EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 2, 2012

Column:

Frank McLaughlin
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — Lawrence educators desperately want improvements in our schools. We are invested in the school system and in the community. Many of us have given our entire professional lives to Lawrence. And we will be the first to acknowledge that our schools have serious challenges and need dramatic improvements. In fact, we’ve been asking for help for a very long time.

However, Lawrence educators — and many parents and community members, too — have serious concerns about the approach being taken by the state. We believe there is a better approach, one with a proven track record of success.

The best way to improve urban schools is a hotly debated topic and there are several points of view on the issue.

One school of thought is what I would call the “Abandon All Hope” option. People who embrace this view claim it is impossible for the Lawrence community to improve its schools from within. Therefore, the community should relinquish control of its schools to outside charter operators and the free market.

But we need to get real. While charter schools in Massachusetts have served a few students well, in general their educational model relies on a selective enrollment process, high rates of attrition, and an unwillingness to accept mid-year transfers or to fill empty seats.

Simply put, charters have not proven that they are a wide-scale solution to the challenges facing high-poverty, high-need, highly mobile urban communities.

Now, to its credit, the state is not pursuing full-scale privatization or charterization in Lawrence, at least not yet. Instead, it’s taking an approach that I would call “Dismantle and Disband.”

As laid out in the Commonwealth magazine article that you all received, the idea is to dismantle the school system and create instead a system of separate schools, some of which will be run by private management organizations that receive high-priced contracts from the state.

All schools will be given MCAS benchmarks. If they fall short, they will be “punished,” perhaps closed or handed over to a private operator, furthering the collapse of our public schools.

But here’s the major flaw with this “system of schools” approach: It destroys a sense of community and collective responsibility for the welfare of our students.

It creates winners and losers.

It pits school against school in a competition for resources, staff, and the highest-achieving students.

It says to each school: You’re on your own. Forget about collaboration, a common curriculum, or sharing best practices. You need to figure it out yourself.

And it sets up certain schools to fail, particularly schools that are denied the conditions, supports, resources, and staffing they need be effective. The Oliver School, which you’ll hear about today, is a perfect example of longstanding neglect leading to poor performance.

Luckily, there is a third way, a better way, what I would call the “We’re All In It Together” approach.

This approach recognizes that community is our greatest asset here in Lawrence.

It says that all adults and students in Lawrence have a collective responsibility for improving student learning.

It says we need to reject blaming and shaming. Rather, we need to collaborate in a quest for solutions ... relying on data and evidence as our guide, not ideology.

It says that we have to give all stakeholders a real voice in the reform process. This hasn’t happened under the state receivership. The community voice has been silenced. The teacher voice has been marginalized. These voices must be heard.

And it says we need to give all schools and all students the conditions, resources, and supports that they need to be successful.

We know we can do this, because it already has been done.

It has been done up the road in Lowell, as you’ll read about in the AFT Massachusetts newspaper, which is included in your packet. It has been done in Lynn, whose Level 4 schools have seen impressive gains.

It has been done at the Edwards Middle School in Boston, where Jeff Riley was the principal, and where administrators and teachers worked together to bring about a remarkable transformation of a troubled school.

True reform rejects magic fixes. Rather, true reform is rooted in enduring values: shared responsibility, teamwork, following the evidence, and respect for teachers as educational experts. True reform is hard work, but it can be done — when there is the will to do so.

We urge you to support this proven path to success here in Lawrence, because the evidence is overwhelming that this approach gets results. Why should we subject our students to unproven experiments when the path to real reform is so clear?

In closing, our ask is this: Let’s work together as true partners. Let’s base our work on the evidence. And let’s get the job done for the children of Lawrence.

Frank McLaughlin is president of the Lawrence Teachers’ Union. The opinion piece is based on testimony he gave before the state Board of Education.