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Will mediocre public schools in Massachusetts take a page from their high-performing Catholic counterparts?
To be fair, it’s a page some excellent public schools also use: Give principals more authority over matters like hiring, unfettered from some school district contract requirements. And give principals and teachers more power to set things like curriculum, unbound from district dictates.
The idea is called school-based management (SBM), and it undergirds a proposal from state Rep. Alice Hanlon Peisch (D-Wellesley), chair of the Joint Education Committee. Her plan would create Innovation Partnership Zones for certain schools in the bottom fifth of the state performance-wise. A school district or the state education commissioner could propose a zone; if enacted, schools in the zone would receive more control over money and management to improve themselves. Boards with representatives of the relevant parties would preside over zones.
Give principals more authority over matters like hiring, unfettered from some school district contract requirements.
The proposal was inspired by a similar, two-year-old effort in Springfield that has shown promise. But school-based management is also common in Catholic education, my personal experience with which ended with Sister Georgine’s third grade back in 1968. Yet the 1993 book "Catholic Schools and the Common Good" studied parochial high schools and found SBM was a typical trait, in addition to core curricula with fewer electives, emphasis on extracurriculars, teacher-student interaction beyond the classroom, and an ethos of respect for people’s dignity.
Why were the book’s authors so interested in how these schools operated? “The accumulated evidence,” they wrote, “indicates that average achievement is somewhat higher in Catholic high schools than in public high schools, and it also suggests that Catholic high schools may be especially helpful for disadvantaged students.”
In this era of inequality, ears should perk up at that. Indeed, Catholic elementary schools achieved similar results with the same methods used at the church’s high schools, a Catholic University of America scholar told me in 2009.
Even so, one of his Catholic U. colleagues warned against expecting miracles: Good Catholic schools (and not all are good) may have intangible but vital advantages over public schools, including the possibility that parents are more active participants in their children’s education. (They are willing to pay tuition, after all.) Quite a few public schools in the 1980s and '90s also tried school-based management, with mixed results, according to one study.
That study found that school-based management must be, um, well managed. According to the researchers, successful schools assumed real authority for their operations and reformed teaching and learning strategies. Schools that merely mired themselves in power struggles and organizational minutiae — "Who, indeed, should have access to the copy machine?” to quote the study — got nowhere.
What about more recent evidence of SBM’s potential? The study’s co-author, Priscilla Wohlstetter of Columbia University Teachers College, told me in a recent interview that charter schools are the best case study. Charters, which she calls “SBM schools on steroids,” can be excellent or bad, with “the vast majority of schools fall[ing] somewhere in the middle. What is noteworthy is that charter schools are overrepresented in the highest ranks of top performers,” while bad charters, “which used to be overrepresented, are now diminishing in numbers,” shuttered for lackluster educational results.
Massachusetts voters killed a proposed expansion of charter schools last November. The ballot initiative ran into hurricane gusts, particularly from teachers.
Of course, Massachusetts voters killed a proposed expansion of charter schools last November. The ballot initiative ran into hurricane gusts, particularly from teachers.
For her part, Peisch wants to allow either local schools or the state to be able to launch an innovation zone, and New Bedford is reportedly pondering the idea.
Experience suggests that schools, if they’re committed to making real change, might profit from Peisch’s approach. With charter expansion dead, she’d offer traditional public schools some of the autonomy that their successful peers, plus thriving charter and Catholic schools, have driven to quality education. The Legislature should give it a try.