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School turnaround failure

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Yesterday’s front-page Boston Globe story on English High School is a cautionary tale of what takes place under the broad banner of “school turnaround,” and of how ill-conceived reform efforts probably set back attempts to build support for school change models that actually stand some chance of moving the student-achievement needle.

Boston’s English High has a storied history, but its glory days lie far in the past. In recent years, it has been one of the city’s most troubled high schools, plagued by abysmal student achievement levels and high drop-out rates. To tackle the challenge of turning the school around, the school department tapped a 33-year-old principal with exactly one year under his belt running a school, and handed him the sweeping powers over staffing and curriculum that came with English High being one of Boston’s 11 state-designated underperforming schools.  

As the story illustrates, Sito Narcisse proceeded to upend almost everything at English High -- except for its lousy achievement scores and graduation rate. He got rid of three-quarters of the school’s teachers and administrators -- they were either broomed out or quit.  He instituted -- and then abandoned -- a school uniform policy.  He pushed single-gender classrooms into school, though he did so with no training for teachers on the challenges that would bring.

Now, after three years, with only slight improvements in MCAS scores, a graduation rate that has fallen further, and a devastating report from a state review team that said students were regularly seen texting, talking, and napping in classes during a January visit, Narcisse is leaving.  He is taking an administrative job in the Montgomery County, Maryland, school system.

“We were the NBT school — the Next Big Thing school,” one staff member told the Globe. “Whatever the buzz was, that’s where you found us — same-sex classes, uniforms, ninth grade academy, curriculum initiatives. But there was no input from anyone — no research, no training, no evaluating, and therefore no effective implementation.  It was change without progress.”

The most striking thing about the Globe account was the absence of any mention of a clear instructional approach designed to boost student achievement.  As Pioneer Institute’s Jim Stergios writes on his Boston.com education blog, things like school uniforms or single-gender classrooms might be perfectly reasonable components of a school turnaround strategy, but they need to be part of some bigger plan that tackles the core mission of teaching and learning.  

Brockton High School stands as one of the best examples of what can be achieved when there is clarity, purpose, and a pedagogical foundation for an effort to drive improved academic outcomes. And Brockton drove huge gains in student achievement without any added authority to get rid of teachers or any of the other strategies English used, which only look like gimmicky fads when implemented so poorly.

Boston school Superintendent Carol Johnson has named an assistant superintendent as the new headmaster at English High, and says the new principal will report directly to her, not to a deputy superintendent. But absent a clear plan for academic gains, changing the line of reporting authority seems like just another empty reform move that misses the point.

                                                                                                                                                    --MICHAEL JONAS


BEACON HILL

A bill recommended by the Environment and Natural Resources Committee would ban the distribution of plastic bags by large stores.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

After weeks of fighting the city’s school department to get the names of all school employees before debating the department’s budget, the Fall River City Council was finally given the list and then. . . did nothing with it.

A battle is brewing in Hingham, where megadeveloper AvalonBay has filed a Chapter 40B proposal for a 177-unit housing development in the tony town.

The head of the Chelsea Housing Authority is suing the agency, saying he is facing harassment from the authority’s board, which wants to renegotiate terms of the five-year contract he signed in the wake of the resignation of disgraced former housing chief Michael McLaughlin.

Middleborough prepares for a blue-streak demonstration against its new anti-profanity fine.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

US Rep. Stephen Lynch says on Keller@Large that if the Supreme Court knocks down the health care reform law, he’d like to see a state-run public option.

ELECTION 2012

The Beat the Press panel debates whether Sen. Scott Brown’s gaffe (now make that gaffes, plural) about secret meetings with kings and queens is election year silliness or a valid issue on par with Elizabeth Warren’s Cherokee heritage that has legs. Former state rep Anthony Verga of Gloucester, a Democrat, endorses Brown, the Gloucester Times reports.

The Weekly Standard says Mitt Romney’s risk-averse campaign strategy that involves focusing on the economy and little else comes with plenty of risk, as recent examples prove.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The state’s cranberry industry is going all out to fight the inclusion of sweetened cranberry juice in a proposed federal ban on sugary drinks in school cafeterias.

Some locales are having a tough time making 40B targets.

Equal Exchange, the West Bridgewater-based coffee importer and roaster, is picking a fight with gargantuan Green Mountain Coffee Roasters over the industry’s split on expanding the definition of “fair trade” from small farmers to now include large plantations.

A federal judge moves to tamp out the smartphone patent wars.

RELIGION

The Catholic hierarchy around the country is gearing up for a “Fortnight for Freedom,” a two-week effort the bishops hope will put the spotlight on what they claim is an erosion of religious freedom. Liberal faithful say it is a partisan campaign designed to boost Republican chances.

EDUCATION

In response to changing requirements at the state’s universities, Metro West schools are ahead of the pack when it comes to beefing up the math and science courses that high schools students need to take.

HEALTH CARE

A New Hampshire law bans health care exchanges, the Concord Monitor reports.

Saint Anne’s in Fall River, a Steward hospital, is closing its cardiac rehabilitation program, the Herald News reports.

Boston ranks among the healthiest metro areas in the country, Reuters reports (via Governing).

The Berkshire Eagle makes the case for decoupling health insurance from employment.

TRANSPORTATION

Fewer people are appealing automobile insurance surcharges, even though the odds of winning on appeal are good, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting reports (via Lowell Sun).

In a ranking of cities by car thefts, Boston ranks 195th, behind Springfield, Time reports.

US Rep. Michael Capuano says in a Somerville Journal op-ed that supporters of the Green Line extension to Somerville and Medford need to be prepared for a phased project, since the MBTA’s financing plan for the project is built on several shaky blocks, including a vehicle mileage tax and state funding for the line’s annual operation.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

A new study of the effects of global warming says sea levels are increasing three to four times faster in Boston and other East Coast locations than the global average.  

MEDIA

Boston.com is getting into radio, hiring many of those laid off by WFNX.

An online poll by Governing finds public officials are worried about the dropoff in coverage of government and public policy.

SPORTS

Kevin Youkilis changes his Sox.

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