July 6, 2022

Boston Public Schools Need A Road Less Traveled In Reform, Not Receivership

Robert Baroz • Boston Teacher

As a classroom teacher for more than 30 years, I implore you to consider an alternate road for improving Boston Public Schools than the worn down path of  top-down reform. I have critical experience on educational reform reform being a US Department of Education Teaching Ambassador during the Race to the Top Years; a MA DESE School Review team member, which visited underperforming schools; and licensed as a School Turnaround Principal. 

Like so many who testified at the MA DESE Board Meeting on April 26, I have concerns with the commissioned report (Boston Public Schools: The Road to Receivership) for its bias and misrepresentation in the review of the Boston Public Schools. Cara Stillings Candal, the author of the report, never references the history of failure or racism in receivership, both qualities true and evident in the data of results in the history of MA districts and schools that have been placed in receivership. For example, receivership predominately and disproportionately removes control and governance from communities of color. Moreover, Candal includes reference to a previous Pioneer Institute report she authored in 2014—a pure act of egotism (see her endnote 75).

Candal cites James Vaznis’s Boston Globe article on the decrease in the enrollment in Boston Public Schools (see her endnotes: 14, 51, 53, 58) in support of the argument that “Boston is in crisis” with a ten percent decrease in student enrollment in three years, deriving from a decline of student performance on the MCAS. However, no consideration is given to the impact of the soaring housing costs and loss of income rooted in the wake of the COVID pandemic. As a teacher, I have had students work full time to help pay the rent when their family’s financial situation was impacted by COVID. Furthermore, the Boston Herald reported  Boston’s rent prices could soon surpass San Francisco as second most expensive in United States. As a result, families are moving out of Boston. 

But if we were going to judge performance solely on MCAS, DESE needs to reflect on its own record that shows a historical achievement gap between boys and girls on the MCAS that has persisted since MCAS was created. Last year, third grade boys were eight percentage points lower than the girls in Exceeding and Meeting Expectation; while only 59% of all tenth grade boys were Exceeding and Meeting Expectations overall, compared to 71% of the girls. The day we see this achievement gap close is the day we see perhaps all gaps close across the various sub groups of student MCAS test takers.

Candal notes Lawrence Public Schools as “one of the few successful models of receivership nationwide” (see page 15 of the report). While Lawrence has improve after ten years of receivership, Lawrence does not currently outperform Boston on many measures:

Boston had a greater percent of students scoring Exceeding and Meeting Expectations on the English Language Arts MCAS exam: 31% of students compared to Lawrence’s 14%; Boston had a greater percent of students taking the SAT: 32 percent compared to Lawrence’s 1 percent;Boston had a greater percent of students with plans to attend a four-year college—45% compared to Lawrence’s 24%.

We might think that the tenth graders who have been in Lawrence might do better after ten years of receivership, but here lies a problem—no accountability for the receiver and no clear exit criteria being transparent and identified at any point. The DESE Board members who voted for this receivership are all no longer serving on its Board.

Yet some teachers in Lawrence are doing amazing work, such as the ones in the Andover Bread Loaf program who have engaged hundreds of students to write. For more than a decade they have inspired students to attend celebrations of writing such as poetry slams and Family Literacy Nights! And this work is a better national model for schools and districts—including my own. 

However, Candal cites Boston as having “no coordinated approach of teaching basic reading or writing skills within schools or district wide” (see report page 9). The author assumes such instruction needs to be standardized as if there were one way literacy should be taught. Research studies have yet to find any one approach as best overall, such as the Carnegie Foundation report Writing Next 2007 report or the 2003 report, The Neglected R: the Need for a Writing Revolution.

But if we want to look at coordinated efforts, DESE needs to look in the mirror and see it does not require any teachers to complete any coursework or professional development in the teaching of writing as part of its licensure–not even English teachers!

Let’s see DESE cease from commissioning reports from just one source—the Pioneer Institute–one with an espoused political ideology that is anti-teacher union and benefits from its  monopoly on being commissioned for such reports. In the future, DESE should commission multiple reports from a wider range of viewpoints before making a decision. In addition, the Governor needs to appoint and create a more diverse representation in its membership on the DESE Board so that it better reflects the diversity of public education.

As Boston Public Schools and DESE negotiate turnaround plans for the district, I implore you to avoid mandating instructional programs that will reduce teaching and learning to test prep. 

There are other ways to improve that work in which instructional strategies are proven to work within the Boston Public Schools itself and can be taken to scale.

Let’s restore Boston Public Schools’ national model of literacy coaching to support schools and teachers;Let’s increase investment for teacher-controlled professional development;Let’s see teachers engage in Instructional Rounds, observing colleagues teaching and giving feedback;Let’s see teachers collaborate in identifying problems of practice to improve instruction;Let’s see teachers engage in teacher-driven, cross-disciplinary teacher research.

I have seen many of these practices firsthand at East Boston High School with amazing results:

East Boston went from being in the fifth percentile near the bottom of school performance to the 21st percentile;And in 2020, 80 percent of the tenth grade students were meeting or exceeding the expectations as measured on the MCAS;And the graduation rate leaped from 56 percent to 75 percent from 2014 to 2017.

When schools and districts face being placed into receivership such practices are not considered or implemented. However, these practices achieve the very goals desired under receivership. East Boston’s model of school improvement shows bottom-up reform works. This way of improving schools represents a road “less traveled” and “it made all the difference.”

Robert Baroz

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Boston Public Schools Need A Road Less Traveled In Reform, Not Receivership