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The wrong strategy to fix Lawrence public schools

Posted by Jim Stergios  December 18, 2011 03:20 PM

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With a wondrous display of British understatement, the state’s education commissioner recently announced his "concern" about Lawrence schools. Commissioner Mitch Chester noticed that the Lawrence Public Schools might have “a potential leadership gap” and that “[o]verall, the district is not yet where we expect it to be and want it to be.”

Noted "for his work in accountability and assessment,” one could complain (and I have) that the Commissioner should not have waited 3 ½ years to come to that conclusion. Especially with the financial and political missteps made by the previous superintendent.

So applause for the Commissioner's decision to put into receivership city schools where, as I noted in the Lawrence Eagle Tribune,

10 percent of [the students] drop out each year, and only 30 and 40 percent of [students] are proficient or advanced in math and reading, respectively.

Unfortunately, the fact is that the state’s plan to appoint a single person to drive the Lawrence receivership operation is a one-size-fits-all strategy that has almost not chance of success. That’s because there is little evidence that state-driven, command and control efforts yield to anything but marginal improvements. And that is certainly not enough for the kids or even for the state, which currently picks up 95 percent of the education tab in Lawrence.

(Fact is, the state has owned this mess for a long time.)

As noted in the Eagle Tribune, researchers have ample evidence to work from in evaluating the possibility of a successful state-driven turnaround:

Andrew Smarick, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of education, has conducted research and concluded that "turnaround efforts have for the most part resulted in only marginal improvements." He further notes that "turnarounds are not a scalable strategy for fixing America's troubled urban school systems."

A few years ago, California targeted the lowest-performing 20 percent of its schools for intervention. Three years later, one of the 394 targeted high schools was categorized as having made "exemplary process."

Rather than a receiver who will have "all the powers of the superintendent and school committee" to right Lawrence's schools, what Lawrence families need is access to good options. Options with a proven track record of success.

Instead of the "Superman" strategy, which “has failed repeatedly across the country,” the best way forward is for state leaders (governor, his appointees in the ed bureaucracy, and state legislators from the Greater Lawrence area) need to sit down and craft a comprehensive plan that gives these four options to kids:

  • More charters, faster. Charters in Lawrence are doing a great job, and parents need more of them. Opening failed urban districts to many more charters has worked quite well in New Orleans and Washington, DC, where 70 and 30 percent of kids are now attending charter schools. The state should go out of its way to invite networks like KIPP, SABIS, and so many others to come in with bold expansion proposals.
  • Boston and Springfield have access to the METCO interdistrict choice program. Why not Lawrence?
  • While the Greater Lawrence Vocational Technical School has shown some improvement, it could do better. Regional voc-techs around the state have improved significantly over the past decade (much higher MCAS scores and super low drop out rates). A team of voc-tech peers should be brought in to advise GLVT on how to make even more progress.
  • Finally, give Lawrence families private options they can’t currently afford. Lawrence’s schools spend well beyond double the amount of tuition needed to attend good area private schools, many of which are Catholic. Archdiocesan schools are high-quality options academically, as well as in terms of teaching good social skills and safety.
Creating a tax credit for businesses that give to create scholarships for Lawrence’s kids would likely pass constitutional muster and it would show that our leaders are serious in trying everything possible to give these kids a chance. Now. Not in five or 10 years. They don't have that luxury.

If the state sticks with the same old playbook of top-down reforms, somewhere approaching half the kids in the Lawrence public schools don’t have a prayer of a chance of making it into the middle class. It’s time to have the courage to try things that are politically hard but actually work.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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