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In Lawrence And Boston, Jeff Riley Seen As An Unconventional Innovator

Jeff Riley (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
Jeff Riley (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

This is one of our profiles of the three finalists for Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education. Each of the finalists will be interviewed publicly on Friday. Board members plan to vote on the next commissioner on Monday. You can read our profiles of the other two finalists, Angélica Infante-Green and Penny Schwinn.

Jeff Riley took over as the receiver-superintendent of Lawrence Public Schools in 2012 at a low moment for the district.

At that point, about one in 10 high school students was dropping out every year. Only about half graduated in four years. And 37 percent of the district’s students earned a “warning/failing” score on the MCAS math exam. In science, that number was even higher.

But Frank McLaughlin regretted, more than anything, the culture around education in Lawrence.

“Prior to Jeff becoming the superintendent, I was dealing with another gentleman, and he ended up incarcerated” for embezzlement, remembered McLaughlin, president of the teacher’s union in Lawrence. “There was widespread corruption.”

In 2011, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) had never taken over a struggling school district before. But then-Commissioner Mitchell Chester made the case that nothing less than a comprehensive “turnaround” led by a powerful, state-appointed receiver would help Lawrence.

McLaughlin said he still is not sure whether state-imposed turnaround was necessary, but he describes the period of Riley's receivership with pride: a minor educational miracle with teachers at the center of it.

For a union leader to embrace a “turnaround” superintendent appointed by the state is unusual. It's supposed to be a remedial process, but it can be punishing for teachers and staff. In Boston, for example, most or all of the teachers in a "turnaround school" are usually ‘excessed’ — fired and asked to reapply to their jobs.

Debate Over 'Bold Action'

So when Riley took over, fear was brewing among the rank and file in Lawrence.

“We had folks that were on the far right that were gonna come in and do a ‘Katrina moment,’ ” McLaughlin said. He’s alluding to the urging from groups such as The Pioneer Institute for “bold action” in Lawrence, akin to the one New Orleans took in converting most of its public schools to charters after the storm.

But Riley didn't lay off teachers en masse. He spent his first few months as receiver with a listening tour at schools. Eventually, he forced out about half of the district's principals, but only about 10 percent of its teachers. Others took early retirement, but for the most part, “if you were doing your job, you didn’t have a problem," said McLaughlin.

Riley and his defenders might say he did take "bold action," but of a more sensible and effective kind, based on his prior career.

Following strategies he used as principal at Boston's Edwards Middle School, he lengthened the school day and introduced the Sontag Prize, a program that rewarded excellent teachers with an honorarium and extra professional development.

Those teachers also got a chance to teach in Riley's signature reform, "acceleration academies" — single-subject, small-group classes for struggling students during February and April vacation.

And indeed, things started to turn around. Between 2011 and 2016, the district's four-year graduation rate climbed by 20 percentage points.

(Max Larkin/WBUR)
(Max Larkin/WBUR)

And at least in mathematics, the "academies" made a big difference, raising participants' test scores by a quarter of a standard deviation. That's an impressive result for any academic intervention, said Beth Schueler, who studied Riley’s tenure in Lawrence for her dissertation at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Riley's idea is now spreading throughout Massachusetts, including in Holyoke and Chelsea.

A Third Way

Just as unusual, that change came without generating anything like the resistance that turnaround typically does.

McLaughlin, the union president, said he had his quibbles with the way Riley handled collective bargaining — among other things, pegging teachers' pay to their performance — but he declined to speak ill of the receiver.

In an academic paper written by Schueler, Riley describes himself this way: "Sometimes I take shots from extremists in the traditional union camp. Sometimes I take shots from the extremists in the 'charter schools are the only way' camp. We don't need a camp ... this third way is what we're about."

On top of his ideological pragmatism, Schueler said, Riley courted stakeholders' approval on a personal level — showing up at a Labor Day breakfast and sitting down, in private, for beers with leaders from the charter-school sector.

Riley's time with Teach For America may have shaped his attitudes, Schueler added. He taught in Baltimore as a member of one of the program's early cohorts, beginning in 1998. All three of the DESE commissioner finalists participated in the program.

"In some ways, that shows through in some of [his] pro-teacher rhetoric, and positivity around educators being the key to implementing effective reforms," Schueler said.

He did have the advantage, she added, of knowing that if Lawrence's teachers didn't work with him, the "Katrina moment" crowd was standing by, ready for starker change.

Riley's Time in Boston

Carol Johnson, former superintendent of Boston Public Schools, remembered Riley as a good listener, one who tended to think on a grand scale. That's why she hired him to become the district's first chief innovation officer in 2009.

"One thing he understands is, how do you create incentives for people to participate, to work hard, or to do things differently?"

Carol Johnson, former superintendent of BPS

At the Edwards, Riley was an early advocate for extended learning time, which is now a fact of life at about half of Boston Public Schools. But more important than the extra time was how students spent it, Johnson said.

"If you interviewed middle-school kids and said, 'Do you want to stay after school an hour later?' Most kids would say no," Johnson laughed. But at the Edwards, students told her yes. They liked that Riley gave them choices among arts, dance and other enrichment activities.

Riley's understanding of the carrots that go along with the typical reformist sticks still endears him to Johnson.

"One thing he understands is, how do you create incentives for people to participate, to work hard, or to do things differently?" she said.

Johnson was clear that when Riley was her underling, they didn't always agree.

"He certainly had lots of innovative ideas that we explored. Some were easier to implement than others," Johnson remembered. But, she added, "he has a great sense of urgency" about urban education, and she hopes he'll get a chance to bring that sensibility to the state level.

Work Left To Do

As Riley plans to step down from his post of receiver in June, and eyes the commissioner office, he and others have made clear that Lawrence's turnaround is far from complete.

(Max Larkin/WBUR)
(Max Larkin/WBUR)

The impressive gains in math scores weren't matched across the board. The "acceleration academy" in English language arts wasn't as effective as it was for math, Schueler's research found.

It's a persistent problem in districts like Lawrence, where more than 70 percent of students' first language isn't English. And the district's dropout rate is still twice the state average.

With Riley's departure, the district enters a period of uncertainty. After June, it will be managed by a board of state and local officials, including Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera.

It remains to be seen whether it could backslide in his absence or whether the pattern of progress could continue — with or without Riley overseeing it at the state level.

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Max Larkin Twitter Reporter
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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