As Massachusetts secretary of education in 2010, I led the team that drafted the Achievement Gap Act and its school and district takeover provisions, also known as receivership. Those powers were used effectively in Lawrence and with mixed results in other places. There is now a growing debate as to whether the state should take over the Boston Public Schools. While I recognize the deep, persistent, and pervasive problems in Boston and understand the sense of urgency for a fix, a takeover of BPS by the Baker administration’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education isn’t the right approach to fixing what’s wrong and won’t result in the kind of systemic improvements needed to dramatically change outcomes for the children and families of Boston.
There is little evidence nationally that such takeovers result in sustained academic improvement. With the possible exception of the exemplary work led by Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley when he was the Lawrence receiver, there are no instances of states taking over districts of even modest size and producing positive academic results. States generally lack the capacity — personnel, expertise, and financial resources — to take over large, complex, urban districts. BPS, for example, is mammoth, with a $1.3 billion operating budget, 48,000 students, and 11,000 employees across 120 schools. It is nearly four times the size of Lawrence, the largest district in receivership (now in year 10), and 10 times larger than Holyoke and 25 times the size of Southbridge, two other school systems in receivership.
As the upcoming state audit report on Boston will undoubtedly highlight, BPS has been struggling in many areas of operation, ranging from transportation to special education to English-language learners to comprehensive high school reform. There is a growing sense of urgency that things must change. Despair over these problems has led to grossly inflated expectations for miracle workers, either a Baker administration receiver or a new superintendent. Unfortunately, there is no magical fix. The job is too big and will require a new spirit, clear strategies, and a massive team effort to succeed. What must happen is that all the key constituencies come together and agree on a prioritized set of practical change strategies while a broad range of leaders exercise the political will necessary to overcome the substantial resistance to change that so often crops up in Boston.
Fortunately, the timing is right for building such a coalition. Boston has a new, popularly elected and visionary mayor who, as a civic leader and a BPS parent, is deeply committed to the hard work of systemic change. In fact, Mayor Michelle Wu has already taken significant steps, as evidenced in recent announcements about early childhood education, early college, and a $2 billion investment in school buildings. And she is only just getting started. With the Boston School Committee’s upcoming choice of a new superintendent, the mayor has an opportunity to build a powerful change team.
It’s not the time to interrupt the momentum being built by the new administration. However, Wu’s work can be strengthened by a strong state partnership with Riley, DESE, and other state agencies positioned to help teachers, children, and families. Riley’s experience with takeover and some of the powers granted by the takeover statute could be helpful in certain targeted areas that have too long been stalled in chronic underperformance like school transportation. However, to succeed and be sustained, such a major turnaround initiative must be locally led and controlled.
The entire city and BPS — its teachers, staff, children, and families — are just now beginning to recover from the trauma and disruption of the pandemic and need the opportunity to restore public confidence and rebuild BPS enrollment. This is not the time for a hasty intervention by a state agency obviously lacking the capacity to assume responsibility for BPS. Instead of pitting a state takeover against local control, leaders should work out a negotiated arrangement that features targeted, temporary state involvement in certain selected areas where the state is well positioned to help. In other words, state and local officials need to team up. All hands on deck. Together, through partnership, change is possible.
Let’s have a new Boston Compact, not just between the state and the city but one that includes commitments by the business community, higher education, philanthropy, and community, parent and neighborhood organizations. Nobody has the chops to go it alone. Boston needs a sharp focus on bringing this whole community together in support of creating pathways to success, via college and career, for each and every one of our children. It’s time for the adults to step up.
Paul Reville is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he directs EdRedesign. He is a former Massachusetts secretary of education and a former chair of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.