Mass. education official wants Boston schools labeled 'underperforming'

Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley. (State House News Service)
Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley. (State House News Service)

Jeff Riley, Massachusetts' commissioner for elementary and secondary education, is recommending that Boston Public Schools be classified as "underperforming," according to a letter sent Friday to members of the state education board.

City officials and some outside observers, who believed that Boston could and should reach a voluntary agreement with the state, criticized the step, which came just days before the district will select its next leader. Paul Reville, the state's former education secretary, said the announcement felt "hasty and unwarranted" coming when it did.

The proposal stops short of recommending that Boston schools pass fully under state control, known as receivership. But it would put the state's largest district on the hook for swift improvement without eliminating that option down the road.

Two districts labeled as "underperforming" by the state eventually entered receivership years later: Holyoke in 2015 and Southbridge in 2016.

Riley's letter said his proposal follows "substantial yet ultimately insufficient" negotiations with Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and district officials on subjects from facilities repairs to transportation to student safety.

But Riley's letter centers on his "grave concerns" over the quality of data collected by the district regarding on-time school bus performance, graduation rates and facilities repairs.

In a five-page letter to the board recommending the move, Riley said negotiations broke down over the city's resistance to an independent data auditor hired and overseen by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

In an interview with WBUR Friday, Riley explained his position.

"We feel that we as a state have a responsibility to bring in an auditor that is not under the control of BPS ... and we need to be able to have the appropriate data to truly improve the school district," he said.

In a June 21 letter to Riley from Wu, school committee chair Jeri Robinson and outgoing Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, the officials said they had agreed to hire an independent data auditor subject to Riley's approval and report their findings to all parties.

"We believe this meets and exceeds DESE's stated goal of third-party access... without imposing a version of top-down control," they wrote.

Riley stressed that this plan stops short of receivership, saying it will not have any impact on the district's collective bargaining agreement with teachers. He pointed blame at a "dysfunctional central office that needs to be fixed."

The proposal comes on the second day of finalist interviews for the Boston Public Schools' superintendent job. The Boston School Committee is scheduled to vote next Wednesday to choose Cassellius' successor.

That timing bothered education veterans like Reville, saying the redesignation effectively "upstages the process of selecting a superintendent."

Riley plans to introduce the proposal at the state board of education's meeting on Tuesday.

If the board votes to approve it, Boston would be deemed "underperforming" as of July 1 — the day after Cassellius's departure. Under state law, the classification permits the state to appoint "an assistance lead [or] accountability monitor" to visit the district, and would require Boston to develop an improvement plan and submit it to state education officials.

According to a footnote in Riley's letter, it has been 15 years since any single district was classified as "underperforming"; schools in Randolph and Gill-Montague received the designation in 2007. All in all, two out of five districts deemed "underperforming" eventually passed into full receivership.


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



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