A lot of national attention was paid over the past few months to a situation in Central Falls, R.I., where the superintendent took the action of firing all the high school’s teachers. What started off as a small story about a labor dispute between the administration and the teachers’ union at the high school catapulted into the national education reform debate and had everyone talking from local and state leaders to pundits to the president of the United States. Some suggested it was indicative of the approach needed to reform schools. Other suggested it was a hostile attack on teachers.
I was bombarded with questions at events, in the elevator at work, and on weekends asking if the same thing could, or would, happen in Massachusetts. My message was firm and consistent and remains so, that without casting judgment on the situation in Rhode Island, it is my belief that a wholesale, undifferentiated firing of an entire faculty is unlikely to lead to the desired reform outcome of improved education for students. And recent updates to the story, with teachers regaining employment after making concessions on school time and in other areas, only help to illustrate why we think our approach in Massachusetts is more beneficial.
I want to be clear lest some try to take my comments out of context. In Massachusetts, we are deeply committed right now to turning around underperforming schools via a series of proven strategies and urgent new interventions. As a result: Schools will be restructured. Staffing changes will be made. We will need to move with greater urgency. Superintendents, school committees, principals and teachers will need to recommit themselves to the deep, challenging school turnaround work that lies ahead of us. However, turnaround work is about more than just personnel changes.
As the governor and I have said before, we do not believe that the primary cause of underperforming schools is incompetent teachers. In each ineffective school, we find a complex combination of factors impeding success. The Achievement Gap legislation Gov. Deval Patrick signed in January provides rules, tools and supports for leaders, teachers and students that will empower educators to devise action plans to remedy chronic underperformance. These plans will reflect not only tough decisions in assembling the right team of educators but also the intent to provide school leaders with the flexibility to act directly to improve the quality of teaching while offering more supports including health and human services to students so that they can arrive at school genuinely ready to learn.
For our turnaround efforts to be successful, we will need to identify and select high-quality, extremely expert, deeply committed teachers to staff our most challenged schools. We will provide those teachers with an aligned, challenging and engaging curriculum based on best practices garnered from our hard work and accomplishments of the first 17 years of education reform; improved and more targeted professional development; and additional supports ranging from coaching to expanded planning time to maximize their effectiveness.
We’re focused on improving teacher quality also through “Innovation Schools,” which provide a new, local opportunity for educators to take control of the management, curriculum, schedule and budget for a school enjoying much of the autonomy provided to our top performing charter schools, and “Readiness Centers,” located in six regions across the state that bring together educators from early childhood, K-12 and higher education with external partners to increase access to high-quality professional development, disseminate best practices and lessons learned on collecting and analyzing student performance data for improved instruction.
We are also expanding support for students.
In most of our poorly performing schools, not coincidentally, we see unusually high concentrations of low-income and at-risk youth. In fact, 87% of the 17,000 students in our recently identified underperforming schools are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. These students face challenges in their non-school lives that frequently impede progress in school.
For example, we know there is a strong and obvious correlation between school attendance and achievement. Too many students, struggling with personal issues, often the consequence of poverty, fail to attend school at rates that would beget success. Addressing these and other issues are vital if we want high quality instruction to have the maximum impact on students.
So, we start with what is impeding these students from succeeding. The first nearly 17 years of reform have taught us that schools alone, as currently structured and operated, are not, on average, a sufficient intervention to overcome the disadvantages of poverty and guarantee achievement for all. The nation’s best standards and assessment have ensured great success with only some of our students. To realize the ultimate promise of education reform, we must improve teaching and simultaneously address the social, emotional and societal factors preventing educators and students from closing achievement gaps.
The new education bill does so by integrating health and human services into schools, recognizing that a child who is sick or hungry or has unattended mental health needs is simply not likely to be able to focus on learning. Education takes place outside of school too, and we must work harder and smarter to ensure students are prepared to learn when they enter our public school system.
We also recognize that the school day and school calendar need adjusting if we are serious about providing all students with the education they need to fully reach proficiency. Old ways of doing business with truncated days and school years must yield to new ways of building in extra time for learning in core subjects and access to physical education, exposure to the arts and enrichment programming. Today’s school schedule is not sufficient and that’s why it’s a key part of the legislation.
Finally, our work is centered on the ideal that all students should be prepared for continuing education after high school, and that principle includes a preschool-to-higher education strategy that connects students with the instruction and support they need to be successful. We are focused on expanding access to high-quality early education so we can start students on the right path. At the same time, we are equally committed to providing all students ready access to college.
Student achievement is our work. We will continue to improve our efforts to increase the quality of teaching and learning, address the outside-of-school needs of students, improve support and increase resources for teachers, all the while remaining committed to high expectations, challenging curricula and rigorous assessments. We believe that this combination of proven strategies coupled with urgent new measures will allow us to sustain our national school reform leadership and, more importantly, close persistent achievement gaps so all of our students, and all means all, will be ready for success.
Paul Reville is secretary of education in Massachusetts. He is the former president of the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy and a senior lecturer on educational policy and politics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.