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Scot Lehigh

Schools must put up or shut up

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / March 18, 2011

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PAUL REVILLE, the state secretary of education, has an unvarnished message for the Commonwealth’s traditional schools.

“This is your chance to beat the charter schools at their own game,’’ says Reville. “We’ve given you the tools to meet the charter challenge. Now it’s time to put up or shut up.’’

That uncharacteristically — and refreshingly — blunt talk from the state’s usually diplomatic education chief is right on target. Last year’s sweeping education reform bill gave traditional schools the ability to transform themselves into flexible, charter-like “innovation schools,’’ with autonomy over schedule, curriculum, budget, staffing, policies, and professional development. The hope was that by now, we’d be in a period of exciting in-district innovation, but so far, the response from the traditional schools has been only lukewarm.

That’s not to say the law itself isn’t working. Much of it is. The statute did three big things: It gave superintendents broad powers to overhaul chronically troubled schools. It lifted the cap on charter schools to provide students more opportunities in underperforming districts. And it gave the traditional schools the power to innovate to meet the charter challenge.

Progress has been good on the first two fronts. So far, some 35 troubled schools, half the number eligible in any three-year period, have been targeted for turnaround efforts. Meanwhile, the state board of education just approved 16 new charter schools (13 independently run Commonwealth charters, three in-district charters), the largest number ever okayed in a single year. In Boston alone, there will be more than 400 new Commonwealth charter slots come fall. More seats will become available across the state as charters add grades and the cap inches upward for the next six years.

But we haven’t seen an enthusiastic response when it comes to innovation schools. To date, only four such schools are running or definitely set to open — and only one is in eastern Massachusetts. That’s the extended-learning-time Paul Revere Innovation School in Revere, a district with a dynamic superintendent and a cooperative union.

Across the state, only 28 preliminary plans (or prospectuses) for innovation schools have been approved on the local level; to put that in perspective, there are some 1,800 schools in Massachusetts.

“This is getting off to a slow start, which disappoints me,’’ said state Representative Marty Walz, co-author of the law.

Reville is more measured. “We had 28,’’ he said, “I would like to have had 58.’’

Further, 10 of those preliminary plans lack union sign-off, which could portend a problem down the road, given that a two-thirds faculty vote is ultimately needed to establish an innovation school.

What’s more, there’s a lamentable lack of activity in most of the state’s larger cities. Boston, with eight initial plans (five with union agreement), and Worcester, with five, lead the pack. But there’s only one such plan from Springfield. There are none from Lowell, Cambridge, Brockton, Fall River, Quincy, or Lynn. New Bedford has one.

Nor has the law catalyzed a district-wide embrace of change in Boston. Despite one of the shortest urban-district days in the nation and pay that’s among the very best in the state, the Boston Teachers Union has insisted teachers must be compensated for any extension of their day. Further, after 18 or so formal negotiating sessions, little headway has been made on other reforms Superintendent Carol Johnson considers vital: a teacher-evaluation process that includes student progress, a requirement that principals agree before teachers can use seniority rights to claim a position in their school, and more flexible work rules.

So what happens if more meaningful change doesn’t come to the traditional system? Charter supporters pointedly note that there were 11,000 applications for the 1,200 available Commonwealth charter seats in Boston. Although that figure no doubt reflects multiple-school applicants, it still indicates considerable unmet need.

“If there is continued resistance to common-sense reforms, I think that the demand for more charters will rise, particularly from black and Hispanic parents,’’ said Boston Foundation President Paul Grogan.

That’s a prospect stake-holders in the traditional schools should keep in mind. It’s hard to put it more pithily than Reville does: It’s time to put up or shut up.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.