Schools

‘Incredibly disheartening’: What DESE said about the state of Boston schools

"There are just a myriad of problems here, many of them emanating from a bloated central office that is often incapable of the most basic functions."

Commissioner Jeffrey Riley speaks at a press conference in January. Jonathan Wiggs /Globe Staff
Boston Public Schools

Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley on Tuesday called a new report by his department on the performance of Boston Public Schools “incredibly disheartening” as he raised grave concern for student safety and placed blame on the district’s failure to perform basic functions on a “bloated” central office.

The scathing 188-page report, published Monday, says BPS is incapable of adequately managing both core operations, such as student transportation, and critical academic supports, particularly those for special education and English language students.

“There are just a myriad of problems here, many of them emanating from a bloated central office that is often incapable of the most basic functions,” Riley told the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. “The result is that students, especially our most vulnerable students are being denied the quality education that they deserve.”

Advertisement:

Chief among his concerns is student safety, he said.

“The sheer frequency and number of incidents we’re seeing, even when you factor in the size of Boston is staggering, and I’m worried about the safety of the students,” Riley said.

The findings are “so serious” that Riley broke the board’s typical protocol to share a draft of the report with Mayor Michelle Wu last week, he said.

The two have already begun discussions over next steps, including assurances Riley wants from the city before BPS hires its next superintendent, Riley said. The district is aiming to have its new leader in place in time for the fall.

Wu, in testimony, indicated the city is interested in pursuing some form of a partnership with state officials that does not include an outright state takeover of BPS — a prospect that has startled many city leaders, teachers, and education advocates.

This week, Boston will submit a proposal to DESE “that establishes key areas for improvement with clear opportunities for support and technical assistance from the state,” Wu said.

“Now is a time to build on the progress of the past three years [and] lay a foundation for systemic change while we also onboard our next superintendent,” Wu said, referencing improvements made under Superintendent Brenda Cassellius since DESE’s last BPS probe in 2020.

Advertisement:

Riley said he is “hopeful and optimistic that we can come to some kind of agreement,” possibly within the next week.

“Some of these basic functions, I believe we need assurances from the mayor now that they are going to handle and take care of this,” Riley said.

The commissioner, on Tuesday, therefore stopped short of issuing any recommendation on whether state receivership of BPS is a viable option for the state, even as the board heard substantial testimony urging against a state takeover of city schools.

Those who spoke during a two-plus hour public comment period, which included several city leaders, argued receivership would strip BPS from democratic decision making, just as Wu settles into her first term and as the district searches for its next chief executive.

“As we move forward with the new mayor, administration, the most diverse City Council in Boston’s history, and a new Boston Public Schools superintendent, we need to give the new team the opportunity to lead,” City Council President Ed Flynn told the board.

Many pointed to the state’s poor track record of improving student performance in districts under its leadership, such as Lawrence and Holyoke, as even evidence against making the same decision for Boston schools.

Advertisement:

“While receivership and the results of them are not quite clear, what receivership would do is give up on Boston,” said state Sen. Lydia Edwards.

“I not only completely oppose it, but I think it’s one of the worst things you can do to a community,” she added.

What the report found

DESE’s review is the department’s second since March 2020.

The initial report found “serious challenges and deficiencies across a broad range of district functions,” including lack of adequate services for students with disabilities and English language learners as defined by law and operational services such as student transportation.”

DESE also outlined that “entrenched district systems…contributed to a pattern of inequitable access to quality education,” in a summary included in the latest report.

Cassellius and DESE reached a Memorandum of Understanding following the first report, with a goal to improve performance in select areas.

The latest report commends Cassellius for making some progress since then, particularly through developing a strategic plan.

But DESE’s report expresses concerns about whether that progress can be maintained and expanded, and says BPS lacks “robust” systems to monitor improvements and initiatives.

The report paints a picture of poor conditions within BPS, and says the district has failed to perform even basic functions.

“The problems facing BPS are abundantly clear,” the report reads. “This moment requires bold, student-centered decision-making and strong execution to ensure the district delivers the quality education its students deserve. BPS needs immediate improvement.”

The district has “shown little to no progress in addressing the needs of its students with disabilities, English learners, and students at the district’s lowest-performing schools,” the report states.

Advertisement:

Special education services remain “in disarray,” as Black and brown students are disproportionately placed in “substantially separate settings,” the report says.

“Hundreds of English learners are still not receiving their required (English language) instruction, and appropriate strategies and systems to improve and monitor quality of instruction are not in place,” officials wrote.

DESE found BPS is failing to meet “acceptable minimum standards for essential district functions” — transportation among them.

Buses often do not bring students on time to classes, and uncovered bus routes impact thousands of students a month: In January, 1,148 uncovered routes affected 16,000 student rides, according to the report.

In short, transportation has further deteriorated since 2020.

“The number of children that were not picked up by buses this year is just unconscionable,” Riley said.

DESE officials had trouble even deciphering that data, as data inconsistencies and inaccuracies plague BPS, the report says.

“We did not get clear numbers on on-time arrivals, graduation rates, even the number of bathrooms renovated,” Riley said. “Information coming out of that central office is inaccurate and hard to believe, and has been proven in multiple ways to be wrong.”

Riley said the district has taken steps over the past two years to improve bathroom conditions, but many facilities still need to be fixed.

“Significant variation in the quality of the district’s facilities remains a key issue, and yet the district still lacks a comprehensive facilities masterplan to guide decisions about new school buildings, renovations, repairs, and closures,” the report says.

(Wu’s proposed $2 billion Green New Deal for BPS to improve school properties announced this month was not considered in the report, which reviewed district conditions and plans as of April 1.)

Advertisement:

BPS also lacks an effective and consistent system for recording and responding to complaints from student families regarding bullying and other safety issues, according to the review.

Additionally, the district has not made progress in “tackling systemic barriers to district improvement such as overhauling the school assignment system.”

“The district has also experienced steady and significant enrollment declines, yet BPS lacks operational plans that appropriately address excess capacity in the system, resulting in a failure to maximize the impact of district’s considerable financial resources,” the report states.

What the commissioner wants to see

Riley said Tuesday he wants to see a statement of assurance from Wu on some of the most pressing and urgent matters.

“These are just high-level things that I think we need to see,” Riley said. “I’d like to have the time and space to work with the mayor to work on time and dates.”

Specifically, Riley wants assurances on certain actions regarding student safety, transportation, special education, English learners, data transparency, and facilities:

Commissioner Jeff Riley presented these actions that he wants to see BPS take. – DESE via screenshot

Several board members expressed initial support for Riley’s approach, although Matt Hills, a Newton-based member who favors receivership, questioned what results an agreement with the city would actually yield.

“If God was superintendent, God would need receivership to be effective here,” Hills said.

Riley said his approach is based on “common courtesy and common sense.”

“We have to talk to all stakeholders and do it in a way that’s impactful,” Riley said. “And if I believe there is a path forward that’s in the best interest of the children in Boston, I’m going to do that.”

Advertisement:

“I want to explore every avenue going forward,” he added.

Conversation

This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com