Inspector Clouseau-style accountability

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I noted two weeks ago that recent MCAS data don’t tell a pretty story on urban achievement gaps. Since 2007, the Commonwealth’s performance on national (so-called NAEP) assessments is not so great, flatlining for almost every subject and grade tested. (Note: Stay tuned for the latest round of NAEP data, which is to be released this fall.)

The Commonwealth’s Board and its Department of Elementary and Secondary Education sure have lots of task forces, committees, and extra-long board jawboning sessions. (Board meetings have almost doubled in length; I’ll let you decide if the same can be said on substance.) I certainly wish some of the words and time of these officials would go toward programs that have a record of bridging achievement gaps: in addition to charter schools, autonomous vocational-technical schools and METCO.

But Friday’s Lawrence Eagle-Tribune reminded me that I might even settle for doing the basics right—like accountability. The Eagle-Trib‘s Mark Vogler noted that the state education commissioner is underscoring his “concern” about Lawrence schools.

In a wondrous display of British understatement, Commissioner Mitch Chester and his staff have begin to observe and perhaps even start to think that the Lawrence Public Schools might have “a potential leadership gap” and that “[o]verall, the district is not yet where we expect it to be and want it to be.”

Hmm. Commissioner Chester was sworn in as commissioner of education on Monday, May 19, 2008, with a press release and an announcement by the governor that the former Ohio deputy was “known for his work in accountability and assessment.”

So, after serving in the Bay State for 3 ½ years, the commissioner is beginning to wonder if there’s a leadership problem in Lawrence? What, might I ask, gave the commissioner such an idea? What may have been the first sign of troubles in the Lawrence schools for our state officials?

Perhaps it was in 2003 when former Lawrence superintendent Wilfredo Laboy failed for the third time a basic English test required of school superintendents. As the Christian Science Monitor said:

For Wilfredo Laboy, the news that he had failed one of Massachusetts’ required literacy exams for educators – for the third year in a row – came at a particularly bad time.

By one of those weird confluences of events that give the news a tinge of humor, the state’s poorest-performing district learned of its superintendent’s failure the same summer the first Massachusetts seniors were denied diplomas for failing a high-stakes test. The same summer Mr. Laboy put 24 bilingual education teachers on unpaid leave for failing to pass an English fluency exam, while the Lawrence, Mass., school committee raised his salary to $156,560.

Or, maybe it was June 2009 (Globe) when superintendent Laboy took a medical leave just as it was revealed that his office seemed more focused on muckraking on political foes and playing politics than improving student achievement:

Laboy, 58, has been on medical leave for work-related stress since mid-May and had planned to return to work next week. His new leave followed mounting public anger over what locals have dubbed “Snoopgate,’’ in which Laboy’s special assistant resigned in the spring after police discovered that he had used school computers to conduct unauthorized background checks on more than 400 people.

or this:

The state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance is also investigating whether School Committee members and other politicians who have supported Laboy have been allowed to print campaign literature for free on the district’s industrial printer.

Or, perhaps it was this 2010 Eagle-Tribune story that tipped off those perceptive state investigators at the MA DOE:

In April, Laboy was fired as superintendent of Lawrence public schools. Laboy, 59, made $200,000 there annually and was superintendent since 2000.

He was indicted in March, charged with eight counts of fraud and embezzlement and a single count of illegal possession of alcohol on school property.

He is accused of using school employees and resources for his own personal gain, including to work on his Methuen home and to drive his son and grandchildren.

Aside from the bad press that Lawrence’s educational “leadership” has received, since 2004 the state has done four separate reports (1, 2, 3, 4) on the maladministration and chronic under-performance in the Lawrence Public Schools.

Then there is the steady state of failure in the city: Isn’t that a sure sign of failed leadership? Lawrence is a district that serves approximately 12,000 students, 85 percent of whom are Hispanic and a vast majority of whom are poor. Dating back to the period between 2003 and 2007—approximately 80 percent of the students in Lawrence have been scoring in the “Needs Improvement” and “Warning/Failing” categories, the two lowest on the MCAS test. Under ed reform, Lawrence has easily received hundreds of millions of dollars in state aid, and it’s more likely well north of $1 billion.

Unless you believe that’s simply how these kids are made, you have to place a good part of the blame on the leadership of the city’s schools.

This is what happens when you, for all intents and purposes, mothball accountability. In 2007 the state’s independent state accountability agency had a budget of $3 million; by 2008, the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability was shuttered by the Patrick Administration and replaced by a watered down version. The new and improved accountability office has little to show: here’s a three-paragraph summary/report of its activities over the past year. With Massachusetts taxpayers spending over $9 billion annually (state and local) on public schools, we deserve more than three paragraphs accounting for progress in our schools.

The DOE accountability staff in Lawrence the other night made big discoveries. Later this month, Commissioner Mitch Chester and his staff are presenting to the state Board their accountability plans for Lawrence. If past is prologue, they might be better off sending this video around to the board of ed, as well as to the officials in Lawrence:

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s lack of an accountability focus is in great part the reason why the state has done so little to advance student achievement in Lawrence. Like Clouseau tripping all over himself and landing on a mirror, the commissioner of education seems to have finally discovered “a potential leadership gap.”

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