Proven reforms for urban students

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There are no silver bullets. In education, our landmark 1993 education reform act was testimony to that dictum, laying out a blueprint based on high academic standards, accountability for teachers and districts, testing for students, and innovation through charter schools. That said, there are those who believe in complicated processes and those who are more decentralizing in how they think about reform.

Count me among the latter–and that’s why I have always found parental choice, tying money to the child not the system, and clear rules about school flexibility and accountability interesting. Each of these principles helps create the conditions and incentives for engaging parents, which I think is a crucial pressure point (and frankly the more they are engaged, the better it is for their kids) and leveraging educational talent. A year ago January, our political leadership settled on twin reforms that lifted, really doubled, the number of charter schools in an effort to support the decentralizing thesis, but also created something new called “innovation schools,” which falls into the complicated reform bucket.

The name “innovation school” suggests exclusive domain in experimentation and reform, while of course we know that there are many sources of innovation within the public school system. Charter schools have been seen to be as the principal testing ground for experiments with longer school days, tutoring, curriculum, culture and more. There are certainly more well-springs of innovation, and one really interesting source of innovation is found in vocational technical schools.

The 2010 education law requires that the innovation school establish a Board of trustees and prepare a prospectus/academic plan. The process set forth in the law is long and arduous, requiring all kinds of buy-in by various educational players. To get off the ground the trustees and prospectus have to be authorized to enter into the gauntlet of approvals by the local school committee—and then begins a complicated process whereby the trustees of the new proposed school must

  • Submit the prospectus to the superintendent, who shall within 30 days convene a “screening committee.” The screening committee must consist include the superintendent (or designee), a school committee member (or designee), and a local teachers’ union representative.
  • Form an “innovation plan committee” of not more than 11 individuals within 30 days. The plan committee must include the applicant, the superintendent, a school committee member, a parent, a local principal, and two local teachers.
  • Abide by provisions of local collective bargaining agreements unless a waiver is sought and granted.
  • Gain approval of the plan by two-thirds of teachers.
  • Submit and gain approval of the final plan by the school committee.

If negotiations do not get to a final agreement within 40 days, either party can petition the division of labor relations for the selection of an arbitrator (which in practical terms means that the local teachers’ union is playing with a friendly card dealer watching over the game).

It has generally looked like there was limited interest in this model among district schools, though Jamie Vaznis also noted on Monday that the state is being more aggressive in seeking “turnaround” plans. Only time will tell if districts will take up the new “innovation” model—and, more importantly, with all the above-mentioned trip wires that the legislation put into place, only time will tell if the schools will work. So, let’s wait and see. One hopes that the districts will not simply try for improvement through the kinds of turnaround plans used elsewhere in the country; because, as Andy Smarick has demonstrated, they don’t work.

While we are waiting, you’ve got to wonder why the Act Relative to the Achievement Gap didn’t make greater use of proven reform tools for urban children. The law did double the number of charters, and that is a great thing. But what about expanding METCO beyond Boston and Springfield, the two cities where it is currently in place? We know that the program is working well for the 3,300 students who are accessing schools in neighboring communities (full disclosure: Pioneer is releasing a report on METCO in the coming months). One difficulty as relates to METCO is that the Governor and the legislature have targeted the knife at METCO the past two budget cycles.

Then there is the much easier-to-implement tool of expanding site-managed (regional) vocational-technical schools. The state currently has dozens of vocational-technical schools (VTEs) that are run much in the way charter schools are—they are managed at the school rather than being nested within a larger district under the management of a superintendent. These VTEs have shown enormous success over the past decade and are truly an unsung success of the landmark 1993 education reform law.

Here are some basic facts on why we should be drawing lessons from the regional VTE experience as we think about how to improve student achievement in urban districts.

  • Regional VTEs offer public school students an integrated education that provides successful graduates with not just an academic competency determination, but also with occupational proficiency in the career or technical field they have chosen to study throughout high school.
  • There are 27,000 students in the regional vocational schools, and virtually all regional VTE schools in the Commonwealth have waiting lists for admissions.
  • 96 percent of regional VTE students in the class of 2008 passed both the math and English portions of the MCAS, beating the statewide average of 94 percent.
  • The average graduation rate at the regional VTEs is almost 10 points higher than the state average: 90.5 (VTE) to 80.9 percent (statewide).
  • Regional VTEs’ combined Average Performance Index of 81.7 points is fewer than five points below the statewide average of 86.5 points. The achievement gap between vocational and comprehensive high schools has closed by 27 percent in six years.
  • The graduation rate of special needs students at vocational schools is almost 20 percent higher than the state average for this subgroup.
  • Regional VTEs have a 1.5 percent dropout rate, compared to 3.8 percent statewide.

Look, there are also some VTEs that remain locked in the larger urban school superintendencies—think, for example of the Madison Park School here in Boston. Some of the district VTEs have shown modest improvement (Madison Park has though it has a long way to go), but most have not shown gains at the level of the regional VTEs.

We need to see a push by the Governor, urban legislators, city councilors, and the urban superintendents and school committee members to push the site-based VTE model, together with charters and METCO. Each of these models is proven to have worked. They also have the added benefit of engaging parents and students through enhanced choice.

Crossposted at’s Rock the Schoolhouse.