Education Reform in Lawrence

A terrific new story in Commonwealth Magazine focused on the state receivership of the Lawrence Public Schools. Why receivership for Lawrence? How about some stats?

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.

So despite the protestations that “receivership” was not warranted I would beg to differ. The Commonwealth did the only thing they could do if you would hope to give the students of Lawrence a fighting chance.

So what are the issues? At the risk of over-simplifying I think they are broken down into three categories.

1) Pay. Part of the new program is longer hours in the classroom for students. Keep in mind the statistics cited above. Most everybody involved in “education reform” agrees that longer school days and more learning time can do nothing but help students, especially in a failing urban system. Truth is the benefits are not limited to urban systems, but that is a story for another day. Receiver Riley has brought forward a program of extended learning time, and imposed it. Frank McLaughlin, representing the Lawrence teachers, objects.

“LTU agrees that lengthening the school day, if done right, can be an important part of improving education. But we are extremely concerned about the district’s plan to lengthen the school year and day by hundreds of hours in some Level 4 schools this coming school year and expanding this extra time to all schools in 2013-14,” McLaughlin said. “These extra hours come with a proposed increase in compensation for all teachers by the 2013-14 school year of just $1,500 a year. For many, this will be less than three dollars an hour, well below the state’s minimum wage.

So the union agrees, but they want more money. Nothing in that response about what might be good for students.

2) Teacher Evaluations. As the education reform movement gained steam throughout the country the shameful stories of union contractual guarantees that kept failing teachers in place were exposed nationwide. Since that time teacher unions have retreated on the issue, but only slightly. The most grievous examples of abuse have been modified, but trying to get a non-performing teacher out of the classroom can still be overly difficult. Contrary to charges that such talk shows a tendency to blame teachers for all of the educational system’s ills I believe it simply acknowledges the obvious. Every profession has some folks that are not up to par, including the teaching profession. It should not take multiple years and thousands of dollars to remove ineffective teachers. Riley has come into Lawrence with authority, but has wielded it carefully.

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.

Receiver Riley, as pointed out, has used his new authority judiciously. Despite that obvious fact the union, through its current President, Frank McLaughlin, objected vociferously.

3) Utilization of Charters, and Charter style management of City Schools.

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.

So changing the system to try new educational initiatives, where failure has been the norm rather than the exception, is now a bad thing? I an not an educator, and I understand that not all charter schools have had success, but does that mean we just stay with the current system? Randi Weingarten would argue against this position. She said, in Commonwealth:

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.

The history of successful, and timely, union negotiations in this area have not, based on what I have seen,produced the type of change so necessary in failing systems. And school receivership does not look to be the model for localities in the future. But disastrous results with students, tolerated for years by the major stakeholders in Lawrence, has precipitated the state takeover. Injuring the union, or trying to circumvent union rights, is not the political goal here, unlike the situation in Wisconsin. The goal is to provide educational opportunity for students in Lawrence, which has been denied for far too long. Comparisons to Wisconsin, especially in light of Riley’s obvious deference to some union sensibilities, makes such a comparison laughable. Would you like to see onerous? Let a Republican Governor name the receiver.

Finally there was something mentioned by Teacher Union President Frank McLaughlin that he had right, but that, in my opinion, only buttressed the case for state intervention.

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.

Now that is something that everyone can agree with. The locals have made some pretty bad choices on school leadership. Their efforts in this area after the departure of Wilfredo Laboy as Superintendent were nothing short of a complete embarrassment. But doesn’t that weigh in favor of the state action? If the system is sinking, and the locals showed all that they were incapable of even taking rudimentary corrective steps what choice was left to the State? To let the sink ship because of “process”, or to bow to the concept of home rule at the expense of the students? Teachers are not to blame for the system failings, but the idea that there are years available to make slight changes within the current framework is to leave failure in place. I don’t believe that would have been the right choice for the students of Lawrence.

Tribune story on the Teachers Union blasting the state turnaround plan.

The Tribune column by Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute.

Review of the Stephen Brill book, “Class Warfare“.

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