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EDWARD L. GLAESER

Madison Park is broken

The troubled vocational school needs sledgehammer-type reform, not fine-tuning

Students worked in an electrical wiring class at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in October.
Students worked in an electrical wiring class at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in October. (Joanne Rathe/globe staff)

For years, Boston has been hoping that its flagship vocational high school, Madison Park, could be saved with the right leader or a bit more money. Sticking with that hope has led us to fail the children of Madison Park for nearly 50 years.

The Roxbury high school was once a grand project. In the 1960s, Boston city planner Ed Logue claimed it would “give Latin School a run for its money,” and Judge W. Arthur Garrity, who ordered busing in Boston, was a big fan. Over the years, however, the school has deteriorated into a textbook reminder of what can go wrong when governments use physical capital — like a vast school campus — to solve a human capital problem. In this case, the real problem is the shortage of residents in inner city neighborhoods with usable job skills.

And that is why the time for modest reform at Madison Park is over. The school’s basic model is broken — a sledgehammer is now needed, not fine-tuning. Madison Park’s campus should be split up into a set of smaller, nimbler academies. Boston should take what has worked in other cities, such as Worcester, and set about to innovate with vocational training delivered through competitively sourced, rigorously evaluated programs that operate into the evening hours, on weekends, and over the summer.

Madison Park’s troubles are now infamous. Students didn’t receive their class schedules for the first five days of the academic year. It took student protests to force administrators to do their jobs.

Shortly thereafter, the school headmaster resigned — not for this administrative snafu, but because she wasn’t certified as a principal in Massachusetts. Apparently, she started the application process but never completed the paperwork. She had been the much heralded product of a year-long search for bold new leadership.

Such stories are sadly not new for Madison Park. In 2013, the school’s acting headmaster “was placed on administrative leave” because of “a federal investigation of his alleged role in a multiple-state credit fraud ring,” as the Globe put it.

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The school’s shortcomings are particularly painful because the need for effective job training is so great. Boston’s labor market is robust: The average employee working in Suffolk County took home $75,000 in 2012, according to the US Census’s County Business Patterns. Yet too many Bostonians lack the skills to compete in that labor market: Census figures also report that nearly 30 percent of all households in Boston earned less than $25,000. Twenty-seven percent of Boston’s children live in poverty.

And yet, in other places around the country, good vocational skills have proven to be a ticket out of poverty. If poor children grow up to be plumbers or electricians or programmers, they can join the middle class.

So why can’t Madison Park seem to deliver those skills?

First, its unwieldy size and overly broad mission make innovation and change difficult. Madison Park, which has some 20 technical career majors, may be trying to do too much. Other districts’ experiences suggest the most effective vocational training is often narrowly focused, allowing strong connections to local employers who, in turn, become teachers themselves of applied skills.

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Then there is Madison Park’s place in the Boston Public Schools. For many students, it is the high school assignment of last resort — the kids who go there simply didn’t get in anywhere else. But other models have shown that the students who thrive in vocational programs are those who have shown to have already shown an interest or aptitude for what they’re learning.

In Boston, however, vocational training traditionally has been seen as a less challenging academic pursuit, and because the district has school choice, ambitious students steer clear of Madison Park. That has harmed Madison Park even more. Student quality shapes school quality, and for years, Madison Park has attracted far fewer students than its capacity.

There are no tweaks that will fix the fundamental problems that bedevil Madison Park. To attract the city’s most tenacious students, the school’s current structure must be overhauled.

The best approach starts with enough humility to recognize that we don’t know the perfect solution. Yes, there are much-hailed models, such as Worcester Technical High School, with high graduation rates, that may offer some guidance. A 2013 Pioneer Institute white paper, for example, suggests independence is one key to success at Worcester Tech.

But I’d add that when you don’t know the right path, experimentation makes sense. Under schools chancellor Joel Klein, New York City split many of its larger schools into smaller ones. Madison Park seems like an ideal candidate for this approach, too.

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Smaller academies would allow for highly specialized curricula as well as a range of education innovations. Some could be run as private schools, others as charters. Some could team up with trade unions, others with community colleges.

Any path forward should maintain Madison Park’s commitment to vocational training. But that could also be a more fluid concept. Boston’s proud history of liberal arts education has stigmatized technical education — so why not create a more hybrid model? Students could take regular high school classes during the day and then receive vocational training after school and on the weekends. That could lead into relevant summer employment or apprenticeship.

There are four great virtues of the hybrid approach. First, we could hand vocational training over to professionals — experts in software programming or carpentry. In fields that change rapidly, such specialization would ensure teachers who are up on the latest technologies. Specialization has virtues when dealing with serious real world skills.

Second, we would end the segregation of vocational students, which can feel a lot like segregation by race or ethnicity.

Third, we could ensure that a wider range of students receive proper high school training across the board. We should want to provide everyone with a well-rounded education.

Fourth, competitively sourced vocational training programs could be evaluated with randomized control methods. We could enlarge programs that work and shut down the worst performers.

This is radical surgery, but that’s what Madison Park needs. We have failed its students for too long. Boston must act radically if it is going to start providing better vocational training.

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Related:

Harmon: Mass. education secretary in a bind on Madison Park

10/12: Missteps, neglect thwart vision for Madison Park

8/26: Enrollment dips, bringing uncertainty to Madison Park

7/14: A call to fix or shut Madison Park school


Edward L. Glaeser, a Harvard economist, is director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.