The right reform path in Lawrence?

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There are two issues that matter in K-12 education – what you might call the twin achievement gaps, those between the inner city poor (often including English language learners) and the rest of the state, and the international achievement gap whereby the percentage of students who are advanced in core subjects in the top-performing countries far outstrips the percentage among Massachusetts students.

The second achievement gap is urgent; the first is an emergency and has to be treated as such. Ground zero for the emergency achievement gap is the city of Lawrence, where the public schools have been in free fall, where the previous superintendent has been convicted, where dropout rates are approaching 50 percent (not a typo), and where the state’s department of education has stepped in by putting the city’s schools into receivership.

I’ve blogged multiple times on the challenges before Lawrence and the power of New Orleans’ school reform model (1, 2, 3). But last week was an opportunity to have a public conversation about the Lawrence schools. The acting superintendent, Jeff Riley, addressed a forum on the school receivership effort, relaying a message that was focused on his personal commitment to righting the public schools, calling it, as Mark Vogler noted in the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune:

“unacceptable” that half of the students who attend Lawrence High School “actually wind up walking across the stage” to receive their diplomas.

Most interestingly, Riley underscored that his approach to district reform will provide a framework for school reform but to give school principals and teachers plenty of flexibility to reach the district goals. Promoting school-level flexibility and, conversely, limiting the district office to more of a goal-setting and accountability function were key elements of the 1993 Education Reform Act (and sadly elements that have not been implemented in school districts outside of Barnstable). Riley’s drive for greater flexibility for schools led him to seek out new partnerships including inviting the operators of successful charter school models to come in and run district schools. Riley’s plan would differ

from more traditional methods that had been proposed, like reorganizations with a “top-down strategy.” “We’re making the unit of change the individual schools where teachers and the principal, the majority of whom spend next year planning to change what the school day looks like, what the school year looks like, what the school looks like,” Riley said.

“We’re looking to build a system which is decentralized” where the central office that previously ran the school system “is changed to a more nimble structure that only goal is to support the schools, principals and the teachers,” he said.

One of Riley’s slides provided a sense of the comprehensive approach he is taking, covering dropouts and at-risk students, teacher quality, parental involvement, good governance and physical plant.

  • Summer school: 90+ students will be eligible to graduate after summer school; 10 formerly dropped out of the LPS system
  • Re-engagement: Recruiting in order to re-enroll 230+ students who dropped out during the 2011-12 school year
  • Recruiting: Extensive recruitment efforts underway, including a job fair, over 225 interviews for teachers and administrators, Globe ads, other listings
  • Training: Planning PD that will focus on implementation of the new educator evaluation regulations and quality instruction
  • Outreach: Developing a parent outreach plan, particularly for Level 4 schools; looking for location for Family Welcome Center
  • School Committee: PD has begun in collaboration with MASC; will continue in September
  • School supports: Developing Office of School Improvement, including autonomy and accountability system
  • Resources: Awarded four new (and one renewal) School Redesign Grants
  • Facilities: Continuing repairs to prepare for beginning of school year

A panel followed consisting of education scholar Charlie Glenn, Tom Gosnell (head of the American Federation of Teachers’ Massachusetts chapter, which is the local teachers union in Lawrence), Beth Anderson (head of the Phoenix Charter Academy, which is reconstituting and running a district school under the auspices of the Lawrence school receivership), and Jose Afonso of SABIS Education Systems (which runs two highly successful schools in Springfield and Holyoke and will soon open a third in Lowell in September 2013). And the panel talked extensively about the evidence that school-based, rather than district office-centered, approaches are the most effective way to achieve success in urban districts.

As the Eagle-Tribune’s Vogler also noted, the forum highlighted very aggressive strategies to fix the schools in New Orleans

in the years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged that Louisiana city in August 2005. In the rebuilding of New Orleans, the increase in charter schools has been credited with improving an educational system once considered among the nation’s worst.

“Lawrence is our Katrina moment,” Stergios said, referring to the potential opportunities that can be achieved by using charter schools to help turn around the school system.

It’s no hyperbole to say that Lawrence is our Katrina moment. Students in Lawrence at the start of 2012 had every issue besetting the City of New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina, the point at which, suddenly, the country woke up and recognized the city’s structural poverty and failing schools.

We can pretend no such ignorance about Lawrence. The state Board of Education intervened even as far back as the late 1990s. And the greater emphasis on data collection has made the picture in Lawrence very clear indeed for quite some time.

With nearly 100% and over 40% of their schools now charters, New Orleans and Washington D.C., respectively, have chosen robust school choice through charter schools as the way forward. (In Lawrence, the percentage is over 10%.) There are many merits to the New Orleans and D.C. approach:

  • Charters are the most decentralized, school-based approach within the public school framework.
  • Expanding charter schools has the merit of avoiding failures seen in other districts when a “Superman” is brought in to fix the schools. Riley acknowledged that stating that he knows of no situation where a superintendent has turned around a district.
  • It has the strong backing of parents (see this poll and this one, too, which is focused on the views of parents in Lawrence).
  • More importantly, charters have worked very well in Massachusetts because of the extraordinary talent in the Bay State, an authorization process that has long focused on objective evaluations and business planning, and no fear in closing down (or putting on probation) those charters that do not live up to their promises. Imagine if the state lined up schools like MATCH, Roxbury Prep, Boston Prep, Lawrence Community Day, KIPP, SABIS and others with strong records of success in Massachusetts, inviting them to submit charter applications for the city of Lawrence. There is no doubt that the needle would move significantly and that students would have far better outcomes within five years.

Unfortunately, that is not the path the state has chosen. I am all for Jeff Riley providing flexibility within district schools. And I hope 100% for his success—and the success of all those now committed to making the education of Lawrence’s young a radically better experience.

I hope it not simply for the kids and families in Lawrence—though that has to be the number one goal. But also because this “Katrina moment” is an opportunity to inspire other cities to change.

After all, anyone familiar with education debates in the late 80s will recognize that the landmark 1993 education reform was in important ways inspired by another attempt at radical transformation of a district, wherein Boston University took over the Chelsea Public Schools with the support of key legislators. Such crises are moments when we test our mettle and we inspire a new generation of reforms and reformers.

History in Chelsea also teaches us that there are limits to full district reform. There have been real successes, but it is still a long way from where we need it to be.

One recommendation to help us all in this process is for the state to disseminate an annual report on the Lawrence effort. This is something that is required of charter schools. Charters have to submit annual reports based on goals they set. Charters often include in their reports evaluations of their fidelity to the charter (mission and operating plan), academic program success, organizational viability and financial oversight. Such reports set out clear accountability plans and missions, performance metrics in English, math, writing, science, college preparation, SAT scores, and college success. They include metrics on instruction and methods for program evaluation, goals for school culture, metrics on attrition, the school environment, and more.

So far the receivership has set goals compared to other older industrialized cities and some additional measures. But let’s state clearly what we are after. The receiver has started down this path. But here are some perhaps more general goals any well-intentioned person would agree with, followed by basic ways to measure change:

Are the children in the city of Lawrence far better served (not just a little better served)?

  • What percentage of the students (and in what grades) will be advanced, proficient, needing improvement or failing on the MCAS?
  • What improvement in attendance will we see?
  • What percentage increase in the number of graduating seniors admitted to 2- and 4-year colleges?
  • How much will the dropout rate go down? (I have a strong feeling this will be improved given that Phoenix Charter Academy is helping on this issue.)

How supportive will the school environment be to great teachers and newer teachers

  • What percentage of the teachers will be using curricula aligned with the state’s frameworks?
  • How many teacher observations will principals make?

How will the school environment and school culture improve? (On this issue, the LPS could learn a lot from its new partner, the MATCH Schools, which focus strongly on positive behavior.)

  • Why not track behavior metrics such as the number of fights per year?
  • How many weapons or drugs violations will there be after three years?
  • Will there be annual reductions in incidents of vandalism?
  • How about reaching for lower daily absenteeism – something well below the Boston Public Schools double-digit rate?

Lawrence is a reform effort to be watched. Let’s do the kids justice and give them and their families clear goals. The fact is that already within three years we will be able to see trend lines – and numbers will allow us to adjust the plan if it is not achieving the kind of success we all want.

We chose not to take the path New Orleans did after Katrina. They have a record – and we will too. Would we have been better off recruiting our best charter operators for this challenge? Would student outcomes have differed significantly?

Time will tell. I simply hope we have the courage to look at the data squarely and make good judgements. Families and kids in Lawrence are investing a lot in this effort: 3 years is a quarter of a kid’s public school life.

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