Vocational-technical schools that work

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A week ago, parents in Boston got their school assignments according to the Boston Public Schools’ constrained choice process. Stephanie Ebbert’s article captured the key moment this way:

In a downtown office cubicle, next to a file cabinet topped with a philodendron in a wine carafe, a Boston public schools computer specialist dispassionately clicked a mouse.

It was 10:11 on a Friday morning. By 10:18, the computer program had silently assigned nearly 12,000 students to 134 city schools…

The following afternoon, that clean, algorithmic efficiency sent waves of emotion rippling through neighborhoods all across the city. Chrissanta Rudder jumped up and down in the hallway of the Old Colony public housing development in South Boston. Kimesha Janey-Rogers of Roxbury sighed and tossed her son’s assignment letter into the recycling bin. Parents who had spent months researching schools, visiting open houses, talking to principals, and trading strategies for the lottery raced to their mailboxes to open letters they feared would test their commitment to city living.

Parents and kids get stressed about next year – and about their prospects in life. Will “my school” advance my skills beyond what I can do on my own or hinder me, sidetrack me? The very limited set of choices and chances given by BPS is why thousands of BPS students seek other options, whether charter schools (currently almost 6,000), METCO (about (3,000), expensive independent schools (good if you can, lucky if you can get a scholarship!), and much more affordable religious school options.

The impressive performance of Massachusetts’ charters is widely accepted, especially as regards less wealthy urban students. And charters have a long waiting list. There is also increasing evidence that METCO students do well in comparison to the Boston Public School peers on a variety of measures, including student achievement, college attendance and other measures. And METCO has a long waiting list.

Building off my post two days ago, I think there is a public debate to be had about how we learn from the tremendous progress made in our regional vocational-technical schools (which are managed at the school level and not embedded within a larger district). That debate should be about how we bring their same impressive gains to our larger urban school districts. The best sign of success is a waiting list of students trying to get in. And, like charters and METCO, virtually all regional voc-tech schools (VTEs) in the Commonwealth have waiting lists for admissions and increasing demand.

If you step back, the entire vocational-technical landscape looks as follows:

  • 26 regional/school-managed VTEs
  • 26 VTEs that continue to be embedded within larger districts
  • 1 independent VTE
  • 3 agricultural VTEs.

So, you have more or less a 50-50 split between VTEs that are choice schools and are managed at the school level (much like a charter) and the more traditional in-district VTEs that are ultimately managed by a centrally located district superintendent. The data is clear on a range of measures that the regional/school-managed VTEs are a proven model.

As Julia Steiny noted in the Providence Journal, the 26 stand-alone Massachusetts’ VTEs have lower dropout rates and higher test scores than the state average. Their extraordinarily low dropout rate (1.5 percent vs. 3.8 percent statewide) is especially exciting because they are serving a significantly higher special needs student population than the statewide average. Alison Fraser demonstrated in her groundbreaking research on the remarkable success of VTEs in Massachusetts, and as was widely reported (e.g., here and here),

  • 96 percent of regional VTE students in the class of 2008 passed both the math and English portions of the MCAS, beating the statewide average of 94 percent.
  • The average graduation rate at the regional VTEs (90.5 percent) is almost 10 points higher than the state average (80.9), and the graduation rate of special needs students at VTEs is almost 20 percent higher than the state average.
  • The achievement gap between vocational and comprehensive high schools has closed by 27 percent in six years.

Why are the regional VTEs working so well? Much of the success is based on the fact that the regional VTEs built a focused effort around the standards-based reforms enacted as part of the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act. But there’s more to it than that, and it’s best to hear it directly fropm the people who made it happen. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing their own words on why they have had success working with businesses, preventing dropouts, offering parental choice, and serving significant special needs populations.

Let’s start, however, with MCAS results and academic gains, with many thanks to David Ferreira, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators; Fred Savoie, retired Superintendent-Director, Blue Hills Regional Vocational-Technical High School; and Alison Fraser, Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational-Technical High School.

School Choice from Mike Dean on Vimeo.

Thanks for sharing what works! And as we think about ways to lead our larger urban schools to excellence, let’s not stop with charter schools and METCO. Let’s make sure educational professionals are looking at the regional VTEs. They, too, have a demonstrated record of success.