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Principals’ efforts found key to fixing ailing schools

No sign replacing half of staff helps

Richard Stutman of the Boston Teachers Union said districts may now pause at making teachers reapply for their jobs.

A motivated principal able to galvanize teachers and foster a respectful school climate is a major factor in helping underperforming Massachusetts schools boost standardized test scores, but there is no hard evidence that replacing half the teaching staff makes a significant difference, according to an independent report commissioned by the state.

The lack of concrete evidence on mass dismissals is rekindling debate about the strategy, which has stirred emotions in Boston, Springfield, and elsewhere.

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Two specialists at the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, in presenting the report to that agency’s board last week, said mass dismissals may not be making a measurable difference, and opinions among local school leaders are mixed.

The Obama administration has strongly pushed local districts to replace at least half the staff at underperforming schools, dangling the possibility of hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grant money to those districts that take the dramatic step.

“I always worried that the rule was arbitrary - that at least half the staff had to be replaced - without doing any diagnosis into the problem at the school,’’ said Paul Reville, the state’s secretary of education. “Each situation that goes bad is somewhat different and you have to do an analysis.’’

Boston asked teachers at seven of its 11 underperforming schools to reapply for their jobs - with an eye toward not rehiring a large percentage of them - and the city has subsequently received about $26 million in federal School Improvement Grants. Boston defends the practice.

“That kind of staffing flexibility is one of the tools you need to make rapid achievement at a school,’’ said Frank Barnes, chief accountability officer for the Boston public schools. “It is an effective tool but not a silver bullet.’’

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The requirement has presented more of a challenge for Springfield, which has struggled for years to attract top-notch teachers. Springfield, which has received about $13 million in federal school improvement funds, asked teachers at about four of its 10 underperforming schools to reapply for their jobs.

The report - which has been distributed among local districts during the past two months with no public fanfare - was completed by the Institute for Strategic Leadership and Learning, a Maryland-based education consulting group. It examined similarities and differences among the 10 underperforming schools that achieved the largest gains on last spring’s Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams in English and math as well as the 10 underperforming schools that had the smallest gains or a decline in scores on those tests.

Schools that asked staff to reapply for their jobs appeared among the highest and the lowest performers in the analysis, which primarily compared the percentage of students who scored proficient or advanced on the tests in 2011 - the first year of the overhauls - with 2010.

In Boston, three schools were among the 10 that achieved the largest gains: Orchard Gardens K-8 and J.F. Kennedy Elementary, which asked teachers to reapply for their jobs, and the Elihu Greenwood Leadership Academy, which did not.

Boston also had four schools among the lowest performers: Harbor Middle School, Dever Elementary, and Trotter Elementary asked teachers to reapply for their jobs, while Holland Elementary did not.

The mixed results should give school districts pause about forcing teachers to go through the emotional process of reapplying for their jobs, said Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union.

“Most people who work in the field know that in and of itself, moving people around for the sake of moving people around is not a recipe for success,’’ Stutman said.

In identifying what was working, the researchers visited various schools, and common themes began to emerge among those that achieved large testing gains and those that did not. One of the most notable differences was the characteristics of the principals.

Schools with gains had principals who were adept at motivating their staffs to turn around school performance. Many of these principals visited classrooms daily, appointed teachers to leadership roles, and fostered a schoolwide focus on results.

By contrast, the report said, the lowest performers generally “did not exhibit the same level of urgency or laserlike focus on improving instruction and student achievement.’’

The high performers also had safe, respectful school environments for students and teachers, according to the report, and many of the low performers were plagued by “a lack of behavioral expectations’’ and a lack of a “cogent system for dealing with misconduct.’’

The report did not mention schools by name based on the observational visits.

Barnes defended Boston’s four low performers, saying that those schools were hitting other testing benchmarks in their school improvement plans.

Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, emphasized that the effort in turning around the underperforming schools is in the early stages and that some of the initial high achievers could slide while some lower achievers could catapult ahead.

“I’m not at all satisfied with schools that made one year of gains,’’ Chester said. “I need to see a trend of continuous improvement. It’s heartening that two-thirds [of underperforming schools] made strong progress in the first year. They are on the right path.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.

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