‘F’ is for failing, and some Massachusetts public schools have the dubious distinction of doing just that. But school turnarounds have not taken place as fast as education officials had hoped. A sizable cohort of students, especially in city schools, continues to be held back by poor academic performance, posting dismal MCAS results.

From spring 2000 to spring 2005, Department of Education–guided fact-finding teams evaluated 77 low-performing schools with some 42,000 students. DOE later designated 32 of those schools, with about 18,600 students, as underperforming after showing little or no improvement on the MCAS. (Only two schools have been removed from those ranks since their initial classification.) A Fall River school was the first one taken over by the state, while three more schools have been designated as “chronically underperforming.” Under No Child Left Behind federal mandates, 67 schools were declared in need of restructuring or corrective action in 2005. Now pressure is building for a more aggressive approach to doing something about schools that aren’t making the grade.

Board of Education chair James Peyser is
pushing his own plan.
Paul Shoul

“I think MCAS created very serious consequences for children who fail. We need to create serious consequences for institutions that fail and are incapable of turning themselves around,” says Boston Foundation president Paul Grogan, who chaired the Governor’s Task Force on State Intervention in Under-Performing Districts. Grogan now co-chairs the Great Schools Campaign, an initiative of the standards-based education reform group Mass Insight Education that is pushing for more aggressive state intervention in failing schools.

After 12 years of effort under the Education Reform Act of 1993, this is no time for a wait-and-see attitude, say some observers. “One class has already graduated on their watch from kindergarten through 12th grade, and, in the cities, I would say half of a class has graduated and half of a class has been lost,” says Robert Peterkin, director of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Urban Superintendents Program and a former superintendent of the Cambridge and Milwaukee school systems.

That sentiment has spread to the state Board of Education, which, at its November meeting, stunned observers by failing to approve Department of Education–recommended turnaround plans for another trio of schools, one in New Bedford and two in Springfield. The deadlocked vote of 4-4—a majority was needed for approval—sent the plans back to the department for reworking. But not before board chairman James Peyser made a dramatic call for wholesale overhaul of the intervention process.

‘We need to create serious consequences [for failure].’

Just what a more aggressive, and effective, school turnaround process would look like, however, is still very much up for grabs. Currently, the DOE’s accountability system assesses low-performing schools and districts with biennial ratings based primarily on MCAS scores. Five years ago, No Child Left Behind added another layer of school and district accountability, ordering Adequate Yearly Progress determinations and the identification of schools and districts based on need for improvement, corrective action, and restructuring.

“I think the state’s been slow to get into these schools and these school systems because they know they can’t do anything about it,” says Peterkin. “People at the state level are too far removed, and their resources really are thin.”

The DOE has inaugurated a top-to-bottom review of its school and district accountability system, which is scheduled to be reported to the board in April. But at the December meeting chairman Peyser once again displayed his impatience by presenting his own plan, which would set a goal of 50 percent proficiency in English language arts (ELA) and math within three years for all grades and subgroups. Struggling schools would be grouped into three categories. “Needs improvement” schools would craft state-supervised improvement plans, allowing principals to bypass seniority and other union-contract constraints on staff changes. Among other features, the plans would mandate coaching-style support for teachers and a minimum of 90 minutes per day of after-school tutoring and homework help for students. “Turnaround” schools would receive leadership, teaching, and assessment guidance from an outside partner, such as a university or other public or private education manager. “Restructuring schools” would be subject to contracting or chartering by outside entities.

Both Massachusetts Federation of Teachers president Kathleen Kelley and Massachusetts Teachers Association president Catherine Boudreau were in the audience at the December meeting, and afterward they dismissed the Peyser plan. Kelley termed it “unrealistic,” while Boudreau complained that the Peyser-led board isn’t engaging teachers in a wider conversation about how to make schools improve. State board members, Boudreau says, think “they have a better perspective and a better view” than those in the classroom.

But Peyser’s plan is just one among many. Gov. Mitt Romney’s recently announced school turnaround proposal would halve the intervention timetable in underperforming schools from six years to three and give superintendents broad powers to hire, fire, and test teachers. New management could be placed in schools that do not improve within two years, or those schools could be reconfigured as charter schools.

Meanwhile, Mass Insight’s Great Schools Campaign is pushing a plan that would place underperforming schools in something called the Commonwealth Turnaround Collaborative. The $35 million undertaking, with $30 million projected to go directly to the school level, would start off by designating 50 of the state’s 108 worst performing schools as “turnaround schools,” linking them together in a “virtual administrative district.”

“It’s really a generational issue now. Kids who are going through schools, they can’t pass the MCAS in math and English,” says Sen. Steven Baddour, a Methuen Democrat who, along with Rep. Stephen LeDuc, a Marlborough Democrat, is sponsoring legislation to establish the collaborative.

The plan is modeled on the Miami-Dade County Public School District’s School Improvement Zone which, established in early 2005, comprises 39 schools with 44,000 students. Statewide testing occurred six weeks later, and third-grade students in the new zone scoring at the lowest level in reading dropped 10 percentage points, from 51 percent in 2004 to 41 percent in 2005. In math, 33 percent of third-graders scored at the lowest level, down from 42 percent in 2004.

Superintendents may get new power to fire teachers.

“What got us a good part of the way last year was simply the symbolic value of grabbing hold of these 39 schools and saying essentially that we weren’t going to stand for them to be poorly performing any longer,” says Miami-Dade spokesman Joseph Garcia.

Working with an outside management partner, Commonwealth Turnaround Collaborative schools would focus on the 50 percent or more of students who have failed math or English language arts in any single grade for two years or more. As under the governor’s proposal, superintendents would gain extraordinary powers to hire, fire, and reassign teachers. Teachers would receive performance incentives, and an alternative collective bargaining unit would be linked to each local bargaining agreement. Students would see longer school days, revamped curricula, and social support systems. Turnaround schools would remain in the CTC for five years. Schools not demonstrating significant improvement within three years would be subject to state takeover, restructuring, or outright closure.

Mass Insight’s William Guenther: “Limited
efforts” don’t work.
Meghan Moore

“This is a problem that nobody has solved around the country, [and] that clearly will not get solved with the kind of marginal and very limited efforts that we have engaged in the past,” says Mass Insight Education president William Guenther.

But the Commonwealth Turnaround Collaborative has its share of skeptics as well, starting with Peyser. “I think it’s an interesting and creative approach,” says Peyser. “Whether it’s the right one remains to be seen.” The MFT’s Kelley is not persuaded either. “I don’t know what turnaround partners are going to do other than dictate [from the] top down,” she says.

The MTA has its own approach to guiding teachers and administrators in struggling schools: the Priority Schools Initiative, which relies on invigorating a school’s culture by bolstering educators’ teaching and learning efforts. Launched at the end of 2003, the program is in place at more than 10 elementary and secondary schools that have failed to meet state or federal performance benchmarks. In one school, the Athol-Royalston Middle School, students met or exceeded all of its 2005 MCAS and Composite Performance Index (a measure of progress toward ELA and math proficiency) improvement targets.

All parties agree that the Legislature will have to ante up additional financial resources to ramp up school turnarounds. “I think clearly we will be looking at some targeted funds, but we may even be asking for more significant funding if it calls for it,” says Driscoll.

The more difficult task will be getting all the education stakeholders on the same page. “We need to find a way to march forward together,” says Driscoll. “That’s the tricky part for us.”

But CTC backer Grogan says it’s time to take action. The continued failure of urban schools is not only the civil rights issue of our time, he says, but a threat to the state’s future economic growth and prosperity.

“We’re not in a position, with a declining and an aging population, to waste people,” says Grogan. “It’s really all about the talent pool. That’s really all that we have in Massachusetts to power our economy.”