BEACON HILL LEADERS are searching for ways to provide public schools with a significant infusion of new dollars. Taking a page from Massachusetts’s landmark 1993 Education Reform Act, some have proposed attaching higher levels of accountability to any new funding. Others are not so hot on this idea. After all, they reason, the state skirted its responsibilities to provide adequate resources for years, why should communities face more layers of compliance as a result?
If you take a step back and look at the experience with increasing state involvement in schools over the past two and half decades, it is clear that there is still a place for additional accountability. However, rather than applying more pressure from the outside, the time has come for the state to position communities to provide more accountability on their own.
Pursuing this path means fashioning a state and local partnership to improve the bodies responsible for public school governance, beginning with school councils. Every school in Massachusetts is required to have a school council under the state’s 1993 education reform law. Unfortunately, education policymakers never rallied citizens to serve in this governing capacity and they never pushed principals to empower these bodies so that serving would be worthwhile.
This is a big loss because school councils are a fabulous entry point for those who want to be more involved in local governance. By design, they include seats for both parents and community partners looking to lend their talents to school improvement.
Charter schools and pilot schools have strong governing bodies that make a major difference by developing strategic plans and overseeing their implementation. Under current law, school councils are charged with these same responsibilities, but they can’t deliver on them when they range from defunct to totally disempowered.
As a result, the strategic plans Massachusetts schools prepare today are anything but strategic. New MassINC research shows that these plans don’t allocate resources to meet priorities, they don’t contain measurable goals to hold leaders accountable for results, and, perhaps most tellingly, they aren’t clear and accessible. In most schools, parents have no idea what exactly the school is trying to improve upon, and how they can support the effort.
The same is equally true, or worse, when you look at school committees responsible for district-level strategic plans. School committees also fail to set priorities and establish measurable goals, which makes for a totally subjective process when it comes time to evaluate superintendents. In part, this is why relationships between school committees and superintendents sour, leading to unnecessary turnover and instability.
Why aren’t school committees doing a better job? One reason is school site councils aren’t producing a leadership pipeline, which leaves communities with fewer residents qualified to serve in more prominent roles. Worcester has 185,000 residents. In the last municipal election, the city’s six at-large school committee seats drew a total of just seven candidates.
For diverse Gateway Cities like Worcester, this leadership void contributes directly to achievement gaps. Two-thirds of Gateway City students are nonwhite, yet nonwhite members hold just 10 percent of seats on Gateway City school committees. Despite a mountain of academic research demonstrating the serious consequences this imbalance has for students of color, there is little urgency to address it. Like other issues surrounding weak governance at the school and district level, the problem has long been overlooked.
This neglect is at least partially tied to the heavy focus on state and federal accountability. Ed reformers lost faith that urban districts could muster the drive to improve locally. After 1993, they pushed for a series of laws to establish targets for improvement, along with mechanisms for the state to step in when schools repeatedly failed to meet them.
These accountability policies have shown that when you set measurable goals and apply pressure, schools make progress. However, the experience also demonstrates the limits of state accountability. Standardized tests that allow the state to compare performance across all communities provide an incomplete picture of how well students are prepared to navigate the world. Massachusetts students beat their peers around the globe on these tests. But when it comes to completing college, holding a good job, and participating in civic life, by all accounts, they are not where they need to be.
Gateway Cities have been under the most intense pressure to narrow their focus to improve results on state tests. This is particularly problematic because Gateway City students have the furthest to climb on the economic ladder. They must emerge from K-12 with a range of skills and experiences to mount this difficult ascent. However, this is not just a Gateway City problem. Communities of all stripes face considerable pressure to improve in tested subjects. If schools aren’t providing balance by articulating their own priorities and progress measures, their students are likely missing out as well.
For instance, a suburban school designed to feature experiential learning may want to focus on rigorously assessing the performance of students in courses that feature collaborative, project-based learning, while a Gateway City school with large numbers of Latino students may decide to assess the development of Spanish language reading and writing skills, in addition to English language acquisition.
Local accountability holds tremendous promise for Gateway Cities and many other Massachusetts school districts. Since 1993, the state’s public schools have become increasingly divided between haves and have-nots. The Beacon Hill policy debate around more funding for K-12 education threatens to devolve into a fight not just over accountability, but also over who gets what. Re-centering the discussion around governance, and how we make Massachusetts public schools a model for democratic decision-making in the 21st century would serve us all well.
Ben Forman is research director at MassINC, the non-partisan think tank that publishes Commonwealth