What do we do about them?

Julie Holly, a Winchendon mom, has put out Snickerdoodles and croissants, muffins and chocolate chip bread. Four other moms are seated around the table, but no one’s touching the sweets. Having the label of “underperforming” slapped on your school district—and by extension your town, your teachers, your kids, and yourselves—is, it turns out, a serious appetite suppressant. It’s supposed to be the nudge needed to spur an educational renaissance, but all it has done here is give everyone a pit in the stomach.

The women gathered at Holly’s house to talk about the schools are natives and relative newcomers; they have children from elementary school to college age; and they have a love-hate relationship with the schools that have let them, and their children, down. The mothers include one school committee candidate, several veteran PTO members, alumni of the schools, and the sister of a Winchendon teacher. Feelings are running high in this Winchendon dining room, and the most intense is the pain of being branded, so publicly, as failures.

“We don’t have crumbling buildings and mice in the bathrooms,” says Holly, whose children are entering fourth and ninth grades. “That’s what people are thinking: Ohhh, pooor Winchendon.”

“I feel like our self-esteem and our community are being
tampered with,” says Winchendon parent Maureen Provost.

The town’s wounded pride is a theme the moms return to repeatedly in two and a half hours of talk. It all goes back to November, when the district was officially declared underperforming. A few weeks later, Gov. Mitt Romney visited the Murdock Middle High School, where he was greeted by placards of protest, students who refused to shake his hand, and, in a photo-op gone impossibly wrong, a special needs student whose tutor confronted the governor, asking Romney how the student was to pass MCAS, the state’s high school exit exam.

The moment was awkward for Romney—a political advance man’s worst nightmare—but devastating for Winchendon, a small, low-income rural community near the New Hampshire border, which had suddenly been pinned with the scarlet letter of school dysfunction.

“We did nothing educational for a month after that,” says Superintendent of Schools Robert O’Meara, who was hired in August 2002. Students acted out, he says; teachers were distracted. A shooting threat sent the middle-high school into lockdown, and 15 bomb threats were logged during the fall and winter, all events O’Meara sees as rooted in post- “underperforming” hurt and anger.

Superintendent O’Meara predicted
an exodus—then left himself.

All these months later, the pain still seems palpable, but just as conspicuous are the reasons the Winchendon schools ended up with this badge of shame. Concerns raised around Julie Holly’s dining room table—a daughter who can’t take biology next year because she’s taking the “wrong” math course this year; worry that teachers are spending so much time on MCAS prep that kids won’t learn enough algebra to move on to geometry in the fall—paint a system in disarray. How, the parents ask, can schools operate like this? How will kids get an education?

“There are kids who are scared and upset,” says Barrie Martins, a candidate for school committee who has sons going into third and ninth grades and one in college.

Just as bad is the uncertainty over what comes next. Rumors tear through town, spread at the IGA supermarket, Family Dollar Store, and sporting events. People whisper that the state wants to take over, but state Education Commissioner David Driscoll dismisses that talk as “paranoia.” Kids are pulling out of the 1,800-student district every week (so, too, is O’Meara, who abruptly left this past July 2). O’Meara predicts that hundreds will head to the exits by September.

Ellen DeCoteau’s daughter may be next. DeCoteau, who works in the town’s planning and development department, is fed up. She may exercise the option of interdistrict school choice and send her daughter, who will be a sophomore in the fall, to next-door Gardner High.

That idea upsets Maureen Provost, mother of four and herself a 1979 Murdock High grad. She says she’d scrub toilets at night to pay for private school before she’d drain money—$5,500 per pupil—from the school’s budget, as happens under choice. Even then, her high-schooler would leave the Winchendon schools kicking and screaming, she says.

“I’m proud my daughter said, as a sophomore, ‘I am not leaving and I am going to graduate from Murdock,'” says Provost, her face flush with emotion. “I feel like our self-esteem and our community are being tampered with.”

So much for the pain. What about the gain? Months after Winchendon and Holyoke became the first two entire districts in Massachusetts branded as underperforming, O’Meara was still begging for state help, he says. Driscoll says Winchendon should quit whining and “start figuring out a plan.”

Nearly a dozen years after Massachusetts embraced education reform and two years into the federal No Child Left Behind law, the fervor for gathering and tabulating test score data has led to the not-so-surprising news flash that some schools and districts aren’t measuring up. Though the state’s school accountability system has so far cited only two districts as underperformers, four more are on “watch,” along with two dozen individual schools. A great many more schools and districts are likely not to measure up under NCLB’s more demanding requirements of annual “progress.” So the educational-failure suspects are being lined up. What now?

A tale of two failures

In Winchendon and Holyoke alike, the path to underperformance has been long, straight, and immutable. One could argue these districts have always been underperforming. Only now they sport the official label—and the voluminous state reports to go with it.

The two districts are very different. Winchendon is an old manufacturing town of less than 10,000 people with a median family income of $50,086, some $11,000 below the state average. Almost 95 percent of students are white; almost one-fourth receive free or reduced-price lunches, a sign of poverty; and nearly one in five are designated as having “special needs.”

While such demographics set Winchendon apart from wealthy suburban systems, the district lacks the usual excuses for poor performance: urban, minority, or immigrant populations. In a state review of district performance from 1999 to 2002, the basis for the state’s underperformance label, the district earned “unsatisfactory” or “poor” grades in all five key areas: assessment and evaluation, curriculum and instruction, student academic support, leadership, and finance.

The panel of reviewers, agents of the state’s Office for Educational Quality and Accountability, gave particularly poor grades for assessment and evaluation (the district received “unsatisfactory” marks in 11 out of 11 categories), noting that schools simply failed to use MCAS test results to improve instruction. The district also scored poorly in administration and finance. The list of specific ills is long—”ineffectual leadership,” and “did not maintain adequate accounting and financial reporting procedures,” among others—and paints a portrait of a system in disarray.

The state report also takes note of Winchendon’s low math scores on MCAS. In 2003, 73 percent of 10th-graders earned “failing” or “needs improvement,” mirroring similarly poor math scores in grades four, six, and eight—a trend that has persisted over time. One explanation for this phenomenon is the absence of any effort to line up what’s taught in classrooms with what’s tested on the MCAS. When students begin using the Everyday Math program in September, O’Meara says, it will mark the first time a district math program meets state standards.

‘We still have textbooks going back to the 1960s.’

Poor leadership has been compounded by money woes. Even as the state sent more cash to districts like Winchendon, the town put up so little that O’Meara says the new budget is the first in a decade to include money for pencils and textbooks. “We still have textbooks going back to the 1960s,” he notes.

Whereas Winchendon is a small, white, rural town where students speak English, Holyoke is a declining industrial city of 40,000 with a median family income of $36,130 and a large Hispanic population. More than 70 percent of the district’s students are Hispanic, and nearly 27 percent have limited English proficiency. Holyoke’s dropout rate is more than double the state average. Superintendent Eduardo Carballo says kids enter kindergarten speaking Spanglish, a sloppy mix of languages that teachers have to untangle. The level of poverty is much higher, with 72 percent of children receiving free or reduced-price lunches. One in five receive special education services.

Holyoke Superintendent Eduardo Carballo is
upgrading math and reading programs while
cracking down on teacher absenteeism.

Educational lapses are nothing new in this Pioneer Valley city. The “underperforming” label hurt, but it came as no surprise. After all, Holyoke’s John J. Lynch Middle School was one of the first schools in the state labeled underperforming, in 2000. The Dr. William R. Peck Middle School got slapped with the designation in 2002, and the Maurice A. Donahue Elementary and Magnet Middle School for the Arts joined the club last year.

Among problems observed by the state Office of Educational Quality and Accountability were high absentee rates among students and teachers. A 2003 report noted that 30 percent of students missed more than 11 days, and 18 percent missed more than 20 days. Teachers were absent, on average, more than 10 days per year. In other words, basics like getting teachers and students in a room at the same time have been a problem.

Add to that a haphazard approach to professional development and state questions about “whether or not the District has the capacity to sustain the change that will be necessary for improved student achievement.” The failings in Holyoke—from poor instruction for Spanish-speaking students, stuck for years in bilingual classes with teachers who spoke the language but were weak in core subjects, to the failure to do commonsense things like getting help to struggling students—seem so vast that it’s tough to know where to start.

Perhaps the biggest failure has been the waste of time. A decade after the Education Reform Act of 1993, says Commissioner Driscoll, the Holyoke public schools have changed far too little. “The Education Reform Act said, ‘Send them money, set the standards, but get out of their way,'” says Driscoll. “In that 10-year period there was relatively ineffective implementation [of reform in Holyoke].”

So far, the state’s label has yielded only shame.

Today, Superintendent Carballo, hired in January 2002, is making improvements, but there is much to do. Carballo cut the budget for substitute teachers in half, from $1 million last year to $500,000 this year, insisting that principals crack down on teacher absenteeism. After discovering that some high school students scored poorly on the MCAS because in ninth grade they read at only third- and fourth-grade levels, he changed the district’s reading program. Carballo also increased the time students do math, and he’s partnering with the University of Massachusetts’s education school to lure new teachers to the district, where the average teacher salary is $9,000 below the state average.

Carballo wants to revamp education in the district, but can he do it? He says he’d be glad to have some help from the state, even someone in his office full time. So far, he says, the “underperforming” label has yielded little except shame —no money, no turnaround team, no clear process or partnership for change. Says Carballo, a Cuban immigrant who started life in America in an orphanage, “Believe me, I look calm to you, but I am in a rage inside when I think of the things agencies do in the name of helping kids.”

Educational enforcers

For years, people in the know—educators, state officials—have had some idea about which districts were low performers. In the past, information was camouflaged by Massachusetts Education Assessment Program tests, which compared similarly situated districts, making socioeconomics a ready excuse for poor results and allowing superintendents to boast about test scores even when they were mediocre.

With the Education Reform Act of 1993, the state tried to address funding inequities between rich and poor districts but also to set the same high standards for all schools, through state curriculum frameworks and Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests. If state funding, which was directed particularly to poor districts, provided the means of improvement, the major prod, especially at first, was publication of test results. The cold facts of who was—and wasn’t—measuring up were there for all to see. But there were no serious consequences for failure.

In 1999, the state created a School and District Accountability System, which involved the “performance rating” of schools on core academic subjects, administered by the Department of Education. A year later, in 2000, the state Legislature created the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability (EQA), an independent office that works with the Department of Education and the Education Management Audit Council, EQA’s oversight board.

In monitoring and judging educational performance, the state has pursued a dual track of identifying struggling schools and—more recently—struggling districts. Since 2000, the state Board of Education has identified 26 schools as underperforming, mostly because of consistently low test scores. The state requires these schools to produce improvement plans, but it also offers training to help principals and staff view their schools with fresh eyes. State advisors diagnose weakness and show teachers how to use test scores to target student needs.

When Mt. Pleasant School, in New Bedford, was declared underperforming in 2002, Eileen Kenny, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, was leery of the intrusion, but she came to appreciate the help from state officials. “I was a naysayer, and now I am one of their biggest advocates,” she says.

Kenny described state workshops as “intense” and says the toughest part was having local educators accept that they —and not the kids—were the ones failing. “In the early stages, your tendency is to say, ‘Well, the students can’t do this, the students can’t do that,'” she recalls, adding that when the teachers finally gathered together, everyone was willing to admit mistakes. It was therapeutic, Kenny says, even if she and other administrators had to sometimes bite their tongues. “I heard it from a teacher that, ‘I don’t feel comfortable doing that math concept and I sort of skip over it.’ As much as you want to say, ‘What!’, you don’t.”

Mt. Pleasant’s test scores are still far from exemplary—on the 2003 MCAS, 36 percent of fourth-graders received the lowest score of “warning” in English, while 57 percent earned “warning” scores in math. But they are an improvement over the past, when up to 74 percent earned “warning” scores in English and 86 percent in math.


It is one thing to help a single school, and another to take on an entire struggling school system. Under the state accountability system, the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability analyzes data, including MCAS scores, from districts each year, selecting some for closer study—even top districts like Needham, which was recently reviewed. All districts across the state are supposed to be examined every five years, but Board of Education chairman James Peyser acknowledges, “There is not the capacity to do that.”

The Educational Management Audit Council looks at review results and may recommend a district for the “underperforming” label. The Board of Education then votes on the recommendation. The grounds for deeming a district underperforming include low test scores, poor leadership or management, and a curriculum that doesn’t match state standards. Once a district is labeled underperforming, a fact-finding team investigates and issues a report. District and state officials are supposed to work together to craft an improvement plan.

This is serious work, but it’s something the state has little experience doing. In the case of struggling schools, Driscoll feels confident that education officials have a viable action plan. “We really know what we’re talking about when we go in,” says Driscoll. He’s less bullish about districts. “I will admit to you,” he says, “we are just starting out in districts, we are finding our way.”

At present, if districts don’t improve in two to three years, they may be declared “chronically underperforming” and subject to takeover by a state-appointed receiver, who would assume the powers of superintendent and school committee. As the first subjects of the state’s district-level intervention, Holyoke and Winchendon do not know what to expect. It took fact-finding teams six months from the time districts were labeled to issue a report, offering assessments just a few weeks before the end of school.

Board of Education chairman James Peyser:
A slow response to bad schools “sacrifices” children.

Such a sluggish approach to what amounts to a state-declared educational emergency is problematic, a point the Board of Education wants to address. In May, the board proposed new rules to speed up the process. The new proposal collapses the time between review and fact-finding, more quickly deciding whether local school leaders can handle the challenge of overseeing change. This will shorten the time between the identification of a district as underperforming and the ultimate sanction—state takeover.

“It is [currently] somewhere around a two- to four-year period where we know a district is underperforming, where we are working with them trying to improve,” says state board chairman Peyser. “If we know upfront [that improvement is] not going to happen, we should move into receivership and take action in a period that is more like six months. To do otherwise is to protect the adults and sacrifice the children.”

Inadequate yearly progress

The state’s system of accountability for (and intervention in) failing schools is by no means the last word. That’s because the federal No Child Left Behind law, signed January 2002, introduced new standards for success—and new sanctions for failure. Indeed, NCLB altered the tone of reform itself. Instead of asking for improvement, the federal law demands it.

Under NCLB, schools and districts are on the hook for having every one of their students reach a state-set level of “proficiency” by 2014. Federal rules require that schools and districts attain “Adequate Yearly Progress,” or AYP, toward that goal. And the progress must be uniform: Not only students overall but a host of subgroups—involving race and ethnicity, limited English, poverty, special needs, etc.—must show educational advancement. Some schools are subject to as many as 18 separate AYP determinations.

On paper, at least, the penalties for failure are stiff. Any school that does not meet its AYP target two years in a row is deemed “in need of improvement.” Such schools are required to notify parents and let them transfer children to a higher-performing school in their district. After three years of inadequate progress, parents have a right to free tutoring or other supplemental services for their children. If the school fails to hit its targets for four years, it becomes subject to “corrective action,” which could include the implementation of a new curriculum and even the replacement of some staff. If, after a year of corrective measures, the school is still not improving, it becomes a candidate for “restructuring.” That could mean wholesale replacement of staff, state takeover, or conversion to a charter school.

All this hold-their-feet-to-the-fire stuff sounds tough-minded, but is fraught with practical problems. For instance, the right to transfer means little if higher-performing schools in the district have no open seats. Paul E. Peterson, director of Harvard’s Program on Education, Policy, and Governance, who favors parent choice as a vehicle for improvement, notes that nationally, of 1.3 million children eligible to transfer out of failing schools, only 17,000 have done so, in part because they lack options.

Then there is the problem of state-by-state definitions of proficiency. In Massachusetts, “proficient” is the second-highest level of scoring on MCAS, after “advanced.” Currently, to receive a high school diploma, students must only score at the lower “needs improvement” level on 10th-grade MCAS. To have every student in every school scoring “proficient” on math and English will require a huge leap in educational attainment, even over a 10-year period. MassPartners for Public Schools, a consortium of school committee, administrator, and teacher groups, says, since Massachusetts’s standards are so high, that goal is “analogous to saying that every Massachusetts student has to be above average (an A- or B+ student).”

What’s more, against that high standard, it’s hard for schools to make their mandated progress for all students. When announcing AYP results in December, the state Department of Education tried to put a positive spin on the news, declaring that “94 percent of districts and 85 percent of schools” met their annual requirements in English and math for students overall. When it came to the subgroups, however, 164 of the 237 districts that operate two or more schools, or 67 percent, failed to make AYP for one or more groups for one subject or both. Just a bare majority—53 percent—of the state’s 1,698 schools made AYP in both subjects for all groups of students; 90 schools did not make AYP in either subject.

Massachusetts is not alone in struggling with NCLB’s strict rules. Bryan Hassel, founder of Public Impact, a Chapel Hill, NC, consulting firm, who has served on presidential education commissions, predicts that 25 to 50 percent of schools nationally will be labeled failing. Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, DC, notes that 30 percent of schools are now on state watch lists; he says some state officials predict that all of their schools will be designated failing—and need to be “fixed.”

“States are saying they don’t have the capacity to deal with schools on the watch list now. How are they going to have the capacity to deal with twice as many?” asks Jennings. “And it’s not just the capacity in terms of personnel. It’s that people don’t know what to do.”

Rattling swords

Jennings hits on two key issues: the sheer volume of schools that may need help and the thornier question of how to help them. Part of the challenge is getting educators to view what happens in classrooms in a more systematic way. Catch phrases such as “research-based” and “data-driven” carry the message: no more touchy-feely approaches to judging student learning and school effectiveness.

“We used to be very subjective, at least in the area of schools,” says Driscoll. “It’s about time public education was changed from an art into a science.”

But making school improvement a science may be more challenging than it sounds. While the federal government talks mean, there is little detail about how to get results and few blueprints to follow.

“There are no successful models around the country,” says Mark Roosevelt, one of the authors of the Education Reform Act and now managing director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, who served on Gov. Mitt Romney’s task force charged with developing an intervention plan.

The state Board of Education has put four other troubled districts—North Adams, Keefe Tech (a vocational high school in Framingham, which is considered a district unto itself), Webster, and Fitchburg—on “watch,” one step short of finding them underperforming. Webster school superintendent Vincent Simone says he, working with two administrators and three principals, produced two reports for the state this year, creating a pile of paper that had to be shipped out in boxes. But avoiding the dreaded label was worth it. Being on watch, he says, “is good for the bad things that aren’t going to happen.”

The perception—at least at this point—is that the “underperforming” label triggers chaos, not help. And not only in Massachusetts.

“Most states are struggling with the question of, ‘What do we do with those schools that haven’t hit the benchmark?'” says Todd Ziebarth, policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, who in May led a gathering of state officials struggling with how to intervene in failing schools and districts. He says state takeover, while a popular notion, begs the question, “What are we going to do differently?”

It is at this point in the conversation that some policy experts start talking about extreme measures—not only state takeover but also the vast expansion of charter schools or vouchers. Others see more value in rattling the voucher sword. Rajashri Chakrabarti, a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, says that, in comparison with Milwaukee and Cleveland, which offer vouchers for students in failing schools, greater improvement comes from Florida’s approach, in which schools that earn failing grades one year know a second failure within three years means parents get vouchers to send children elsewhere. Chakrabarti’s analysis of student test scores in 66 schools that got one “F” showed that, over eight years, only two received a second “F,” while most schools dramatically improved their students’ scores.

“When facing the threat of vouchers, schools can actually escape the loss of revenue,” she said. “That gives a large incentive for the schools to improve.”

The Romney task force, chaired by Paul Grogan, president of The Boston Foundation, offered a 10-point school intervention plan, including a controversial proposal to lower the threshold for firing teachers in low-performing districts from “just cause” to “good cause.” That plan has not received a warm reception, with some legislators describing it as an “attack on teachers.”

Kathy Kelley, president of the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers and co-chair of the MassPartners for Public Schools, says that teachers should be seen as resources for school change, not as the source of failure. She says so-called reformers “are treating teachers as if they are mere functionaries instead of people with multiple degrees who have been working in classrooms.”

The Grogan report, with its demand for a “sense of urgency,” made another key proposal: If you declare a district underperforming, then offer a clear course of action—and do it quickly. The task force would give an evaluation team 30 days to determine if an underperforming district can rebuild itself. If not, a “turnaround partner” ought to be brought in. In Winchendon and Holyoke, which are not subject to the faster timetable now favored by the Board of Education, the schools’ troubles are compounded by uncertainty about what’s in store for them.

Creating a future

How do you fix failure in schools? And can you fix it for good? In Massachusetts, the experience so far involves individual schools. Much of the assistance offered by the state Department of Education helps schools get focused on doing what they should have been doing all along: use MCAS data to pinpoint what kids didn’t know, or align their curriculum with state standards, or develop a school improvement plan that really is a plan for improvement, not just an exercise in bureaucratic compliance.

“Henry Lord was like many other schools,” Fall River superintendent Richard Pavao says of the Henry Lord Middle School, declared underperforming in 2002. “The [MCAS] data came in, the principals and teachers looked at it, then put it onto a shelf or into a desk drawer, saying, ‘Oh, we’d better do better next time around.'”

Pavao says state help has improved Henry Lord. But test scores remain dismal. On the 2003 math MCAS, 76 percent of eighth-graders scored “warning,” and 22 percent “needs improvement.” Only 2 percent have earned “proficient.” In English, 23 percent earned “proficient”—better, but a long way from the NCLB goal of 100 percent.

Can you fix failing schools so they don’t ‘backslide’?

Driscoll notes that, at some schools where test scores rose initially, they have since fallen, making him worry about “backsliding.” It also raises questions about whether you ever fix a school for good.

At the Lucy Stone School in Dorchester’s Codman Square, however, such concerns are in the future. One of eight schools declared underperforming last year, Lucy Stone’s focus is getting on track now.

“When you are named as underperforming, the decision is: Are you willing to make the commitment to swallow your pride, be truthful and honest about what you have and have not done?” says principal Elaine Gibson. She now credits the jarring label—and two state grants of $25,000 to train teachers to analyze test data—as key to improvement. Special-education teacher Sheila Larson says the underperforming label hurt, but reflected reality.

“We had been working really hard, but not smart enough,” says Larson. Now, the educators of Lucy Stone try to connect their efforts to real needs. After-school tutoring, for example, is now run by the school, not outsiders. Instead of random homework help, tutoring amplifies lessons; the director is present for some school hours, and checks in with teachers.

The question of fixing failure is, ultimately, not just about finding the right plan or combination of pokes and prods. Education is, after all, a cooperative interpersonal venture—not the work of flash mobs moving in concert for a few well-choreographed moments. It is about a teacher, a student—and a plan that works.

“Can you change the lives of kids who are with you six to 10 hours a day? Yes, you can,” insists Juliane Dow, state Department of Education associate commissioner for accountability and targeted assistance. “You can either decide you are just there and they are just there and you will all be safe and you will get your paycheck and they will get their lunch, or you can really create a future.”