When State Takeovers Help Schools: Learning From Lawrence, Massachusetts

For almost 15 years I have worked to ensure that all students—regardless of income, race or geography—have an opportunity to attend great schools. Schools that offer them the high quality education and the support needed to succeed in college and career. These may sound like wonky buzzwords or tag lines on a brochure, but they aren’t. They are an unapologetic commitment to not accept the status quo and to expect that we can do better and offer all students, especially our most vulnerable students, a brighter future. While most advocates and leaders agree we can do better, how this is done, especially in our persistently poor performing schools and districts, is a controversial and heated debate at all levels of the education system. And this is more than just a Twitter or theoretical discussion: this involves the real lives and futures of millions of students and their families.

Overreach or Expectation of Bold Action?

Given my work in the federal government, some would be surprised to hear that I agree with many of the critics of School Improvement Grants (SIG), Race to the Top (RTT) and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers—there is no single magic bullet that will address the systemic issues in these struggling schools overnight. But to be fair, none of those programs or laws ever promised that. Instead, they called for local leaders and teams to take into account the school and community context, and implement comprehensive, bold actions. For example, this week Education Research Strategies (ERS), released  a new case study on Lawrence Public Schools in Massachusetts. This is a Level 5 district, which means it is chronically underperforming and was placed under the purview of the state in 2011. Using SIG, RTT, and strong state accountability levers, ERS reports real change and states that Lawrence is “on the path to success.” This success includes math proficiency scores that have “gone from 28 percent to 41 percent, and an increase in the graduation rate from 52 percent to 67 percent.” The report doesn’t credit this progress to a single solution or individual, but instead identifies the strength of the rigorous, multiphase comprehensive approach. Some highlights of their findings include the fact that the district focused on:
  • Leadership: Ensuring all schools have effective leaders, providing them the flexibility and support to meet the needs of their students and teachers and holding them accountable for improving student outcomes.
  • Teaching: Attracting, developing, and retaining high-quality teaching staff through aggressive recruiting and hiring, limited exiting of the lowest performers, and a new teacher contract giving teachers more school-level control and leadership opportunities.
  • School design: Implementing programmatic and structural changes and organizing school resources to provide excellent teaching and personalized learning and support (including increased instructional time and individual attention) for all students.
  • Support: Partnering with each school to provide support and flexibility, as well as funding and the external partner resources it needs.

So Why Should We Care?

First, based on its analysis, ERS believes the work done in Lawrence contains important lessons for turnaround in other districts. This is key for the thousands of schools and neighborhoods currently undergoing, or soon facing, the turnaround process. The education community should take every chance to study actual efforts and then work to create actionable steps for others to replicate. Second, this study could not have come out at a more timely moment. In April, Massachusetts’ Commissioner Mitchell Chester recommended, and the State Board of Education voted, to declare a second district, Holyoke Public Schools, a "chronically underperforming" Level 5 district and placed it in state receivership. It’s going to be vital to take both the successes and missteps from Lawrence and apply those lessons learned to Holyoke. The ERS study will be a useful tool to do this. On a national level, as the Senate continues its work on ESEA reauthorization, we must push members and staff to look at research and analysis like this. Right now, Congress is leaning toward complacency by protecting local interests above student interests. By failing to place into law requirements and expectations that states and district rigorously intervene in the lowest performing 5 percent of schools, we are ignoring what we know is working and having results for kids. Instead, Congress is willing to relegate millions of students to the status quo and missed opportunities, including the 1.1 million students who are attending over 1,200 high school “dropout factories.” Even though advocates and leaders aren’t always able to agree on the how when it comes to our most vulnerable students, it is hard to argue against these results. Policymakers in Massachusetts, D.C. and across the country should take note.
Ann Whalen is Director of Policy at Education Post.
Ann Whalen
Ann Whalen is senior advisor to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Prior to returning to the U.S. Department of Education, she served as the director of policy for Education Post. Whalen has served more than five years in the Obama Administration with the U.S. Department of Education. At the department, Ann was director of the Implementation and Support Unit, providing technical assistance to ...

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