This fall is a crucial period in the struggle for educational improvement — a period that may come to pit the state’s most persistent public-sector prod for progress against more tentative city governments in Boston and Springfield.
That change agent is Mitchell Chester, who as commissioner of elementary and secondary education has focused intently on turning around failing schools — and demonstrated that he can get the job done.
Exhibit A: Lawrence. At Chester’s recommendation, the state took over the perennially troubled district in 2011. Chester then hired Jeff Riley, a highly regarded former Charlestown principal and Boston Public Schools administrator, as superintendent and receiver. He has cut central staff, pushed resources, authority, and accountability down to the school level, and brought in outside partners to run some schools. All the K-8 schools now have a longer day, which includes enrichment, with teachers paid an affordable stipend for their extra work.
Those changes haven’t come without pain; Riley replaced about half the district’s principals and 10 percent of its teachers.
But last week’s MCAS results were an(other) occasion to celebrate. Lawrence kids posted scores strong enough to merit a visit from US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, also came to Lawrence, in early September, to bask in the district’s success; that’s because the Lawrence Teachers Union, once aggrieved about Riley’s plans, has signed aboard after winning a face-saving concession or two.
Which brings us to Boston and Springfield. Last year, Chester took over two Boston schools, the Dever and the Holland elementary schools, hiring outside organizations to run them. Last week, he made it clear that if the city can’t turn around the Dearborn STEM Academy in Roxbury, he will intervene there.
Boston has been engaged in an unsuccessful turnaround effort of its own over the last three years. This summer, interim BPS superintendent John McDonough floated a new plan for the Dearborn: Turning it over to the Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School, to be run as an in-district charter.
The community objected. The Dearborn is slated for a $70 million new building, and when that facility opens, will expand from a sixth-to-10th-grade school to a sixth-to-12th. But if run as a charter, its students would be chosen via a citywide lottery, which made Roxbury residents fear they would be losing a community asset. In the face of their opposition, Mayor Marty Walsh and McDonough have abandoned that plan and gone back to the drawing board.
Enter Commissioner Chester. He’s now put Boston on notice that if the district can’t develop a strong turnaround plan in the coming weeks, he will take the school over. Chester delivered the same message to Springfield, only in triplicate: Absent strong district plans for three chronically underperforming middle schools, he’ll put them in receivership as well.
In the latest salvo from Boston Teachers Union President Richard Stutman, Chester’s declaration amounts to a “target, blame, and punish” strategy. Sadly, that’s the kind of rhetoric we’ve come to expect from the BTU. (Imagine the cognitive dissonance poor Richard must have suffered reading Weingarten’s praise of the Lawrence effort!)
“State takeover is a last resort,” says Chester. “I’d prefer that districts strengthen schools on their own. Nonetheless, students can’t put their lives on hold while adults figure things out, and I’m prepared to exercise receivership authority if necessary.”
The Lawrence experience informs Chester’s thinking about what’s needed at the Dearborn and the Springfield schools: Strong school leaders with an empowered teaching team willing to take responsibility for student performance. A longer school day. Teacher pay tied in some part to performance and leadership.
“We expect more of teachers in these schools, and in Lawrence, we’re rewarding our most effective teachers with leadership opportunities as well as financially,” he says. “The progress in Lawrence shows the impact of treating teachers like professionals and moving away from rigid work rules and lock-step advancement opportunities.”
Chester’s you-fix-it-or-I-will stance leaves both Boston and Springfield with an opportunity. Gutsy leaders could use the urgency to galvanize community support for dramatic change. Contrariwise, risk-averse, capital-preserving pols could strike a populist city-versus-state pose by siding with neighborhood activists, all the while leaving the hard school-improvement effort to Chester. The choice they make will be revealing indeed.
But either way, it’s the commissioner, with his unflinching focus on the students’ best interests, who will be driving the change.