It’s hard to implement change in any big school district, let alone one whose stakeholders are as set in their ways and change-resistant as those in Boston. That’s a shame. Although Boston is good as urban districts go, its public high schools still leave too many students unprepared for life after graduation.
Here’s one important improvement all parties should get behind: embracing MassCore, a state-recommended program of study that has shown real results for high school students. The idea behind MassCore is to align the courses high-school students take with college expectations. Academically, MassCore calls for students to complete four years of English and math, three of history, three of sciences that include lab work, two of a foreign language, one of art, and five other courses in “core” areas. It also calls for four years of physical education.
Many districts have embraced that curriculum framework since the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education first made the recommendation back in 2007. Boston, however, is not among them. During his abbreviated tenure, former Boston Public Schools superintendent Tommy Chang pushed the district to adopt MassCore, but that didn’t happen. (BPS doesn’t currently know how many of its high schools meet the MassCore graduation standards.)
Why? Largely because of worries that strengthening graduation requirements will hurt graduation rates, one of the metrics by which principals are measured. That fairly defines systemic short-sightedness.
“It appears that Boston is and has been deliberately under-preparing students in the interests of buffing up graduation rates,” says former state secretary of education Paul Reville.
Not the Boston charter high schools, though. Six of the seven charters that have had high-school graduating classes embrace the full MassCore recommendations at a very minimum, says Dom Slowey, spokesman for the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. (One doesn’t have an art or yearly physical education requirement.)
Why does it matter? Well, a new study by the Boston Opportunity Agenda shows that students whose curriculum accords with those guidelines have much more success in college. Two-thirds of the 2010 BPS high-school graduates who met MassCore requirements earned some sort of post-high-school degree in the next seven years. (Include the completion of at least one Advanced Placement course, and that success rate jumps to an impressive 79 percent.)
But only 30 percent of BPS students who didn’t complete the MassCore curriculum earned a post-secondary degree within the same period. That’s a huge disparity in post-secondary success. And it’s made worse by the fact that only 27 percent of the BPS students in the study had completed MassCore.
BPS should have aligned with MassCore years ago, but there simply hasn’t been a sense of urgency. Interim Superintendent Laura Perille, who has only been on the job since last July, clearly feels the imperative, however. She recently appointed a set of task forces charged with figuring out how BPS can advance academic rigor, meet the needs of off-track youth, and strengthen college, career, and life readiness among its students.
The working group on academic rigor and graduation requirements is charged with developing a plan to align BPS high school graduation requirements with MassCore. That’s no small task, Perille noted; 38 schools confer high school degrees, each of which has heretofore had the authority to set its own graduation requirements as long as state mandates are met. Still, Perille wants recommendations and a timeline for doing so by June; she hopes to start implementing some of the necessary changes in the fall. Mayor Marty Walsh should forcefully back those efforts.
Another educational-improvement idea in the news has less promise: a “13th” year of high school for students who want it. That seems likely to distract focus from where it should be: on realigning the BPS curriculum with MassCore and better preparing students for college or work during their regular high-school years.