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News and Features: Features

High-stakes test

Trying to fix a broken school district may be the right thing to do, but no one has ever succeeded at it. Can Lawrence break the mold?

BY: Michael Jonas
Photographs By: Michael Manning
Issue: Fall 2012


 
Lawrence school receiver Jeff Riley greets families in late August on the first day of
school at Lawrence High School
jeff riley received a fairly consistent piece of advice when he was considering the offer to become receiver for the Lawrence public schools, the person in charge of the state takeover of the chronically low-performing system. “Most people I talked to told me not to come, not to do it, that it was too far gone,” Riley says of the district, which serves an overwhelming low-income population of 13,000 students.

The advice was, in many ways, well considered. In asking Riley to lead the turnaround of the Lawrence schools, state officials wanted him to do something that, across the vast span of American public education, has never been done: transform an entire low-performing, high-poverty school district so that strong student achievement becomes the rule, not the exception.

Public school systems are among the most hidebound institutions in American life. They are often beholden to cumbersome bureaucracies and restrictive teacher contracts, with a school calendar still organized around the seasonal rhythms of 19th century agrarian life. Layer over that the effects of entrenched poverty in Lawrence, where 87 percent of students come from low-income households, and the challenge to bring about big change looks almost insurmountable.

In January, against the sound advice he was getting, Riley, who was serving as a deputy superintendent in the Boston public schools, accepted the job. He and state education officials readily concede they are up against heavy odds. “We have a long history in this country of state takeovers of chronically underperforming districts, but a dismal record of those takeovers resulting in academic improvement,” says Paul Reville, the state’s secretary of education.

The reason why Riley and state officials think it might be possible to defy that dismal track record is because they are breaking strongly with a long history of state takeovers that relied on sweeping turnaround plans under a leader brought in to impose a district-wide fix on broken schools. The Lawrence turnaround plan is based instead on the idea that responsibility for getting schools on track rests with each individual school. It calls for principals and teachers to devise plans to make greater use of assessment data on individual students’ strengths and weaknesses and to design a richer learning experience using added hours that all schools will be given. Schools that show an ability to take charge of their own destiny will be held accountable for strong student outcomes, but given lots of freedom over how to get there and allowed to make their own decisions about curriculum, budgeting, and other school-based policies. 

“This is not a top-down, one-size-fits all approach,” says Mitchell Chester, the state education commissioner. “This turns some of the conventional thinking about school districts on its head. It talks about a system of schools rather than a school system. It’s a radical change from the way we typically do business. What we do know for sure is what isn’t working. The way the district was operated and structured was delivering shameful results for students. I’m convinced we can do much better than that.”

As a state-appointed receiver under a new education law passed two years ago, Riley was given broad powers to formulate a plan to turn around a system where half of all students never graduate and where achievement scores rank at or near the bottom among all districts in the state. The elected school committee in Lawrence has essentially been mothballed and stripped of any power. The teachers’ union has been largely marginalized by the terms of the receivership, which allow Riley to void many aspects of its contract. The receivership was granted for three years, but Chester says it’s likely to be extended in order to ensure the district makes substantial—and sustainable—gains.

 
 Riley: "I'm either in the sweet spot or the cross hairs."

The added school hours and greater school-level autonomy the plan calls for are hallmarks of charter schools. Leaders of high-performing charter schools uniformly say these are essential ingredients of their success. The Lawrence plan didn’t stop at just borrowing some of these practices. Two organizations that run successful charter schools were brought in and handed control of two of the lowest-performing Lawrence schools. Another charter school operator has opened a new Lawrence high school targeting dropouts, while a successful math tutoring program developed by Match Charter High School in Boston school is being deployed in two of the four academies that Lawrence High School is divided into. The takeover schools and new high school are part of the district system, however, and their teachers are members of the Lawrence teachers union.

Riley is trying to ride above the fractious wars that have pitted teachers unions and district school advocates against charter schools and their allies who say the publicly funded, but independently operated, schools are the best hope for children stuck in low-performing urban school systems. “There are zealots on either side,” says Riley. “I don’t care about public or charter—I just want good schools.” The 41-year-old Stoughton native says he’s trying to “create a space” where a district system and many of the best qualities of charter schools can be brought together, and he is hoping that this mix just might be the elusive recipe for fixing a failing district.

The plan has angered union leaders in Lawrence. It has also drawn the attention—and ire—of the national president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, who says it represents reform done the wrong way, by casting off many of the protections teachers enjoy under traditional contracts. Meanwhile, some reform advocates say that, given the desperate condition of the Lawrence schools, the plan amounts to a half-measure. They say the state should unshackle the schools altogether from a broken district model and let charter schools with a proven track record take over entirely.

“I’m either in the sweet spot or the cross hairs,” says Riley. If that’s an uncomfortable place to be, the affable school leader with a shiny scalp tries to brush off the pressure. “You have people unhappy on both sides,” he says. “I hope I don’t lose my hair.”

A long slide down

“A legacy of learning” reads the quote in large lettering above the entrance to Lawrence High School. You have to look closely to see the faint outline still visible beneath it where other lettering has been removed from the concrete façade. “Dr. Wilfredo Laboy,” it reads. Laboy, the last superintendent in Lawrence, had the quote put on the high school, with his name under it, as if he were the second coming of Horace Mann. “A legacy of looting” might have been more appropriate, as Laboy was the third straight Lawrence superintendent to be fired because of allegations of wrongdoing. In Laboy’s case, the coda to a lackluster reign was a conviction last March on five fraud and embezzlement counts related to misusing school department funds and having district employees carry out personal errands. Laboy received a 90-day jail sentence followed by a year of home confinement.

It was only the latest setback for a district that has struggled for decades to get learning on track for students in Lawrence, 90 percent of whom are Latino and one-quarter of whom have limited English language skills. More than two years of uncertain leadership followed Laboy’s exit in 2009, with the city’s school committee unable to make headway in naming a permanent replacement. Already low achievement scores fell even further, with three-quarters of the district’s schools experiencing declines in proficiency rates on the statewide MCAS test during the 2010-11 school year. By 2011, Lawrence was in the bottom 1 percent of all districts in the state, with less than 30 percent of students scoring proficient or above in math and only 41 percent proficient in English. Meanwhile, the city once known for its bustling textile industry has become a drop-out factory, with half of its students not finishing high school.

Against that backdrop, state officials moved last fall to put the Lawrence district in receivership because of chronic low student achievement. It marked the first time the state has exercised the power to take over a low-performing district under a 2010 education reform law. Wilfredo Laboy was Lawrence's third straight school superintendent to be fired because of wrongdoing allegations.“We would not have taken this on if we didn’t have the conviction that, short of receivership, the likelihood of turning things around in the Lawrence school district was slim to none,” Chester said, in announcing the turnaround plan in May.   

The goals the plan sets forth for the district include moving within three years from close to the bottom among the state’s 24 Gateway Cities to among the top five in graduation rates and English and math proficiency, and closing the achievement gap between the district and statewide averages for those three measures within five to seven years.

The plan is not only built on the idea that schools can improve the most when they are cut loose from tight control from the central office, it also embraces a movement to add more time to the school calendar for academics as well as for enrichment programs such as art, music, and sports. Many educators believe more time is a critical ingredient in successful schools with lots of students from poor families, who are often behind academically and don’t have access to the sort of afterschool activities that make for a well-rounded education among middle-class children.

The schools being run by outside groups in Lawrence have longer days starting this year—about eight hours instead of the standard six-and-half. The rest of the district’s schools are to spend time this year devising plans, to be implemented next fall, for using roughly 175 more hours per year for elementary and middle school students and 140 hours more for high school students. The added time works out to the equivalent of 20 to 25 more days per year. But in keeping with the idea of decentralizing decision-making, it’s being left up to each school to figure out how best to use the added time. 

“It could be a longer day, it could be a longer year, it could be acceleration academies, which happen over the vacations,” says Riley. “This idea that I’m going to come in and suddenly be Darth Vader and everyone has to march in lockstep—this one-size-fits-all, blanket approach that we’ve seen over and over in urban education reform doesn’t work.”

Aiming higher

 
 Riley (left) and Scott Given (right), the CEO of Unlocking Potential, at Up Academy Lawrence Middle School.
The outside partners Lawrence has brought in are, in some ways, the shock troops who have been practicing the decentralized, school-based accountability that the turnaround plan preaches as the way forward for all the district’s schools. Greater school-based autonomy was supposed to be a part of the standards-and-accountability era that brought MCAS testing to Massachusetts, but school systems have largely imposed the standards without granting the autonomy that was envisioned.

High-performing charter schools have become the template for many changes being pushed not only in the Lawrence receivership but in reform efforts across the country. Longer days, more school control over staffing and budgeting, intensive use of student assessment data, and higher expectations for student achievement are all common to charter schools. The turnaround plan says the broad autonomy the outside partners have had to run their other schools “has yielded significant gains in student achievement” and “demonstrates the potential that our own schools can attain.”  

Though charters have been the model for many of these approaches, district schools have also employed some of these practices—and shown great results. Among them is Edwards Middle School in Boston, where Riley served as principal from 2007 to 2009. Since 2006, Edwards School students have cut the gap between their English scores and the statewide average by 80 percent, and 8th graders at the school now outperform the statewide proficiency average in math by 8 points.

Under Riley’s leadership, the Edwards became one of a handful of Massachusetts schools taking part in a state initiative testing longer school days. Riley also brought an intensive, data-focused approach that helped teachers tailor lessons to individual students’ skills and needs. “I think that’s a big part of the story at the Edwards,” he says.

Riley also maneuvered as much as he could around some of the top-down structure of the school system that he thought held back efforts to unleash creative approaches to improving the school. “I often felt the district office was an impediment,” he confesses. “The great irony of my life is that I then became a district administrator.” But that experience, he says, has a lot to do with why he’s an administrator determined to reduce the stifling effect that a central office can have. Riley says he wants to hold Lawrence schools accountable for dramatically raising student outcomes, but not micromanage how they get those results.

Getting results, Scott Given tells a classroom full of Lawrence teachers on an early August morning, has to be their obsession. Given is CEO of Unlocking Potential, a Boston-based nonprofit that is taking over the Leonard Middle School in Lawrence, and he’s speaking at the first day of orientation for the 15 teachers who have been hired for the school’s 6th grade. (The new school, which will be known as Up Academy Lawrence Middle School, will take over the 7th and 8th grades at the school next fall.) 

The outside partners Lawrence brought in were given full authority to hire teachers for the schools they’ll run. Teachers already in the Lawrence system were free to apply to the partner-operated schools, but very few did. Of the 15 teachers Given and his team have hired,  only three were in the district last year, all of them through the Teach for America program that trains recent college graduates to work in low-income school districts.

On the 2011 MCAS, only 11 percent of the students at the Leonard School were proficient in math, while just 36 percent scored proficient in English. Given tells the teachers that it’s likely only 1 of every 20 students going through the school in the past wound up graduating from college. “That’s why we’re here,” he says. “It’s our job to do something about that.”

The track record shows that organizations such as Unlocking Potential have been able to dramatically change the trajectory for students like those in Lawrence. A year ago, the organization took over a failing Boston middle school under a provision of state law that allows charter schools to operate within a district system. During the school’s first year, Up Academy Charter School recorded the highest growth in math scores of any district school in the state. On the English test, the school had the highest growth of any district middle school in Boston.

 The other school operators recruited to Lawrence have shown similarly impressive results. Community Day Charter School in Lawrence, which is now in charge of the early grades at the district’s Arlington Elementary School, had the highest 6th grade English MCAS scores in the state for 2011. Students at Phoenix Academy Charter School, which opened in Chelsea in 2006 and targets high school drop-outs and those at risk for leaving school, have proficiency rates in math and English that far surpass those of the district schools in Chelsea and Lawrence. The organization that operates the Chelsea school opened a high school this fall in Lawrence targeting the same population as part of the district turnaround plan.

Up Academy Lawrence held an open house over the summer to let families know about the new school taking root at the Leonard Middle School building, “People showed up in droves,” says Tyler Cote, the principal of the new school. “The promise we made to them that night was simple but very profound: You send your student to our school and we will put them on a path to college.” 

That is hardly the sort of expectation families have had for the schools in Lawrence. Felix and Cruzlandia Bernabel were prepared to pull up stakes and leave Lawrence rather than send the oldest of their three sons, Emanuel, to 6th grade at the Leonard Middle School this fall. “We were planning to move to Methuen because the Lawrence school was so bad that we didn’t want our son to be there,” says Cruzlandia Bernabel.

What the family heard at the Up Academy open house “was hope for something different,” says Felix Bernabel, a machine operator at the Polartec textile factory in Lawrence. “We decided to put our trust in it. What I really care about is a secure future for my kid,” he says.

Labor pains

Frank McLaughlin, the president of the Lawrence Teachers Union, is sitting in his office in the Everett Mill, a mammoth former textile factory that sits on the edge of downtown Lawrence. The connection to Lawrence’s rich labor history is hardly lost on the 57-year-old McLaughlin, who has taught in the Lawrence schools for 33 years and graduated from the high school where he now teaches social studies. It is late August and McLaughlin is talking about the upcoming plans for a huge Labor Day march and rally to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Bread and Roses Strike. The famous walk-out by poorly paid textile workers in Lawrence is one of the iconic moments in US labor history. “Unions have done a lot to create the middle class, to pull these families that come to Lawrence out of poverty,” says McLaughlin.

With the receivership stripping his union of much of its power, “we’re going backwards,” says McLaughlin. It’s “appalling,” he says, that on the 100th anniversary of the Bread and Roses Strike, “they gutted our contract.”

The receivership allows Riley to develop a plan for “performance-based” pay, something unions have opposed unless bonuses are school-wide. It also provides, among other things, that teacher assignment decisions and layoffs be made based on performance, not seniority. The Lawrence teachers union says the schools haven't been chronically underperforming as much as chronically corrupt.School reform debates have become the place in American politics where traditional battle lines get muddled. Unions helped to lift immigrant workers who toiled in Lawrence’s mills, and they have helped teachers earn deserved protections and decent pay. But they are now often viewed by reform advocates as an obstacle to the kinds of change needed to give students the quality education that is today’s ticket into the middle class.

Over the summer, Riley exercised his authority to conduct a review of all teachers in Lawrence who had been flagged because of concerns over the quality of their work. Out of a teaching force of about 900 teachers, just 58 were identified for possible action. Of these, only two were ultimately fired, with 31 retiring or resigning, 15 put on improvement plans to be monitored over the current school year, and another 10 cleared entirely to return to classrooms. Riley also dismissed one principal, while another left voluntarily.

“We’re not an employment agency” is a favored line Riley uses to emphasize that good  outcomes for students has to be the driving factor in personnel policies. At the same time, given the broad authority he had to dismiss teachers, Riley applied an awfully light touch. “You can’t fire your way to results,” says Riley, who maintains that the vast majority of the city’s teachers are doing a good job—or have the potential to do so with the right support and school leadership. “I’m not sure that Law¬rence teachers have been given a broad framework of what good teaching looks like and what the exectations are,” he says. 

Though Riley hardly took a heavy-handed approach to the teacher reviews, union anger boiled over in August at what McLaughlin says was the knee-jerk dismissal of a union proposal for the new teacher evaluation system being developed as well as over a dispute over how much additional pay teachers will receive for working added hours as part of the longer school day or year.

McLaughlin fired off a memo on the turnaround plan to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the national union the Lawrence teachers belong to—and gave a copy to the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune. “Lawrence teachers union head blasts turnaround plan,” read the headline of the Eagle-Tribune story. “The honeymoon is over,” a spokesman for the union told the paper.

McLaughlin’s memo to Weingarten zeroed in on Chester, the state education commissioner, who union leaders say is the one ultimately calling the shots in Lawrence. Chester has used the problems in Lawrence “as an excuse to dismantle a decades-long tradition of teacher voice and collective bargaining,” wrote McLaughlin. He called Chester’s undermining of teachers “nothing short of ‘Scott Walker lite,’” a reference to the Republican governor of Wisconsin who has led an all-out assault on public-sector unions there.

In a telephone interview, Weingarten says the union agrees that significant change is needed in Lawrence.  But she says it shouldn’t happen without the voice that represents teachers. “Simply saying you want teachers to have a role but attempting to divide them from their voice is not real collaboration,” Weingarten says of the marginalizing of the union.

“I am not anti-union,” says Chester. “But what I am is very much pro-school turnaround. And we have an opportunity in Lawrence to do a better job of serving the students we are charged with serving, and I’m determined to use the tools the Legislature gave me to the fullest extent necessary.”  

Chester says the turnaround plan is, in fact, all about increasing the voice of teachers and principals in how schools are run. “There’s a desire to be respected and be empowered,” he says of the union complaints. “The irony in Lawrence is we’ve taken that to the nth degree, where we are charging each local school with coming up with a design for turning around their school, which to me is a great opportunity to demonstrate empowerment.”

For his part, McLaughlin rejects the state’s characterization of the Lawrence schools, saying they haven’t been chronically underperforming so much as “chronically corrupt.” His point about the history of dreadful district leadership is well taken. And it’s easy to see how he feels teachers are now being made to pay for the sins of longstanding administrative failings.

McLaughlin also says it’s unfair to put the whole burden for raising achievement on schools in a district with high mobility rates—one-quarter of all students enter or exit schools in Lawrence during the year—and nearly 90 percent of students coming from low-income homes. 

“I think the real problem in Lawrence isn’t the schools, it’s the poverty,” he says.

With that, he raises what has become a central point of contention in debates about school reform and the achievement gap. Can good schools can overcome the effects of poverty and put students on course toward success? Or must the many dimensions of poverty that impinge on learning be addressed for children to achieve at high levels? The question has come to define the two big schools of thought in American education reform circles.

The Lawrence turnaround plan calls for expanded services for students and greater outreach to engage families, but it is betting heavily that robust reform of schools themselves, including more classroom time and enrichment activities, can put kids from poor families on a path to success. 

“What happens outside the building needs to be confronted head on, but I believe that you can create an environment in schools that breeds a culture of excellence,” says Given, the Unlocking Potential founder. “We’re doing our students a disservice if we allow the very real challenges of poverty to serve as an excuse for low achievement. I’ve seen what a great urban school can do.” 

A ‘Katrina moment’?

While union leaders complain that the state is going too far in imposing a plan for Lawrence and stripping the union of a say, others say the problem is just the opposite, that the state did not go far enough.

These are the voices of those who have reached the conclusion that chronically low-performing urban school systems are simply not redeemable. “Turning around the lowest performing schools is very, very hard, and, unfortunately, it seldom works,” says Andrew Smarick, a former education policy official in the Bush administration who served most recently as a deputy education commissioner for the state of New Jersey.

New Orleans has become ground-zero for those arguing that it’s futile to try turning around schools within a conventional district structure. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which devastated many New Orleans schools and forced the shutdown of the entire district for a full school year, the state directed the reopening of all those schools that had performed below statewide averages as independently run charter schools. That wound up being the lion’s share of all schools in the district, which had been one of the lowest performing in Louisiana for many years.

Nearly 85 percent of students in New Orleans now attend an autonomously operated charter school, a figure that is likely to increase in coming years to include nearly all public school students. The New Orleans charter schools have cut the achievement gap with statewide proficiency rates in half over the last five years, and they could become the first set of urban public schools in the country to surpass state averages.

Neerav Kingsland, the CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit that provides strategic support to the city’s charter schools, has come to believe that cutting schools loose from the constraints of big bureaucratic district systems is the only hope for US urban education.  He has termed the tension between those trying to improve district systems and those favoring the type of radical decentralization being applied in New Orleans a battle between “reformers” and “relinquishers.”  Reformers, he argues, are clinging to the belief that a uniform district-wide plan can successfully save a failing school system, while relinquishers believe the best hope lies with freeing schools from district strictures.

In April, Kingsland was part of a meeting in Boston of small number of local and national education reform leaders who shared ideas for Lawrence with Chester and Riley. The Lawrence plan does not dismantle the traditional school district, as has happened in New Orleans. But it may go as far as is possible within a district structure to adopt a lot of the same thinking. 

“On the spectrum, I’m closer to the relinquisher model,” says Riley.

Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a free-market oriented Boston think tank, doesn’t think the Lawrence plan relinquishes enough. This is “our Katrina moment,” he says. “This is an opportunity to break the mold.” He argues for a New Orleans-style plan to hand over all the schools in Lawrence to independent charter school operators. With only a fraction of Lawrence students in schools being run by the charter school operators that the state has expressed such confidence in, says Stergios, “that doesn’t seem to get to the level of change we need.”

Charter school critics would question the idea that a wholesale shift to charters would necessarily yield positive results. There are also plenty of questions about whether there is even the capacity among high-performing charter school operators to take their work to that scale, or that such sweeping change could be effectively managed.

“It seems like they’re trying to be thoughtful about how to sequence this, and not trying to do too much in the first year so that nothing gets done well,” says Andrew Rotherham, a former education adviser in the Clinton administration who now runs a Washington, DC, education policy organization and who also took part in the April meeting. 

There may very well more “relinquishing” in Lawrence over time. Chester says he is prepared to hand additional schools to outside organizations with proven track records if schools in Lawrence seem in need of that stronger medicine. In September, based on last spring’s MCAS scores, an additional Lawrence school fell into the state accountability category of “chronically underperforming,” which could trigger consideration of such a move. Chester says there will also be an assessment in the spring of whether Lawrence schools have all shown a capacity to map out a credible plan to take charge of their own turnaround and use the added time all schools will have next fall. As for whether more schools will be assigned to outside groups next year, he says, “I think it’s very possible.”

Jim Peyser, a former state board of education chairman, says the Lawrence initiative will be an important test of whether, with state authority pushing at the outer edges of the leeway possible within a district structure, an urban school system can be turned around. That the effort is underway in a district of manageable size and not in huge city puts the experiment in another sort of “sweet spot.” Lawrence is “small enough to change and big enough to matter,” says Peyser.

Improving schools is far too complicated an undertaking to say that Lawrence will either be the place urban district reform came to die—or to be reborn. But what happens there will surely matter, not only for Lawrence, but for education reform thinking more broadly. Failure would lend credence to the argument that chronically low-performing urban districts are not salvageable even when given unusual latitude and should be abandoned in favor of even more radical models like the one in New Orleans. Success, on the other hand, would represent a huge proof point showing that districts can be turned around if many of the prevailing rules and practices are set aside.

Reville, the state education secretary, sounds a note of caution, while acknowledging that a lot is on the line. “We have to have some humility here,” he says. “We can’t pretend as though we know how to do this, because we have never done it.  I think this is of monumental significance. I think people are watching.”   

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