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What The State Sees Inside Boston Public Schools: Change, 'Bright Spots,' And Lots of Dysfunction

This article is more than 3 years old.

A long-anticipated state report on the Boston Public Schools landed Friday, hours before the district announced a six-week shutdown in hopes of slowing the spread of coronavirus.

The report (pdf) runs to 291 pages, and most of those are spent identifying a number of what it calls “substantial,” long-term problems with BPS and recommending changes.

Accompanying its release was a memorandum of understanding (pdf) already signed by state education commissioner Jeff Riley and Brenda Cassellius, BPS's superintendent since July.

The MOU commits the district to goals for the years ahead, including definite academic improvements at 34 low-scoring "transformation schools," adding rigorous, state-approved structure to its high-school coursework and overhauling its special education services.

It’s a lot to take in during a public-health crisis. So for now we’re boiling it down to some sentences that give a sense of the report at large and the serious systemic problems it flagged in nearly every aspect of the state's largest school district.

"One principal noted that it was hard to be a leader in Boston: 'We don’t get love, support, and it is discouraging to deal with the challenge of our work not being acknowledged. … We absorb decisions that are made.'" (p. 48)

Perhaps the most important finding in the report goes beyond academics to the culture in and around BPS.

For example, Riley — a former BPS teacher and principal — wrote in his cover letter that “teachers and administrators report little to no confidence in a central office that experiences constant turnover. When central office attempts to provide guidance and structure, it consistently fails to follow through.”

The report authors found no shortage of "creative innovations" or "pilot initiatives" in BPS's paperwork. And yet page after page contains complaints from interviewees about the way those initiatives are decided and implemented. Central office staff "described departments working independently, not trusting each other, and/or competing with one another." Principals said they feel stuck between a rotating cast of policymakers in the district's central office and a public that demands accommodations and accountability.

Teachers are rarely quoted in the report, but in interviews with WBUR, they echoed its findings. Jo Persad, who's taught at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School for four years, said the reason new policies don't "gain traction" in classrooms is that teachers are "not being asked; we’re being told: 'This is what we’re going to do.'"

Others said they were pleasantly surprised by the report's choice to emphasize problems of structure and leadership over classroom-level issues.

"I read [it] expecting it to be something that really blamed teachers, because that’s what I've been used to," said Aded Abioye, a third-grade teacher at the Higginson/Lewis Elementary in Roxbury. "I was relieved."

The report does credit Cassellius for her early efforts to heal what one principal calls the "rift." The listening tour that took her to all 125 BPS schools is applauded as an "ambitious outreach effort" necessary "to 'build the will' for concerted action moving forward."

Boston Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius speaks to community members from the city's Roslindale, West Roxbury and Jamaica Plain neighborhoods. (Carrie Jung/WBUR)
BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius speaks to community members from the city's Roslindale, West Roxbury and Jamaica Plain neighborhoods. (Carrie Jung/WBUR)

“Turnover of senior-level administrators and administrative reorganization has exacerbated the challenge of maintaining focus and sustaining follow through.” (p. 34) 

The last state report on BPS came in 2009, during an era of unusually steady district leadership.

Under Thomas Payzant, superintendent from 1995 to 2006, BPS earned a national reputation for academic growth. Then, during her six-year term, Carol Johnson, amidst some controversy, oversaw continued academic progress and received praise from state officials for efforts to raise standards and streamline district bureaucracy.

But since Johnson's departure in 2013, the district has seen a carousel of leaders — including four new superintendents — pass through its Dudley Square headquarters.

That turnover had ripple effects throughout the entire institution, the report notes: “In October 2019, of the 51 people who had been on the leadership chart in 2016, only 6 remained in the same role, and 39—or 76 percent—no longer worked for the district.”

Rapid turnover atop big-city school districts is not unique to Boston. But in BPS the churn has hobbled the launch of long-needed programs and thwarted efforts to form bonds of trust between school leaders, educators and families.

“While the Boston Public Schools has historically been among the country’s leading urban school districts in student performance, improvement in student academic outcomes has been largely stalled for the past decade.” (p. 1)

When it comes to measuring schools' performance, state regulators still rely mainly on standardized tests. And they find cause for concern in the scores coming out of BPS.

That might come as a surprise at first. There are a number of school districts in Massachusetts—from urban Chelsea and Brockton to more rural places like Orange and Athol—that posted lower average scores on parts of the 2019 MCAS test than did BPS.

Boston students also tend on average to outperform students in large urban school districts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP — an exam administered every two years throughout the United States. But review authors point to recent NAEP scores as one sign that on most academic metrics, the district's "improvement trends have substantially slowed."

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

"Of greater concern is the fact that districtwide averages obscure substantial differences in outcomes among different student populations and schools." (p. 1)

The DESE report highlights BPS's failure to bring large groups of its students — from students of color to students with disabilities and English learners — to the same level of achievement as white and Asian peers. (You can explore those gaps in the WBUR interactive below.)

In focus groups, students told the report's authors that they often felt lacking for challenge.

One said, “Why spend a whole week on a topic that whole class understands? Then we lose motivation and interest.” Another complained that he or she couldn't take AP English courses, suggesting it was because educators assumed that it was "too difficult" for English learners.

As a result, the report recommends the widespread introduction of advanced coursework and MassCore — a more rigorous state framework "intended to align high school coursework with college and workforce expectations" — in BPS high schools. The MOU signed by Riley and Cassellius commits the district to do just that that by the fall of 2021.

“The district’s special education services are in systemic disarray, do not provide appropriate learning opportunities in the least restrictive environment for all students with disabilities, and contribute to a pattern of inequitable access to learning opportunities.” (p. 136) 

The last state report on BPS — published in 2009 — found that the district was not meeting its obligation under federal law to educate students with disabilities in the "least restrictive environment." In the summer of 2013, administrators committed to changing that, mainly by creating more "inclusion" programs in which students with disabilities and those without are educated together.

This report's authors found that that did not go well. One principal told them: “There is no firm definition and the rollout is not logical. Inclusion is done to us." Another said that "principals get called on the carpet for not providing the required mix of services, but we don’t have the staff to do it."

Boston Teachers Union leaders have argued that under "inclusion done right," students on the most comprehensive individualized education programs would make up no more than a quarter of a class. Ideally, they would be taught by two certified teachers and at least one paraprofessional. While Tang clarified that that is only a guideline, she added that the most important thing is that inclusion classrooms be adequately staffed to serve students' individual needs.

Historically, the district has allowed for different approaches to inclusion classrooms. But in a 2018 settlement with the BTU, they agreed to budget for at least one paraprofessional in each such classroom.

Some teachers and families told report authors that's happening in their schools. But Persad told WBUR that Madison Park's version remains imperfect. "At the beginning of the year, we started with 80%" students with disabilities in her co-taught inclusion-physics classroom, with no paraprofessional assigned.

Even after efforts at rebalancing, more than half of her students have IEPs. "I'm the person that's required to service them, and I do so happily," Persad said. "But at the end of the day, with two teachers and 27 students, they're still not getting the supports that they need."

On this point, the MOU is ambitious but vague. It commits the district to "a reconstruction of its special education services and placement options." The district and state regulators have 60 days to "address outstanding details" in the agreement and expect to finalize it in the spring.

“The district’s efforts to support [English learners] are neither leading to students’ ongoing progress in English language skills nor resulting in improving academic achievement.” (p. 142) 

The report doesn't spend as much time on English learners, another group that advocates argue has been too long underserved.

For years BPS struggled both to count and to serve its English learners — so much so that they have been subject to federal civil-rights monitoring since 2010. In a 2012 agreement with the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education, the district committed to "take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal and meaningful participation by ELLs in its instructional programs."

Still, the report finds that only about half of BPS's English learners on average have made progress in language learning each of the past five years. District and school leaders said that "in some schools the number of qualified teachers was not enough to serve the needs" of all their English learners, and that the curricular approach isn't consistent across the district.

The report found that district officials were conscientious about serving students' particular needs — but it added a wrinkle.

"...Interviewees almost always discussed SWDs and ELs in tandem, as the district’s 'vulnerable students,'" the authors wrote. "This is problematic for two reasons: first, because the needs and interventions for the two groups are often very different, and second, because it obscures the group of dually identified students designated as both SWD and EL."

Miren Uriarte, a sociologist who served on the Boston school committee from 2014 to 2018, agreed that those 'dually identified students' represent "a great challenge" for BPS.

"There’s not a very effective way of evaluating those children in their own language and placing them in appropriate settings," Uriarte said. "They have two issues: no longer just that the child has a particular disability, but it has to be addressed in the child’s own language."

The report calls for BPS to redouble its efforts by retraining existing staff and adding more: from multilingual special educators to local graduate teachers with needed language skills.

“...Student transportation is a major expense for the district, in part because of the many ways that parents and the district use transportation to address other structural and program challenges and limitations within the district.” (p. 156) 

Finally, the report turns to BPS's longstanding operational issues. After years of tweaking, BPS buses still tend to drive long distances and run late, at an annual cost of over $100 million. The authors note that makes the district's transportation system "the second most expensive, per student, in the country."

And yet they find that those long bus rides are intertwined with the other issues of uneven academic quality and support. "Some families choose long bus rides for their children to ensure their enrollment in a higher quality school," they write, even at the risk of long days for children and lost learning time.

The report recommends a complicated three-front attack on that conundrum: by reshuffling their best leaders into lower-income neighborhoods and expanding black and Latino families' access to the district's best schools (which will likely involve more long bus trips), all while making its buses run on time, or close to it.

The report highlights another equally daunting operational task: the ongoing renewal of BPS's aging physical plant. Interviewees reported chronic issues, from "dreary" rooms to schools in which "sinks emitted foul odors, adult bathrooms did not have locks, and their schools were not accessible to people with disabilities."

"The review does recognize some bright spots in the district, even as more work remains." (Riley's cover letter)

For all that, the report is not uniformly negative.

The authors credit Boston Mayor Mary Walsh with BuildBPS, a $1 billion investment in renovating and building schools throughout Boston, as well as directing $100 million at the district's most struggling schools and  expanding access to pre-kindergarten. Cassellius is credited for transparency and for setting new goals for focusing on vulnerable students.

For that reason, Cassellius told WBUR that she's "feeling optimistic." The report is "aligned already with [our] strategic direction," Cassellius said. "It's fully funded and we're ready to start implementing."

Cassellius has the backing of the mayor and the teacher's union, an infusion of resources, and a detailed blueprint for change. But she's up against a decade of deferred maintenance, deepening inequity and accumulating distrust. It's sure to be a test of will and patience.


Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Education
Max Larkin is an education reporter.



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