A Halfhearted School Budget in Massachusetts

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You know you’re in for trouble when a school district with major graduation and dropout rates problems announces a new budget and leads with the hiring of five new nurses. That is not the definition of urgency.

The big new Boston budget of $856 million came with big headlines about more nurses and an overhaul of Roxbury’s Madison Park Vocational Technical High School. $856 million for about 54,000 students. That breaks down to almost $16,000. Of course it does not include additional funding sources and is not the complete picture. Last year’s NCES estimates pegged Boston as the most expensive urban school district in the country, clocking in at around $21,000 per student.

There is an obvious problem with the results we are getting. You don’t have to believe that “everyone has to be a college graduate” to see that a system that gets less than a third of its students to be truly college ready and that graduates 64 percent of its freshman class is in trouble. A study in 2008 showed that among 50 urban districts Boston was well behind many of its peers. San Jose and Nashville had graduation rates of 77 percent, Virginia Beach and even Sacramento outpaced Boston. We were clumped together with districts like Fort Worth and Houston (two districts whose numbers reflected the admittance of New Orleans transplants after Katrina.

Since 2008, when our graduation rate stood at 57 percent, we have seen steady but very slow progress. 2011 data shows that

Of the students who entered high school in the 2006/2007 school year, 63.2% graduated within four years. This 2010 data is an increase of 1.8 percentage points from 2009 and more than 5 percentage points since 2007. BPS calculates the dropout rate fell from 6.4% in 2009 to 5.7% in 2010.

That’s good news but hardly anything to crow about. It means Boston, Massachusetts’ district schools rank right up there with Memphis district schools on graduation and that we’ve gone from a 26 percent dropout rate to a 23 percent dropout rate.

So here are my takeaways on the new budget:

  1. It still does not reflect a change in the school selection zones and therefore expends far too much money on transportation rather than actually educating kids.
  2. More nurses can be helpful but their presence has little impact on improving students’ academic outcomes. And the simple fact is that when your budget announcement underscores the hiring of five nurses as a major victory, the real story is a lack of vision and leadership.
  3. The overhaul of Madison Park Vocational Technical High School strikes me as falling in the “as yet undefined” category. On the face of it, it is tepid. A strong proposal would have allowed Madison Park to function as an autonomous school, much like the regional vocational technical schools that have performed tremendously since the early 2000s (and have incredibly low dropout rates). But superintendents are by definition incapable of giving up control of portions of their fiefdom.
  4. The emphasis on turning around underperforming schools will allow a few gems to shine, like Up Academy, which really seems to have turned the school in a new direction. But the ability to replicate that level of focus is extremely limited. The charter model, which does not require the same level of involvement from all the institutional players and, you know, is by now proven on a consistent basis, is a far better way to go. I am not mentioning here the less interesting turnaround efforts—which do not bring the level of talent seen at Up Academy.
  5. The superintendent’s plan includes extended day at two middle schools, funded by foundations and driven by Chris Gabrieli’s work at Mass 2020. In writing about this, the Globe’s Jamie Vaznis notes that “The schools hope to replicate the success of the Edwards Middle School in Charlestown, where an extended day has helped boost test scores and has offered students more enrichment opportunities.” That is devoutly to be wished for. What Vaznis and others often don’t mention because Chris Gabrieli is a terrific person and of really good will is that the data on Extended Learning Time is that the record of success is not that great. (A recent Abt Associates three-year review of ELT noted “no statistically significant effects of ELT after one, two, or three years of implementation on MCAS student achievement test outcomes for 3rd, 4th, or 7th grade ELA; 4th, 6th, or 8th grade math; or 5th or 8th grade science.”)

The pace of improvement is faster in many other cities, including Washington DC and New Orleans. You can note that they started out below Boston, but Boston, Massachusetts has to aim higher. There are three big things that we could do to amp up our progress:

  1. Go back and expand charter schools from 18 percent to 25 percent of the student body. This is good for the kids in the charters and also good for the larger system. We are now in the five millionth month of teacher contract negotiations. The fact is that once charters wrest a 25 percent market share of the total public schools from the district schools, the teacher contract negotiations will change drastically. Look at the change in other cities when that happened.
  2. Expand METCO on the basis of socio-economic status, from the 3,000 Boston kids in it to even 5,000 kids. While certain Boston suburban districts have experienced significant student growth in the past few years, others can accommodate METCO students—as long as the state fully funds the program.
  3. Set Madison Park Vocational Technical free from the superintendent’s control. Carol Johnson and Mayor Menino have to know that the regional VTEs have demonstrated striking success on student achievement, graduation and dropout rates. They have long waiting lists now, and it is because they have the flexibility that comes with control at the school level. The Superintendent and Mayor could assemble a crack team of advisors from the heads of the state’s regional VTEs to create a plan that is practical and effective.

There is data to back up each of these recommendations. And embracing them would demonstrate the kind of urgency we need for kids in public schools today. Not some ephemeral tomorrow that we’ve been hearing about for decades.

The exciting thing is that these are reforms that are within reach. The frustrating thing is that theses are reforms that are within reach.

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