For decades, urban parents have heard state leaders announce big improvements in their schools. The reality is most urban district schools still lag in student achievement and show, at best, progress that is tragically slow for parents and their children. Not only have urban districts resisted implementation of the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act (MERA) by not aligning local curricula with the state frameworks, but they have not taken advantage of important tools in MERA:
- Decentralized management to empower principals and teachers to make meaningful decisions about how to achieve results, and
- Clear accountability for student performance.
That may sound a lot like charter schools, but MERA’s provisions were also supposed to apply to district schools. Charters in Massachusetts have been extremely successful using these tools. Only five of the 67 charters approved by the state have been shut down for failing to live up to the promises in their “charter” contracts; and even the five closed by the state were often better than comparable district schools within their sending area.
Yet those district schools remain open for business. Imagine being a parent whose kid was in the Lynn Community Charter School. The state closes your school and now your child is forced back into a district school performing at an even lower level. The fact is we need to be vigilant about closing charters; but that also applies to district schools. Seventeen years into implementation of MERA, the double-standard is no longer tenable.
We can no longer let adults continue to talk about the need to wait for the adults to fix the “system.” We need to connect real accountability with innovation in urban districts, and we need to do that now. The January 2010 Achievement Gap legislation doubled the number of charters, so these innovative schools will have an even more significant place on the urban education landscape. So, the first order of business has to be attracting the best charter operators to establish or replicate here. So far, there is progress on that front. Given the politicization of the charter school approval process, we must also shore up the objectivity of charter approvals by insisting that the Secretary recuses himself from charter approvals (and closures).
But the new law also calls for “turnaround” options for so-called “innovation” district schools. These are latest “charter-lite” model proposed by state officials, after pilot schools (circa mid-90s), unionized Horace Mann charter schools (1997), and Commonwealth Pilot schools (2007). None of these models has performed at the level of the original charter school model (“Commonwealth” charters). Worse, turnaround models, when they continue under the aegis of school committees and superintendents, across the country have a checkered record. At most, a handful have worked.
We urge a specific focus on the 60,000 students attending the 100 lowest performing schools. For years, they have been denied their (Massachusetts) constitutional right to educational opportunity. Rather than having the Department of Education’s bureaucrats involved in local negotiations or having the Department prescribe in a top-down manner precisely how change should occur in the districts, the state should establish a menu of four “turnaround” options, from which failing districts and schools can select, according to their own deliberations.
- Commonwealth public charter schools
- University Partnerships, such as the University Park Campus School (UPCS) in Worcester
- Independent Regional Vocational-Technical Education (VTE) Schools. Existing VTEs in urban districts could be given status similar to regional VTEs, such as the Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational-Technical School and Assabet Valley Regional Vocational-Technical School, which have proven to be very effective at occupational and academic learning since embracing the MCAS.
- (Unionized) Horace Mann Public Charter Schools, Pilot Schools, or Commonwealth Pilot Schools
The good news is that Massachusetts already has a strong track record with these models. No theorizing, special collaboration to negotiate, or long lead time to implementation is needed. Rather, what we need most urgently is teacher engagement in choosing and supporting the school options chosen. And that will require a legislative change in the 2010 reform law allowing schools to be turned around with simple approval by a majority of teachers. Superintendents and school committees could be consulted but would not have a veto on the decision. If schools refrained from making a choice within a year, they would be put out for bid to private management. The Department of Education’s role should be limited to (1) setting the rules of the road and (2) evaluating the schools on whether they have delivered improvements in student achievement.
These truly independent school-based options all need to be on the table if we are to scale up and meet the challenge of effectively providing the rich liberal arts content called for in the state’s academic frameworks to our urban students.