The Massachusetts public schools consistently rank at or near the top in the nation for performance on the rigorous, federally backed math and reading exams known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The state has nonetheless struggled with how to improve chronically low-performing districts like the one in the impoverished former mill town of Lawrence.
That district ranked in the bottom 1 percent in the state based on math and English test scores when it was placed in receivership by the state education commissioner in fall 2011. There has been evident improvement in just two years, with high school graduation rates raising to 67 percent in 2014, up from 52 percent in 2011. If skillfully applied, this Massachusetts strategy could become a powerful school reform tool elsewhere as well.
Lawrence, with about 14,000 students, has a history of corruption and dysfunction. It was the first school system taken over under the receivership law passed by the State Legislature in 2010. The Legislature gave the receivers extraordinary powers, including the ability to extend the school day, change collective-bargaining agreements or even require all staff to reapply for their positions. While state lawmakers were willing to sweep the system clean in the worst districts if that’s what it took to end the cycle of failure, that did not happen in Lawrence.
Instead, the receiver, a well-known Boston educator named Jeffrey Riley, understood that the turnaround mission required a scalpel, not a bludgeon, and that even sound plans are likely to fail if parents and community leaders, principals and teachers were not convinced to buy into them.
One of the first things Mr. Riley found was that local parents were eager to help with the schools but had been alienated by school officials who essentially told them to stay away from their buildings. Worse, many school officials had come to believe that dismal results were the best that they could do.
He replaced more than a third of the district’s principals right away. He also pushed out the least effective teachers — about 8 percent of the teacher corps — and cut the central office bureaucracy by about a third, transferring the savings to the schools. He created leadership roles and awards of recognition for excellent teachers and devised a system for continuously moving poor performers out of the district.
Meanwhile, he lengthened the school day in grades K through 8; created programs to provide still more instruction time for struggling students; and developed a dropout prevention effort that actively seeks out at-risk students before they cut their ties to school. Most interesting, the system brought in charter school operators to take charge of some the lowest-performing schools on the condition that they accept students from the neighborhood instead of filling seats through a lottery. And he did this with the teachers in the Lawrence system remaining unionized.
A study covering the first two years of the Lawrence turnaround, by Education Resource Strategies, a nonprofit education consulting group, shows promising results. Along with higher graduation rates, math and English scores have both shown growth.
Lawrence clearly has a long way to go. But just as clearly, structural reform, starting with the school leadership, can lead to progress in a system that had lost hope just a few years ago.
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