responsibility of oversight and compliance. But we also want to prove that we can be here as a support to districts. I think there’s a synergy that can come from that that’s not available with other models.” 

Riley has described himself as occupying the “radical center” in education policy battles — impatient with the pace of improvements, but mindful of the need to work collaboratively with all stakeholders whenever possible and to consider new approaches to longstanding problems. 

“It’s probably a roll of the dice for everybody,” he said. “We’re deviating from the old playbook, trying to create something new to get good results for kids.”