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Local activists, electeds wary of state intervention

Little evidence of positive outcomes in other cities

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Local activists, electeds wary of state intervention

State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) officials expect their audit of the Boston Public Schools to wrap up in late spring.

With the threat of a state intervention hanging over the city’s schools, local education activists suspect Education Commissioner Jeff Riley may seek to target a cohort of Boston schools for state takeover.

If the state’s track record of interventions is any indication, that option, which the state undertook with the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership (SEZP) in 2014, may not lead to substantive improvements in students’ test scores.

According to an analysis of SEZP schools’ school performance ratings — the metrics used by DESE to evaluate schools — seven out of nine schools in Springfield analyzed during the 2019 academic year were in the lowest 5% ranking by the state. Another school in the report, undertaken by the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, Duggan Academy, was ranked in the 15th percentile.

“Zone schools are among the poorest-performing and lowest-ranked schools in the state,” the report states.

The analysis excluded from its report a “talented and gifted” middle school, Chestnut Accelerated Middle School, which functions as an exam school, and several others for which the state has not yet provided data.

DESE has the power to take over schools or entire districts the state deems “chronically underperforming” under a 2010 state law.

The Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership was formed after DESE threatened a takeover of nine Springfield middle schools that had been declared underperforming in 2010. After the partnership launched in 2015, charter school supporters lauded the zone as a “third way” compromise between maintaining district control of schools and more aggressive school takeovers in which states turn schools over to charter school operators. The hallmarks of the “third way” approach embodied in the SEZP model were giving schools greater autonomy over hiring and firing teachers, and setting hours, discipline policy, and curriculum, along with greater accountability.

“This is an optimistic, forward-looking effort to get beyond the current battle lines where everyone is so dug in,” Chris Gabrieli, founder of Empower Schools, told Commonwealth Magazine in 2016.

Empower Schools collaborated with DESE, Springfield Public Schools and the Springfield Educators Association teachers union to help launch SEZP. Gabrieli and Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) member James Morton are among the seven members of the SEZP board of directors.

While education reform activists and state education board members have held up SEZP as a national model, they have provided scant details on how the students in the zone are actually performing on the state’s standardized test. A March 14 report on SEZP to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education made no mention of MCAS scores, graduation rates or any of the major factors DESE uses to evaluate schools and districts.

Although DESE has contracted with an independent evaluator to assess the schools in SEZP, it has not made the evaluator’s reports public. DESE officials declined a Banner request for the reports and have not responded to a Massachusetts Public Records Law request the Banner made for the reports March 25.

A DESE spokeswoman did not make available anyone from the department to speak with a reporter by the Banner’s press deadline.

Peter Piazza, an evaluator who examined the schools from 2015 to 2018, posted a thread on Twitter stating that schools in the zone were hyper-focused on test prep. He cited as an example a school in the zone that extended its school day, but cut theater, art and all foreign languages.

“At another middle school, students had double blocks of math & ELA all 3 years, but only 1 year of social studies (that’s it! Just 7th grade!) & 2 years of science,” Piazza posted.

The MCAS exam tests students only on English, Math, and Science and technology.

MCAS scores

When the zone was formed in 2014 there were nine schools, but with schools that were added and existing schools that were broken into separate learning communities, there are now 14. The AFT report looks at nine of the 14 that had state ranking data in 2019, the last pre-pandemic year for the MCAS test. The reason the AFT report only analyzed nine schools is because its authors excluded data from the selective admissions school in the zone and schools that DESE did not rank. The report does not utilize MCAS data, when the test was administered during the pandemic.

But the MCAS scores of students in the schools excluded from the AFT report shows performance well below the state average. Two of the school, founded in 2020 and 2021, had no MCAS data available. Three other schools showed scores in which between 7% and 17% of students met or exceeded expectations on the state’s English Language Arts test.

Despite the low ranking of the schools in the state’s metrics, Springfield Mayor Dominic Sarno and School Superintendent Daniel Warwick lauded the SEZP, testifying before Riley and board of education members during their March 22 meeting.

“We have been held up as a national model,” Sarno said. “Governors from across the country have visited.”

A bid to ban receivership

Before instituting the empowerment zone in Springfield, then-state Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester threatened to put the nine schools initially included in the zone into receivership.

Boston may be facing a similar threat, as Commissioner Jeff Riley is conducting a review of 30 Boston Public Schools the state lists as “underperforming.”

During a City Council hearing Monday, teachers, parents and education activists questioned the efficacy of DESE’s interventions in Springfield, Lawrence, Holyoke and Southbridge, as well as in the Dever and Holland schools in Boston. Those who testified noted that none of the schools or districts DESE has taken over have substantially improved or come out of receivership.

“Why would anyone think that the state could do better in our city, which is the largest in the state, than it has in any of the districts it has in receivership?” asked Harneen Chernow, a BPS parent and former Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member who testified that she regretted voting in favor of receivership in Lawrence 10 years ago.

Chernow noted that receivership brings no additional resources for school communities or students.

“There are no substantial or sustained additional resources,” she said.

Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang noted that no school or district under DESE receivership has improved substantially nor left receivership.

“Receivership and state intervention has been an ineffective, anti-democratic and racist policy that, based on its track record to date, would cause harm to BPS students, families, and educators,” she said. “What we need is stable leadership, consistent evidence-based policies, adequate staffing and sustained resources to fund them, and educational solutions that come from our educators, families and students.”

City Councilor Kendra Lara questioned the timing of DESE’s ongoing review of the Boston schools, noting that the 2020 memorandum of agreement the district signed with DESE allowed for a three-year period before further review.

“The timing is of concern to me,” Lara said. “Governor Baker is on his way out. We have a new mayor, and in November, almost 80% of the voters in Boston voted to return to an elected school committee. And so why now, when we are moving towards a much more democratic structure in our public schools, are we looking into state receivership when we know the rating system is flawed?”

BESE, boston public schools, DESE, Jeff Riley, Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership, state receivership