Should Massachusetts education commissioner Jeffrey Riley invoke the R-word — receivership — for Boston Public Schools?
Under Massachusetts law, the commissioner and the state education board can appoint a receiver to run underperforming districts. The possibility of receivership for Boston’s chronically underachieving schools had been whispered in the shadows, but this fall, Matt Hills, a board member, called on Riley to consider it. Riley is unlikely to act without the concurrence of Governor Charlie Baker. It’s believed that Riley and Baker are talking.
The argument for receivership is that the status quo — dismal test scores, rampant absenteeism, organizational morass, and deeply deficient outcomes for Black and brown students — is unacceptable. Only a receiver, effectively a district education czar, could cut through the quicksand of bureaucracy, politics, and union constraints. Boston has had four school superintendents within seven years. And nothing changes.
The case for receivership is bolstered by the experience of Lawrence, one of the worst-performing districts in the state. Lawrence schools were taken over in 2011. Math test scores rose sharply over the next five years, and those in English-language arts modestly. The graduation rate surged from 52 percent to 72 percent.
Under state law, receivers can reallocate the budget, expand the school day or school year, and override terms of collective bargaining agreements, but not reduce pay. In Lawrence, the receiver used his authority to recast incentives and emphasize learning. He created teacher pay scales based on merit. He lengthened the school day by 200 hours annually. He dismissed incompetent principals, replacing half, and replaced 10 percent of the teachers.
But he went to lengths to enlist cooperation from teachers and administrators who remained. The school administration was decentralized, and high-achieving principals were given greater autonomy. Although the receiver had the power to rip up union contracts, he chose to negotiate an agreement with the teachers union. He also drafted teachers into decision-making roles.
His most inspired reform was “acceleration academies,” where small groups of challenged students got 25 hours of intensive learning over vacation breaks. The program was open to teachers nationwide; scores of Lawrence teachers were selected, earning $3,000 in a week. The receiver paid for such reforms by paring the central office budget and staff.
Critically, the receiver sidestepped the stale debate between charters and traditional schools. Two failing schools were turned over to charter operators — but they remained district schools, represented by the union. He enlisted the union itself to try rescuing another school.
Imagine if that progressive energy were harnessed in a city with the educational acumen of Boston. What makes the fantasy seem possible is that the receiver in Lawrence during the first six years was the same Jeff Riley who is now state commissioner and in a position to name a receiver here.
Since 2010, when state law gave significant authority to receivers, it has had mixed results. In Holyoke, graduation and dropout rates sharply improved. In Southbridge, four receivers were named in three years. Two schools in Boston (out of a total of 117) are in receivership and have continued to struggle. Even in Lawrence, some are upset that receivership endures a decade later. But Lawrence demonstrated that a receiver has a unique ability to effect rapid changes.
Critics argue that Boston, which is wealthier, doesn’t need the state. Boston spends approximately $23,000 per student compared to $16,000 in Lawrence. Moreover, BPS has put forward a series of reform plans, and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, who opposes receivership, is certain to propose her own reforms. Shouldn’t she be given time?
The institutional dynamics of BPS argue against it. Boston schools are run by the superintendent, who answers to the School Committee, whose members are appointed by the mayor. None of those can advance reforms over the opposition of the Boston Teachers Union. During the first year of the cornavirus pandemic, the union successfully resisted reopening the schools. The union is certain to oppose reforms that involve longer school days, outside academies, merit pay, etc. Former mayor Marty Walsh — a union guy — tried to tinker with work rules and the union stopped him. None of the recent efforts have arrested the decline in performance or the flight of students. Pupil count has fallen below 50,000. Without the cudgel of receivership, none of this is likely to change.
Some progressives have charged that receivership penalizes communities of color. But it would be hard to design a school system that has more poorly served Black and brown students than BPS.
According to the state’s March 2020 district review, one-third of students in BPS attend schools among the worst 10 percent in the state. And while 62 percent of white students in grades 3 through 8 hit or exceeded expectations in English arts, only 25 percent of Black students did. The disparity in math is even worse. The problems go beyond test scores; they include “staggering” absenteeism, special education programs in “systemic disarray,” dilapidated facilities, and often-poor instruction. Understandably, many families have lost faith.
These issues, according to the district review, cannot be resolved “on a school-by-school basis. Instead, district-wide policies and systems are significant contributors to student underperformance.”
BPS leadership is earnest about making reforms. The district has designed elaborate remedies, partnered with competent outside organizations, earnestly experimented, and fund-raised. In 2016, the School Committee approved a policy to eliminate achievement gaps. BPS then created a special office to address inequity. It developed a set of culturally and linguistically “sustainable” practices.
However, the state notes, district leaders “have difficulty translating their ideas into effective practices within schools and classrooms.” The central office, plagued by high turnover, fails to support innovations. When teachers and schools excel — as many do — the district fails to build on their success.
Riley considered receivership in 2020 but opted to give Superintendent Brenda Cassellius a chance. Cassellius insists that BPS is making progress. Graduation rates have been rising (though graduation requirements vary by school). And BPS is investing in academics and in its physical plant.
But students also deserve a chance. Since 2020, standardized test scores have continued to drop. Turnover remains a problem at the central office. The Globe’s James Vaznis recently reported that dysfunction at BPS is so severe that “at times the education of many students has effectively halted.” How many more generations of students should risk forfeiting their opportunity for a solid education until BPS improves?
Boston was once one of the top urban school districts in the country. No more. The state has ordered the district to improve performance at three dozen subpar schools, remake special ed, reduce absenteeism, and effect other changes. The question for Riley is how long to entrust these efforts to the system he has declared is part of the problem.
When Riley was in Lawrence, he said, “The only thing that should really matter is what happens in the classroom.” That’s true for Boston, too. Our schools need the urgency — and the authority — of a dedicated receiver.
Roger Lowenstein lives in Cambridge. His next book, “Ways and Means: Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War,” will be published in March.