COLLABORATION AND THE need to move from incremental progress to exponential gains were the twin themes sounded as educators gathered on Friday morning for the release of an annual report on the state of schooling in Boston.
The need for collaboration was cited over and over by Turahn Dorsey, Mayor Marty Walsh’s new education chief, and it was echoed by others who spoke at the release of the report card for the Boston Opportunity Agenda. The five-year-old effort, which brought together many of the region’s leading philanthropies to support education programs, set ambitious goals for education gains, with a vow of public transparency in sharing data on the results, whether they are encouraging or troubling.
There is some of both in the latest report.
Boston public schools continue to make big strides in reducing the district’s annual dropout rate, which has gone from 7.3 percent in 2008-09 to 4.5 percent in 2012-13, the most recent year for which complete data are available. The district system also continues to make progress in its four-year graduation rate, which now stands at 65.9 percent. There is still work to be done to reach the goal set out by the Opportunity Agenda of an 80 percent graduation rate for the system. The city’s Catholic and charter schools have four-year graduation rates of 84 percent and 74 percent, respectively.
Boston continues to struggle, however, with third-grade reading proficiency, which is considered a critical predictor of long-term student success. Just 36 percent of district third-graders were at reading proficiency in 2013-2014, less than half the 75 percent goal that had been established. The rate for Catholic school third-graders was 52 percent, while for charter schools it was 61 percent.
Setting this year’s report apart from previous ones is the inclusion of data from all three of the main sectors educating Boston’s young people: the city’s district school system, which educates about 57,000 students, Catholic schools, which enroll some 7,500 students, and charter schools, where another 7,100 are enrolled.
Much of the talk about collaboration centered on the need for educators to work together across the three sectors and to put aside the acrimony that has sometimes poisoned the education landscape in Boston, as in many other big cities. “We have to move beyond paralyzing debates that pit one school type against another,” said Dorsey.
During a panel discussion, representatives from the three sectors pointed to examples of such collaboration, including professional development training being done jointly between the Conservatory Lab Charter School and the district’s Elihu Greenwood School.
Despite the collegial talk at the report rollout, Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, said conflict is certain to continue over the question of whether charter schools will be allowed to grow in Boston. “And it’s going to divide people in this room,” he said in closing remarks at the forum.
Grogan lauded the leadership shown by interim Boston superintendent John McDonough, who has brought major reforms to the district’s hiring practices. McDonough has shaken up a system that had been based largely on seniority to give principals much more leeway in hiring.
The goal of the Boston Opportunity Agenda, said Grogan, is one that has eluded every American city to date: An urban education landscape with broad-based success among a population largely made up of low-income and minority students.
The district reforms being carried out in Boston, and the work of its high-performing charter schools and Catholic schools, “may give us the best chance of any American city,” said Grogan.
That won’t happen, however, if the city is content with continued incremental gains, said Rev. Ray Hammond, chairman of the Boston Opportunity Agenda. Hammond said leaders must be willing to embrace changes that will dramatically accelerate the pace of improvement.
“For us, a broadly-educated citizenry is key to our survival,” said Hammond. “I think Boston is really ready for a revolution” to move “from incremental to positively disruptive, exponential change.”