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With anticipated changing leadership, consistent low performance, and declining enrollment in Boston schools, a new study from the Pioneer Institute published on Tuesday recommends state receivership for the city’s school system — a controversial move the report contends is now necessary for meaningful reform.
The think tank’s 22-page report, “Boston Public Schools’ Road to Receivership,” draws heavily from a 2020 review from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education of the school district, which, among other conclusions, found BPS lacked a standard strategy for better-equipping low-performing schools with what they need to succeed.
Students who attend those schools are largely from communities of color and are economically disadvantaged.
And though the report was completed just before the COVID-19 pandemic, Cara Candal, the senior fellow at the Pioneer Institute who penned the new study, said the challenges of the health crisis have only exacerbated the problems facing the district.
“Boston’s schools are failing most students,” Candal said in a statement. “The district has had generations to turn around chronically low-performing schools, and despite modest pockets of progress, it has been unable to sustain even small improvements.”
Candal makes the case for five recommendations, chiefly that BPS undergoes state receivership, which would transfer leadership of the district over to the state.
Under receivership, districts that are identified as “chronically underperforming” are assigned a receiver, appointed by state officials, who can assume the authority of superintendent and School Committee and is held accountable by DESE to bring about improvements.
Receivers are given power to initiate “an ambitious and accelerated reform agenda so that students receive the quality of education that they need,” according to DESE.
The option has been credited with improving math and English-language test scores, along with graduation rates, at Lawrence Public Schools, which have been under state receivership since 2011, although local officials are now at odds with DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley over when the district will be turned back over to the city’s jurisdiction.
Candal acknowledges receivership is “not a magic bullet.”
“To date, Lawrence is one of the few successful models of receivership nationwide,” the report states. “Context matters: no receiver should seek to copy what happened in Lawrence. But there are fundamental aspects of that receivership that could provide a roadmap for a takeover of BPS.”
Candal writes Boston schools are “in crisis,” pointing to the fact that about a third of students — or 16,656 pupils — attend schools that fall in the bottom 10 percent in the state.
According to Candal, there is also “no coordinated approach to teaching basic reading and writing skills,” as highlighted in the DESE report.
“Those schools, many of which have been low-performing for years, have made no sustained progress in raising student achievement, despite nearly fifteen years of shifting programming and turnaround initiatives spearheaded by the district,” Candal writes.
Additionally, enrollment has dropped by over 8,000 students over the past 10 years, according to Candal.
“The BPS are not ‘underperforming.’ Parents, students, the business community and the media all know—the Boston Public Schools are failing,” Pioneer Executive Director Jim Stergios said in a statement. “The question is: Why don’t our elected officials and the state and city education bureaucracies feel urgency to force change?”
Candal also cites the district’s high superintendent turnover rate as an accountability issue for the schools.
Officials announced suddenly last month they reached a “mutual” decision for Superintendent Brenda Cassellius to step down in June, after only three years in Boston.
Cassellius is the district’s fifth superintendent in seven years.
“The stakes for the district, which is under-enrolled and seemingly unwilling to come to terms with the long-term financial impacts of declining enrollment are high,” Candal wrote. “The stakes for students and families, who get
only one shot at a K–12 education, are much higher.”
Cassellius was quick on Tuesday to reject the notion BPS should be placed under receivership.
Cassellius held firm that Boston schools are making steady progress toward improvement.
“Long-lasting reform in our district is happening,” Cassellius said in a statement provided to Boston.com. “We are urgently investing in the strategies that will enhance our academic offerings and provide students with the support they need to be successful. Our students can’t wait, so we are delivering for them now.”
Cassellius said the work the district is undertaking “will fundamentally change for the better how students are served in Boston Public Schools for years to come.”
She did not elaborate further on strategies, however.
The superintendent said BPS must partner with DESE to bring about those changes, “but receivership is not the remedy for the issues we face.”
A city spokesperson, in an email, wrote receivership would be “destabilizing” for Boston schools.
“The administration’s focus is on a strong finish to the school year, and in finding a new Superintendent who can empower our school communities with the tools to succeed,” the spokesperson wrote.
Mayor Michelle Wu has made clear she opposes receivership.
On GBH News last month, she said receivership “is not an option,” adding that it is “not a recipe to getting us where we need to go.”
Boston Teachers Union Executive Vice President Erik Berg also took a hardline stance to the notion receivership is a solution.
Berg, in particular, raised concerns receivership does little to realign struggling schools and traps districts in “the tractor beam of state control.”
“Receivership schemes engineered by the same state bureaucrats who have already failed our schools with similar undemocratic government overreach attempts elsewhere in Massachusetts are not the answer for Boston Public Schools,” Berg said in a lengthy statement. “The state’s own data has shown that bureaucrat-led receivership in other districts has repeatedly failed Massachusetts students, families, and communities, especially in communities with significant Black and Brown populations.”
Berg also cast doubt on the metrics used by DESE and the Pioneer Institute in their reports.
Growth scores, not student achievement, are “better available measures,” Berg said.
He pointed to recent research by MIT Nobel Prize-winning economist Josh Angrist and a group of researchers that found rating systems used by state governments are often inaccurate and biased against schools where the majority of students are people of color.
“The report essentially ignores and attempts to whitewash the fact that the state’s criteria for receivership is based on a DESE-determined list that uses outdated, discriminatory, and inaccurate measures of school quality,” Berg said. “If the state or the so-called study from the discredited Pioneer Institute used the better available measures—growth scores, not achievement, as encouraged by top researchers—Boston wouldn’t even be on the list.”
As Candal wrote in her report, receivership, should state officials pursue it in Boston, will not be popular.
And despite Wu’s expressed disinterest in receivership, Candal, in a video posted online, said that with a new mayor — and governor soon to come — there remains an opportunity for reform.
“Students and parents need real change,” she said.
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