Wicked Smart: Massachusetts’s Efforts to Turn Around a Failing School District

Just 30 miles north of Boston on the Merrimack River is the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts. This industrial metropolitan area is home to almost 80,000 people, with a median household income of $32,851 and a poverty rate of 29.2 percent. Almost 40 percent of residents are immigrants, coming predominantly from the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico. Across the city there are 28 public schools responsible for educating 13,000 students, which, up until 2011, were not doing a very good job.

Lawrence Public Schools (LPS) were consistently at the bottom in test score rankings for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) and only half of their students graduated from high school in four years. In response to recurring low performance, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) took over LPS in an effort to turn around the district. This statutory ability was created by the Achievement Gap Act of 2010, an initiative set in motion by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, but LPS is the first district in the state to undergo this process.

The turnaround began with the state designating a “Receiver,” a person given broad discretion over district-wide policies, including collective bargaining agreements, teacher hiring, and length of the school day and year. During this time, LPS adopted many changes, and recent research from Beth E. Schueler, Joshua Goodman, and David J. Deming shows the impact those changes actually had on student achievement.

The key actions and initiatives were:

  • Increased expectations: higher performance targets for student growth in terms of percentile ranks and MCAS scores
  • Increased financial autonomy and accountability at the school level
  • Improved human capital among administrators and teachers: replacing low-performing individuals with more promising applicants and providing better training
  • Extended learning time: longer school days and special programs outside of the traditional school day (such as Acceleration Academies)
  • Greater emphasis on using data to drive instructional improvement

To analyze these changes, the researchers compared LPS performance both to the overall state and to other low-income districts. The researchers were able to determine the impact of the reforms by comparing the trends in LPS performance after the takeover to the predicted trends absent any changes.

Based on this analysis, the researchers found that the turnaround plan, on average, improved MCAS math scores by 0.2 standard deviations relative to the rest of the state in year one, and 0.1 standard deviations in year two. The impacts on English Language Arts (ELA) scores were small and statistically insignificant. The researchers also found that gains were greatest for ESL students and students in elementary and middle school.

The researchers found greater benefits from the Acceleration Academies program, which offered students intensive classroom time during school vacations, the hours of which added up to an additional month of school. Students receiving the Acceleration Academy intervention increased their MCAS math scores by 0.3 standard deviations and 0.09 standard deviations in ELA (second year gains were slightly smaller but still statistically significant). These results are promising, but should be considered carefully as the Acceleration Academy was an opt-in program, which implies that participants were likely more determined to improve their test scores than the average student in the overall sample.

The findings presented by Schueler et al. indicate that state takeovers can potentially have positive impacts on ailing school districts. However, it is still too soon to determine if these results will persist over time, or be sustained once control of the district is relinquished by the state.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has found staggering deficiencies across American schools, and according to the international PISA assessment, the US education system is not just falling behind countries like Japan, China, and the UK, but also countries like Slovakia, Poland, and Vietnam, despite having a dramatically greater GDP. These are the sort of statistics motivating the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative. As we learn more about how school districts are failing their students in this new landscape, understanding the potential benefits of a state takeover is more important than ever.

Article Source: Schueler, Beth, Joshua Goodman, and David Deming. “Can States Take Over and Turn Around School Districts? Evidence from Lawrence, Massachusetts.” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 21895, 2016.

Featured Photo: cc/(michaelquirk, photo ID: 37513244, from iStock by Getty Images)

Mikia Manley
Mikia Manley is a staff writer for the Chicago Policy Review. She is interested in education policy.

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