Massachusetts education officials are about to embark on a comprehensive review of the Boston school system, a move that has led to takeovers in Lawrence, Holyoke, and Southbridge but often results only in specific recommendations for improvement.
State officials have stressed the review is routine, noting it conducts about 20 district reviews annually. The reviews examine leadership, governance, curriculum, instruction, assessment, human resources, professional development, student support, and finances.
Boston’s last review occurred a decade ago.
“While a district review is necessary under law to place a district into receivership, the report has been used for that purpose in very few instances,” said Jacqueline Reis, a state education spokeswoman, in a statement. “Our hope is that these reports benefit school superintendents as they develop their strategies as well as inform our assistance efforts.”
A review team, consisting of outside contractors who typically are retired educators, will descend on the city and conduct classroom observations in 100 schools between Oct. 1 and 11. The team will return to Boston the week of Oct. 21 to interview city officials, district personnel, school administrators, union representatives, teachers, students, parents, and other interested parties.
A written report should be ready in early 2020, Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley wrote in a recent memo to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The review comes as Boston’s new superintendent, Brenda Cassellius, is putting together a her own district-improvement plan, a process that has her canvassing the city to meet with various stakeholders and a goal of visiting all 125 schools in 100 days.
Cassellius, who is hoping to release a draft of her plan in December, said the state review should be informative.
“My team and I have been working closely with Commissioner Riley and his team on this review. The information it provides will help us identify our strategic direction,” said Cassellius, a former Minnesota education commissioner, in a statement. “I thank the commissioner for his partnership and look forward to collaborating closely with DESE to accelerate outcomes for all of our Boston Public Schools students.”
The review is being closely watched by those with a vested interest in the school system, where concerns over uneven school quality have persisted for decades and where state education officials have periodically targeted individual schools for improvement.
Just last year, under the state’s revamped school accountability system, based largely on analysis of various data points rather than actual school visits, state officials mandated changes to programs at 50 Boston public schools because of lackluster MCAS scores, low graduation rates, or subpar student attendance. Two of those schools, Dever Elementary and UP Academy Holland, are already in state receivership.
There are 125 schools in Boston, although only 102 schools had enough data to judge performance. Some schools, such as early learning centers, have insufficient data because they don’t serve any grade levels tested by the MCAS exams, which begin in third grade.
City Council President Andrea Campbell, who devised her own recommendations to improve the city’s schools, said she is looking forward to seeing what the state uncovers and what suggestions it makes.
“We can use this [review] as an opportunity to work in partnership with the state to give schools what they need to be successful,” she said. “I think there are folks in the system who are doing an incredible job and want to get this right, and the state offering up solutions would be helpful.”
The last school system state education officials put into receivership was Southbridge in 2016. A district review found wide-ranging problems: MCAS scores were among the lowest in the state, more than a third of secondary-school students failed at least one course the previous year, and a high turnover in superintendents and high school principals, which made it difficult for any reforms to stick.
Reviews of other systems have nevertheless been quite critical.
A 2017 review of Worcester revealed that many students didn’t have equal access to a high-quality education, or were not receiving adequate academic tutoring or services to tend to their social and emotional well-being.
It also found teachers were not consistently being evaluated with rigor, many school buildings were outdated and overcrowded because of insufficient funding and planning, and the School Committee was overburdening school administrators with too many information requests, noting members “should exercise a great deal more restraint in making motions that are not related to the critical task of improving the quality of teaching and learning.”