A big test at Madison Park Vocational

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Over the past decade, while there has been incremental success in most suburban schools, and limited incremental success raising achievement in a few urban school districts, the big stories in raising student achievement have come in the state’s 70 or so Commonwealth charter schools and its 27 regional career-vocational technical schools.

Currently, there are 63 CVT schools in the Commonwealth with about half serving regional populations while the other half is under the direct jurisdiction of larger districts. The regional voc-techs have many similarities with charters: They operate outside the direct control of a single district superintendent, and in fact have their own dedicated leadership (superintendents and elected school committees); they are schools of choice; they are highly focused on their missions; they have embraced the state’s academic standards; and they have sought to raise student achievement with vigor.

But there many of the similarities end. Regional career-vocational technical schools are home to a very large cohort of special needs students and English language learners.

While Commonwealth charters often bring a “no excuses” focus on academic attainments (and for good reason, given the correlation of academic attainment and later college and career success), vocational schools are by nature different. The mission of CVT schools is hands-on, project-based learning. And for the schools and their students it is working.

So, the big question for cities like Boston, which has an in-district career-vocational technical school, is “Why aren’t we seeing anything close to that level of improvement at Madison Park High School?

The answers, as noted above, are easy to state but hard to change.

How do we get the superintendent to give up her direct line authority? That’s a question that has vexed charters from day one. Ironically, it is the one of the questions the Boston Public Schools are asking themselves about why Madison Park has shown none of the improvement in student achievement seen in the state’s 27 regional career-vocational technical schools.

That was clear in a press release the BPS put out in May. The PR featured a January 2012 review of Madison Park High School compiled by a group of nationally-recognized education experts, including strong representation from the career-vocational technical world.

Research from Pioneer Institute has demonstrated that the Massachusetts regional career-vocational technical model has been extraordinarily successful. Certainly, it has been effective in raising student achievement; for example, see page 5 of the report.

And it has been equally up to the task in reducing dropout rates to unheard of lows. The last look at dropout rates in VTE schools is on the order of 1.5 percent a year (or a four-year/high school dropout rate of 6 percent), versus 3.8 percent for the state as a whole (four-year/HS rate of 15.2 percent).

This is a report, though, that’s been issued with the names of many institutional players. And as is the case with institutional reports, there’s a certain art to writing these reports – in a way that saves face for all involved while still trying to deliver a tough message. That’s precisely what you’ll find in the Madison Park Technical Vocational High School Review if you read between the lines.

The big takeaways are that

  • Boston is paying full freight for a CVTE education for many students who really don’t want it.
  • There are many students who want a CVTE education in the city, who are not getting it.
  • Madison Park has received significant investment and receives higher per student funding from the BPS than most other schools, based on its vocational mission.
  • But the school is not delivering actual vocational training, its student achievement levels are unacceptable, and the school is beset by a culture of low expectations.

A few examples of how the school is not delivering actual vocational training:

  • The school’s insistence on daily academics, as opposed to the typical voc-tech schedule of alternating weeks of vocational and academic instruction, prevents the implementation of most vocational training, including key items such as an on-site food service operation.
  • Only 11 students were involved in cooperative education in SY10-11.
  • Minimal achievement of training/apprenticeship credentials

A few examples of how Madison Park’s low achievement levels

  • In SY10-11, only 60 seats were occupied in AP classes (with a school enrollment of around 1300) and only 1 student scored high enough to qualify for AP credit.
  • Most students have GPA’s no higher than 2.0.
  • Significant anecdotal evidence that many students enroll who are not interested in vocational training or don’t understand the intent of a CVT school.

And a few examples of its low expectations

  • The average student is absent for a month per year.
  • Many students arrive late for school, arrive late for individual classes, and many classes fail to start on time.

Finally, the big takeaway and the only thing, in my mind, that will change the poor vocational training and academic learning at Madison Park comes on page 25 of the document: Move Madison Park to an operational structure outside of district control, just as is the case in the state’s successful regional career-vocational technical schools.

In order to take full advantage of this assistance, the Review Team also believes that Madison Park needs more flexibility. This core principal has already been recognized around the Commonwealth, since most of the regional vocational technical high schools function independently of the districts they serve. They have the freedom to set policies and procedures appropriate for a vocational technical high school, and to establish conditions that recognize the unique responsibilities and needs of their students, their teachers and their programs. In contrast, Madison Park currently operates as other comprehensive Boston high schools. Even at Worcester Technical High School, an in-district urban vocational school, teachers have successfully altered schedules, practices, and policies to accommodate and implement the vocational and academic standards required to create a strong vocational program.

Rather than recommend a specific form of governance, we suggest that the City and BPS consider this a very high priority. Creating a more vocational/technical tailored model for governance would establish the foundation and create the environment for the school that we are convinced Madison Park can become. The need for a successful Madison Park is enormous, and the opportunity to make progress has never been better.

So, where will this effort go? It’s hard to say. Madison Park staff voted to turn itself into an “innovation school,” a new category of charter-lite options created by the 2010 achievement gap legislation that also doubled the number of charter schools. Innovation schools follow a litany of previous charter-lite options created by legislators: “pilot” schools are union-led flexible schools; “Commonwealth pilot” schools are state-sanctioned “pilot” schools; and “Horace Mann” charter schools are unionized charter schools. None of these in-district efforts has proven effective in closing achievement gaps.

In fact, it is arguable that the 2010 legislation provides even less flexibility than the enabling Horace Mann charter statute (1997). The 2010 law takes dozens of pages to describe the meaning flexibility available to (and the laundry list of processes and signoffs needed to move ahead with) an innovation school.

While I am always an optimist, I have always feared that innovation schools would simply deviate efforts from proven models. There is nothing wrong with principals, teachers, parents and district-level folks to come together and try and innovate. In fact, that’s what they should be doing. To the extent that innovation schools promote that, it’s a wonderful opportunity for great conversations. But the problem with in-district reform is not the people involved – all of whom are of good will. It is that empirically there is no evidence that the “system” that envelopes them allows them to be innovate in a way that is accountable for results.

So, here’s the deal. Let’s watch for two or three years and see if Madison Park is performing at the level of the regional CVTs. If not, we will know that the innovation route was a detour from real reform, and that innovation status was simply the fig leaf to cover the emperor that had no clothes.

While the kids wait for the adults to try and figure things out, let me ask a simple question: Wouldn’t it have been easier to go with a proven model—that is, to free Madison Park from the district and allow it to have the flexibility and school-level control available to the 27 autonomous regional CVT schools?

But of course that would have upset the adults, who want to control the money.

Crossposted at Boston.com’s Rock the Schoolhouse blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer’s website.