EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 18, 2011

Column: Lawrence families need options to improve education

Jim Stergios

News that the commonwealth will take over Lawrence's failing school district would be comforting if there were evidence that state education officials — or anyone else, for that matter — know how to turn around failing schools. Unfortunately, that's not the case.

If the goal is to improve academic performance, the data show that state leaders would be far more likely to succeed by giving Lawrence families more access to a portfolio of educational options with a track record of success.

Andrew Smarick, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of education, has conducted research and concluded that "turnaround efforts have for the most part resulted in only marginal improvements." He further notes that "turnarounds are not a scalable strategy for fixing America's troubled urban school systems."

A few years ago, California targeted the lowest-performing 20 percent of its schools for intervention. Three years later, one of the 394 targeted high schools was categorized as having made "exemplary process."

Yet state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester has announced that he will name a receiver who will have "all the powers of the superintendent and school committee" to right Lawrence's schools.

Top-down, command and control efforts yielding marginal improvements are not enough for Lawrence kids, 10 percent of whom drop out each year, and only 30 and 40 percent of whom are proficient or advanced in math and reading, respectively.

The "Superman" strategy, where one person reforms a monolithic school system, has failed repeatedly across the country. Lawrence's kids and parents deserve better, and they deserve to have a voice in the change.

That strategy should not be enough for the commonwealth either, which provides 95 percent of Lawrence school funding.

Instead, state leaders should offer parents four options with demonstrated records of improving student performance.

The 2011 MCAS results, once again, show charter public schools dramatically outperforming Massachusetts district schools. Several urban charters topped the entire state in one or more tests.

After filling every new charter seat created by the 2010 legislation, the state should entirely lift the cap on charters in Lawrence. New Orleans' students, 70 percent of whom are now in charters, outperform the state of Louisiana as a whole; Washington, D.C.'s improved performance over the past five years has been largely fueled by the capital's charter schools, which serve 30 percent of the district's students.

Second, the METCO interdistrict choice program, which currently serves students in Boston and Springfield, must be expanded to Lawrence. To do this, legislators from surrounding suburban communities will have to demonstrate leadership; and Gov. Deval Patrick will have to adequately fund the program.

Third, the Greater Lawrence Vocational Technical School must be made a priority. Although GLVT has shown progress over the past few years, the state should invite other successful vocational schools to share best practices with GLVT.

Since 2001, MCAS scores for the commonwealth's autonomous vocational-technical schools have increased by over 40 percent. Today, more than 2,500 students are on vocational-technical school waiting lists. That's an educational option Lawrence kids need.

Finally, Lawrence families need private options currently out of their reach. In the short term, most private options will be Catholic, but that shouldn't be viewed as an exclusionary option as 20 percent of the Boston archdiocese's students are not Catholic.

These schools are a viable, high-quality academic option for parents. Archdiocesan school SAT scores top state and national averages. Their college matriculation rate is 92 percent; far beyond that of major urban school systems like Lawrence or Boston.

Opposition to private school choice stemming from 19th century anti-Catholic bigotry erected constitutional barriers to private school choice. States like Rhode Island and Florida grant individuals and corporations tax credits for donations to nonprofit organizations awarding private school scholarships. Such a program will likely pass constitutional muster.

Massachusetts leaders have both the right and a moral responsibility to intervene in the tragedy of Lawrence public schools. But successful intervention will require resisting the temptation to take the top-down approach that has produced so little success, and instead focus on giving Lawrence families more access to options that have raised student achievement.

• • •

Jim Stergios is executive director of Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.