Choosing to succeed in regional vocational-technical schools

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What sets Massachusetts’s education reform efforts apart from those in other states can be reduced to three things. The reforms begun with the 1993 landmark law:

  • Put into place were comprehensive in that they spanned content, accountability, and choice. Massachusetts did not put all of its eggs into one basket, avoiding the stale conversation about whether choice or standards was the real driver of improvements in student achievement.
  • Recognized what the state could do well and left to the local school districts and individual schools what was best left to them. For example, the Board and Department worked to develop academic goals and teacher and student tests to make sure the schools delivered results, but they did not prescribe teaching methods (which unfortunately is the sort of thing built into “soft skills” ideologies).
  • Focused on reforms that were not part of the usual education establishment’s playbook (which is unfortunately on a repeat loop). It did not embrace all the soft skills hokum which dates all the way back to schools of education in the 1940s and which filtered into our classrooms largely by the early 1960s. Instead the reforms were built on the view that academic knowledge was the primary goal of schooling.

Massachusetts’ comprehensive reforms create an opportunity not found in other states:

There are now a wide variety of proven school choice driven models that can close relevant achievement gaps in Massachusetts.

These include charter schools, catholic schools, private schools, METCO, education tax credits, scholarship vouchers, school-based management and vocational-technical schools. I believe this targeted approach to addressing specific achievement gaps via proven mechanisms will turn out to be far more successful than untested school reform models, including such things as the in-district “innovation schools” created with the 2010 reform law.

Within the Commonwealth’s overall education landscape, vocational-technical schools have an important role to play. More specifically, our <em>regional vocational-technical (VTE) schools, which make up 26 of the 55 total VTE schools in Massachusetts, have in the past decade shown extraordinary success. Fully 96 percent of the 27,000 students in regional vocational-technical schools passed both the math and English portions of the MCAS, graduation rates are significantly higher than the state average, the graduation rate for special needs kids in regional VTEs is 20 percent higher than the statewide average, and the dropout rate is less than half the statewide average.

Regional VTEs are “stand-alone” schools in as much as they are not under the control of a multi-school district superintendent. These VTEs are, like charters, managed at the school level. Importantly, they are showing great improvement; unsurprisingly, they have longer and longer wait lists to get in.

Their importance in the wheel of choice options that now exist in the Commonwealth can not be overstated. That may seem an odd statement given that currently three percent of Massachusetts students attend regional VTEs (a number more attend in-district VTEs). But they are part of a significant segment of the Massachusetts school population exercising choice–and they are not among the wealthy ones doing it.

Certainly, there are people who can afford to exercise choice by pulling up stakes and moving to a tony suburb with a strong liberal arts focus and parents who have self-selected into the schools. Think Brookline, Newton, Wellesley. Then, there are parents who can afford to send their kids to high end, prestigious independent schools. Nothing to begrudge in all of that. It’s great to have choices. But what about people without those means?

There are those who take advantage of the lower cost, often urban offerings of the Archdiocese, as well as the offerings of a variety of faiths in the area. These students make up the majority of the independent school population in Massachusetts (and, together with students in other independent and other private schools make up almost 12 percent of the Massachusetts student population).

Within the public school system by 2015 around six percent of the student population will be in charters; thousands more choose schools outside their immediate district through interdistrict choice programs; thousands more Boston and Springfield students attend suburban and ex-urban schools through the METCO program. But then we have vocational-technical schools–schools that are located across the commonwealth, in areas that are rural, suburban, and urban alike. They are providing a highly individualized style of instruction for students who seek and need just that.

I hope you’ll stay tuned in over the next few days, as I share a few video interviews with the experts from the regional VTE community, as they discuss aspirations and sources of strength during the past decade as they have marched these schools toward high expectations.

Today, I wanted to share a video discussing these schools’ success in offering students and families educational choice. Featured in the video are David Ferreira, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators; Fred Savoie, retired superintendent of the Blue Hills Regional Vocational-Technical High School; and Alison Fraser, Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational-Technical High School.

School Choice from Mike Dean on Vimeo.

Crossposted at’s Rock the Schoolhouse.