The Codcast: Riley’s collaborative ways

Jeff Riley won the backing last week of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to be the next state education commissioner based in large part on his work over the last six years as the state-appointed receiver for the Lawrence schools.

If somebody can show real gains in what was arguably the lowest-performing, most troubled school district in the state, the board seemed to reason, he looks like the right guy to tackle what nearly everyone agrees is the biggest challenge in K-12 schooling — closing the achievement gap that separates black and Latino students and students living in poverty from their white and better-off peers. What’s more, Riley seemed to do that while minimizing the degree of acrimony that could accompany a state takeover in which he was essentially the schools czar, with nearly unfettered power to remake the district, including hiring and firing teachers at will.

Riley says he tried to “build a plan that was collaborative,” including a strong voice for teachers, parents, and other community stakeholders in Lawrence. That’s the same approach he wants to bring to his state post, where he hopes to help “heal” the divisions that have sometimes turned education policy debates into trench warfare.

What’s less clear is exactly how he’ll go about doing that — or how he might take some of the promising reforms he was able to implement using his broad powers in Lawrence and seed them more widely in districts also in need of new approaches to tackle persistent low achievement.

In Lawrence, Riley extended the school day for all K-8 students. “We felt like we needed more time for our kids for additional instruction,” he says. But not just to bolster their skills in core academic subjects, “but also to add back what I call ‘opportunity gaps,’ which are arts and enrichment, sports, debate league, theater — things that kids love to go school for.”

He also tried to flip the role of the district office from dictating what should be done to schools to providing support for schools to better do their job. Too many district offices, he says, “have this attitude like, you work for us,” when it comes to individual schools. “What I said to my people [in the Lawrence central office] was, no, no, we work for the schools,” he says. The result was a much more decentralized system. “We’re going to push autonomy down to the schools. We’re going to hold them accountable, but we are going to become a support mechanism for them,” Riley says, describing the approach.

Is there a way to extend that model more broadly? We’ll see.

Riley has often remarked that he spent a lot of time during his previous role as principal at a Boston middle school evading the district office, whose mandates he thought were getting in the way of improving the school. How will someone who has recoiled at the dictates of central school bureaucracy now operate as the chief education bureaucrat for the whole state?

“Well, I’m not sure I completely recoiled,” Riley protests. But he goes on to say he thinks there is room for the state department to “differentiate” among districts — loosen up on those doing well, while paying more attention to those that aren’t.

Lawrence not only extended the school day, the district implemented a novel approach to low achievement by inaugurating something called “acceleration academies,” in which students give up their February or April vacation week to attend 30 hours of added instruction in small classes, with teachers the district regards as its top instructors.

“Last year we had almost 3,000 kids give up their February or April vacation. We’ve had to turn kids away,” Riley says of the innovative approach, which has been identified as a key factor in driving Lawrence’s student achievement gains, particularly in math.

Does he think other districts that struggle with low student achievement could launch similar initiatives? “I think we’re entering a time where we can actually have those conversations,” Riley says, careful not to get too far out ahead of things.

The same goes when asked about the role of testing, a hot-button issue on which Riley has waded in with criticism of the degree to which testing has come to guide what schools do. “I am a believer in test scores,” he says. “At the same time, the pendulum swung a little far, where people became so obsessed with testing that we forgot about things like arts and enrichment.” Riley calls himself “a moderate” on the issue, but offers no policy clues beyond that.

Though he says Massachusetts has the highest-performing charter school sector in the country, Riley also labels himself a moderate on charters. “Anybody’s that trying to get good results for city kids, I’m in favor of,” he says.

Riley says his first move in Lawrence was to spend a few months talking to everyone involved with the schools there, and he seems inclined to approach his new job the same way. That seems to capture the Riley approach: Reach out to bring everyone to the table, don’t tie yourself rigidly to a particular approach, try to drive conversation to be open to thinking outside the traditional school box.



Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham reported that the firewall Stan Rosenberg said he put in place was full of holes, with his husband Bryon Hefner enjoying access to his email account and schedule and trying to influence the state budget.  Rosenberg said the story contained a number of inaccuracies, but didn’t specify what they were; others suggest the latest report may spell the end of any chance he had of reclaiming the presidency. (Boston Globe) (Boston Globe)

Campaign contributions pour in to the House’s new budget chief, Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez. (Eagle-Tribune)

Patriots safety Devin McCourty, team president Jonathan Kraft, and owner Robert Kraft co-author an op-ed calling on Beacon Hill to pass legislation that would raise the upper age of jurisdiction for juvenile court to 19 and raise the lower age from 7 to 12. (Boston Globe)


Two part-time residents of Chappaquiddick Island have filed suit against Edgartown officials claiming an 84-foot wi-fi tower violates the town’s zoning ordinances for structure height and claim the exemption that was granted opens the door for an even higher planned monopole. (Cape Cod Times)

Boston is looking for proposals to redevelop a raft of city-owned buildings into housing. (Boston Globe)


Oh my! A Boston Sunday Globe story on US Reps. Joe Kennedy III and Seth Moulton actually refers to them as “heavenly bodies.”


A Herald editorial pans the idea of automatic voter registration.


If you’re reading this from home today and taking the day off, you’re not alone: A Chicago management consultant firm analyzed data and determined about 16.5 million people are absent from work the day after the Super Bowl, costing businesses about $3 billion. Late arrivals and rehashing the game the first hour of the day costs another $1.7 billion in lost productivity. (Cape Cod Times) One person who will definitely not be at school today is 13-year-old Ryan McKenna of Hingham. The seventh-grader at Derby Academy was featured on national television when halftime performer Justin Timberlake went into the stands and took a selfie with him. (St. Paul Pioneer Press) Six students were arrested as thousands gathered at UMass Amherst after the Patriots loss. (MassLive)

Evan Falchuk urges Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to think about the public good and not how much cash he can pocket with his plan to open a second headquarters. (CommonWealth)

A developer is proposing a 27-unit apartment complex for a parcel next to the Four Corners/Geneva Avenue commuter rail stop in Dorchester. (Boston Herald)


A Lowell Sun editorial tears into Lowell officials who pushed for a swimming pool as part of the new high school plan and as a result saw their proposals tossed by the Massachusetts School Building Authority, adding more delays to the project.

Laura Perille reports on a little-tapped Boston teachers contract provision that is yielding big gains. (CommonWealth)

The College of the Holy Cross decides to keep its nickname, the Crusaders, and its mascot. (Telegram & Gazette)

Dracut superintendent of schools Steven Stone plans to implement alcohol breath testing of students suspected of drinking and of all students at events such as proms. (Lowell Sun)


A bill in the Legislature to increase the availability of doctors in underserved rural areas would set up a commission to study and recommend changes to how the state licenses foreign-trained physicians. (MetroWest Daily News)


Harry Mattison and Wendy Landman offer up a plan to expand the Charles River shoreline or to build a boardwalk to “unchoke the throat” — a reference to the section of the Mass Turnpike reconstruction where roads and railroads converge and space is limited. (CommonWealth)

An Amtrak train collided with a freight train in South Carolina early Sunday, killing two Amtrak workers and injuring more than 100. It was the second fatal Amtrak collision in less than a week. (New York Times)

Union workers mobilize to try to save their jobs as state funding for the Worcester Regional Transit Authority falls short and layoffs loom. (Telegram & Gazette)

Quincy officials are planning on installing “smart” traffic technology to control lights at some of the city’s busier intersections to reduce idling times and ease congestion. (Patriot Ledger)


The state’s three utilities will decide the fate of Northern Pass. Of course, one of those utilities, Eversource Energy, is also a partner in Northern Pass. (CommonWealth)

The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities ordered utilities to cut their rates to reflect federal tax cuts they received. (Boston Globe)

State and local officials will begin monitoring the eelgrass along the shore in Duxbury, Kingston, and Plymouth to determine how to stem the loss of the plant essential to coastal wetland health. (Patriot Ledger)


Steven Hoffman, chairman of the Cannabis Control Commission, said he is now confident regulations will be in place and the industry will be up and running by the July 1 target date. (Keller@Large)

A Globe editorial says Steve Wynn must be broomed from his eponymous casino company — and the Wynn name must be removed from Everett casino — if the firm is to retain its license, and even that might not be enough and the license may have to be revoked.


The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination has dismissed a complaint against the Bristol Sheriff’s Department by a former jail minister who alleged he was the subject of racial and religious discrimination. (Herald News)


The Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise plans to do away with its newsroom in the city and have its staffers work virtually. (Boston Business Journal)