Two years ago, Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester delivered an ultimatum to seven underperforming schools in Boston, Holyoke, and Springfield: If you want to avoid a state takeover, hire an outside partner to rapidly turn around student performance.
The schools took the commissioner up on his offer and enacted partnerships last fall, but all have failed to achieve dramatic, across-the-board gains in MCAS scores so far, according to a Globe review of testing data.
The results are raising questions about the efficacy of the partnerships and fueling tensions in local school systems, especially among teacher unions and some grass-roots organizations that resent bringing in private nonprofits to run public schools. The state has devoted more than $1 million in federal school-improvement grants to support the partnerships.
The seven cited schools are English High School and Elihu Greenwood Leadership Academy in Boston, Dean Technical High School in Holyoke, and four schools in Springfield.
English High, teetering on state receivership for years, delivered the most disappointing scores, dropping 11 points in English and five points in math in the sophomore MCAS from the previous year.
Springfield’s partnership with Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University, led by nationally acclaimed economist Roland Fryer, ended abruptly in July, and Chester once again threatened three of the city’s schools with receivership this fall.
And while four of the seven underperforming schools boasted double-digit gains on at least one MCAS test at a particular grade level, those triumphs were often accompanied by flat or declining results in one or more other areas.
“I’m not surprised they added very little value,” said Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union. “I think the only meaningful way to improve these schools is by mobilizing the resources and skills we have in the school system and not to rely on outside vendors who seek to sell their wares.”
Chester said he remains committed to seeing the remaining partnerships through. He spoke optimistically about Springfield’s new partnership with Empower Schools, a Boston-based organization co-founded by former gubernatorial candidate Chris Gabrieli.
“I’m not ready to judge success or failure based on this first-year experience,” Chester said.
In fact, Chester just pressured Boston into hiring a partner to work with the Dearborn STEM Academy in order to avoid a state takeover.
High expectations have surrounded these partnerships, raising hopes among some education advocates that outside groups can bring fresh perspectives and practices — such as intensive tutoring and longer school days — that have shown success at charter schools.
Districts such as Boston and Lawrence have been proactive on this front in recent years, handing over some of their schools entirely to an outside operator — most notably the UP Education Network in Boston, which consistently delivers dramatic testing gains across all grade levels and subjects in just one year.
The partnerships pushed by the state, however, do not give the outside organizations full autonomy to run the seven schools that were in jeopardy of receivership. Instead, the partners jointly run the schools with their respective school systems, providing technical advice and staff training, running tutoring and other programs, and assisting with hiring.
Boston teamed up with Blueprint Schools Network in Newton to work with English High and the Elihu academy, and Holyoke brought in ProjectGRAD USA of Houston to Dean Technical High School.
Springfield’s initial contract with EdLabs involved the four schools at risk of state takeovers and two other schools.
School officials in Boston, Holyoke, and Springfield said the arrangements came with a learning curve as districts and the outside organizations clarified roles and responsibilities and settled on the appropriate intervention measures.
Some officials voiced concern that the partners wanted to enact programs the way they did in other states, even though they might not mesh in Massachusetts.
For instance, Blueprint insisted on tutoring only ninth-graders at English High last year, meaning that 10th-graders who took the MCAS did not benefit from the program and making it difficult to use last year’s MCAS results to judge the effectiveness of the partnership. Blueprint focuses on ninth-graders in hopes that academic success will reduce dropouts — a strategy it said was effective in Denver.
Blueprint agreed with English High leadership this year to expand the tutoring into the 10th grade.
“At the beginning, it was bumpy,” Ligia Noriega-Murphy, headmaster at English, said of the partnership, but she added that the school and organization now have good synergy.
Matthew Spengler, executive director at Blueprint, agreed and noted that other data show promising results, such as lower suspension rates and higher attendance numbers.
After the collapse of the EdLabs partnership, Springfield has replicated the organization’s tutoring programs at other schools. And its new partnership with Empower Schools, which charges no fees for its services, is gaining attention.
Under that arrangement, an independent governing board appointed by the state and the city will oversee three middle schools at risk of a takeover as well as five other middle schools — a new arrangement in Massachusetts that, if successful, could be duplicated in other struggling districts.
“It’s going to yield some great results for our schools,” predicted Daniel Warwick, Springfield superintendent. “We know we have a lot more work to do, and we are embracing the work.”
EdLabs said its decision to pull out of Springfield had nothing to do with the district but with the state — and the inability to work in a larger set of schools.
“We are proud of the work that Springfield Public Schools has done with EdLabs and of the accomplishments in Springfield schools,” said June Daniel, executive director at EdLabs.
Jacqueline Reis, a state spokeswoman, said the state made no promises to any partner organizations about future expansion. “EdLabs walked away after one year in Springfield,” she said in an e-mail.
The most public pushback against the partnerships unfolded in Holyoke, spawning a “Reclaim Our Schools” campaign. “We want to make sure Holyoke schools stay in the public’s hands,” said Rose Bookbinder, spokeswoman for Western Mass. Jobs With Justice.
Sergio Paez, the Holyoke superintendent, said the entire school system must tap a variety of approaches, including partnerships, to improve.
“We haven’t been educating kids in Holyoke,” he said.