A HIGHLY ANTICIPATED new state review of the Boston Public Schools paints a picture of a system in deep disarray, where some of the problems identified in a state report two years ago have only worsened. While the new review identifies some areas of improvement since the last state report was issued, it portrays overall a district mired in deep dysfunction on the eve of a state board of education meeting where the question of whether to place the system in state receivership is expected to take center stage.
The new review, ordered in March by state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley, does not make a specific recommendation on the question of state receivership, but it makes clear that aggressive steps are necessary.
The “problems facing BPS are abundantly clear,” it says. “This moment requires bold, student-centered decision-making and strong execution to ensure the district delivers the quality education its students deserve. BPS needs immediate improvement.”
Riley’s call for a new report, two years after a blistering report documented widespread shortcomings in the district, has raised the specter that he might call for a receivership, a move that could strip away all local control over the state’s largest school district.
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has spoken out forcefully against any state takeover, a message echoed by the Boston Teachers Union and a vote last week of the Boston City Council.
Following Monday’s release of the new report, Wu released a letter jointly with School Superintendent Brenda Cassellius and School Committee chair Jeri Robinson pledging to work with the state on problems in the district, but restating the call to maintain local control of the schools.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is scheduled to discuss the new report at its regular monthly meeting on Tuesday. It’s not clear whether Riley will lay out his recommendation for any action steps. At least one board member has publicly called for consideration of receivership.
In March 2020, the state released a harsh assessment of the Boston schools, highlighting deficiencies across the board, but spotlighting problems with special education, services for English language learners, and the plight of students in more than two dozen schools performing at the bottom of statewide rankings. It also pointed to huge problems with bus transportation and school facility maintenance.
Riley said at the time that a state takeover of the district could be justified “given these vast and persistent challenges.” He said, however, that he was opting instead for a “new model.” That involved a memorandum of understanding between the state and city that identified four “priority areas,” including special education and transportation, for the district to show measurable progress in and other areas where the state would assist the district.
In their letter, Wu and the district’s school leaders seem to urge a newly beefed up agreement with the state, not receivership, as the answer to the district’s woes. “To be clear, we believe that an updated and strengthened partnership with [the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] is critical to driving solutions, but ultimately, no one is better equipped to accelerate the progress Boston has made than our BPS communities,” they wrote.
The 185-page report released on Monday said the district was making progress in several areas, including instruction improvements in literacy and adoption of MassCore, a set of state course sequence requirements deemed necessary for post-secondary career and college success. The report also said consistent use by the district of a tool for measuring students’ academic progress “is a notable improvement from the 2020 District Review Report.”
But it said the district continues to suffer from widespread problems with special education, English language learners, and with developing a clear plan for improvement at a broad swath of low-performing schools.
The report also charged the district with stymying efforts to get accurate data in a number of areas, charging Boston officials with providing misleading information and with coaching school personnel prior to the state review in ways that may have prevented reviewers from “forming a complete picture of BPS’s strengths and challenges.”
“Throughout the term of the MOU and in completing this District Follow-Up Review, [state education department] staff struggled to gain an accurate picture of the status of many BPS initiatives due to a pattern of inaccurate or misleading data reporting by the district,” the report said.
It slammed the district for inaccurate reporting on bus transportation, for example, one of the key shortcomings identified in the 2020 report. The report says the district’s data on ontime performance did not include bus routes that it was unable to cover at all, thereby inflating the “ontime” performance levels. “After DESE brought this issue to the attention of the city, BPS took months to correct it,” the report says.
The report says the district’s list of completed bathroom renovations – another area spotlighted by the earlier review – included at least two schools that state reviewers knew from their recent site visits had not had projects completed. When questioned about the accuracy of the list, the report says, “BPS staff responded that the list was fully accurate, even though it was not.”
The review says Boston’s reporting on the district dropout and graduation rates, which appear on the state education department website, “are likely inaccurate due to lack of appropriate internal controls at the school and central office levels.”
When it comes to the three main student groups spotlighted in the 2020 report, the new report found little improvement. “BPS has shown little to no progress in addressing the needs of its students with disabilities, English learners, and students at the district’s lowest-performing schools, resulting in continued poor outcomes for tens of thousands of students,” it said. “Persistent challenges in these areas have been exacerbated by significant leadership turnover in the district’s special education and English learner departments.”
“Fully 20 percent of district students are receiving special education services, yet these services remain in disarray, and the district lacks well-understood special education policies and procedures as well as appropriate plans for educating students in the least restrictive environment,” the report says. It points to the fact that special education appeared on the Boston School Committee meeting agenda only once in the last two years as further evidence of the lack of urgency in the district’s attention to these problems.
As for English language learners, another area of deficiency highlighted in the 2020 review, the new report says, “While BPS has laid some groundwork for improvements, instructional quality for English learners is inadequate, and the district remains a party to an agreement with the US Department of Justice that addresses areas of noncompliance. Hundreds of English learners are still not receiving their required EL instruction, and appropriate strategies and systems to improve and monitor quality of instruction are not in place.”
The report said “failures in basic operations and safety protocols have increased in the past two years at BPS,” citing transportation, facilities, safety, and data collection as areas in need of improvement. It says transportation issues have worsened since 2020, with a “disproportionate impact on students with disabilities.” The report also found the district “still lacks a comprehensive facilities masterplan” for new construction, building renovations or repairs, or school closures.
It said the district lacks an “effective and consistent process” for tracking parent reports of bullying and other safety concerns. That shortcoming was cast in high-profile relief recently with shocking reports detailing years of allegations of bullying and sexual abuse by students of classmates at the Mission Hill K-8 School that were not properly addressed by school officials. The problems were so severe that the Boston School Committee voted earlier this month to permanently close the school.
In their letter released Monday to the Boston schools community, Wu and the district school leaders highlighted areas in which the report said the district has made strong strides, while acknowledging the serious problems the state identified.
“We stand ready to address the long-standing challenges highlighted by [the state education department] that underscore the transformational change that BPS students, families, educators deserve,” they wrote.
Though no details have emerged publicly about any discussion between state and city leaders about the report and the path forward, the letter suggests such conversations have at least begun – and it seems to try to short-circuit any talk of a state takeover by suggesting the focus is on how to work together to improve the district.
“Together, we have begun discussions with Commissioner Riley and [state education department] staff to collaboratively determine ways to strengthen our partnership,” they wrote.
Any such collaboration going forward will not involve Cassellius. In February, Wu announced that the superintendent would be leaving at the end of the school year.
The decision by the new mayor to part ways with Cassellius, who arrived only three years ago, means that the new superintendent the city is now looking to hire will be the district’s fifth leader since 2013. The report questioned the district’s ambitious timeline calling for a new school leader to be in place by the fall, only seven months after Cassellius’s announced departure. It says the search has also likely been further hampered by “governance uncertainty,” with Boston voters overwhelmingly giving support to the idea of returning to an elected school committee in a nonbinding ballot question last year.
Left unsaid in the report was that the state review itself, and the specter of receivership it has raised, has also likely given pause to some potential superintendent candidates, since a state takeover would effectively eliminate the position of a locally hired leader of the district.