Taking matters into their own hands
The Gateway Cities Journal
In 2013, Gateway City leaders developed an education vision. Their strategy was rooted in a belief that these inclusive urban communities could create exceptional learning environments by building on their core strengths, including their diversity, strong cultural institutions, sophisticated early learning providers, and local higher ed partners. At the time, educators described pressure to perform under state and federal accountability measures as a barrier to achieving this vision. Built to compare every school district’s performance against every other, these incredibly basic formulas fail to recognize the unique attributes of Gateway City districts and the multifaceted support they must provide the vast majority of students in order to close opportunity gaps.
Over the past year, MassINC sought to draw attention to these flaws, with the state reworking the accountability system to comply with the new federal education act. Our research pointed to how limitations in accountability discourage school districts from providing the full set of educational experiences students need to be successful in college, career, and civic life. Neglecting these aspects of schooling undermines Gateway City efforts to rebuild their middle class by providing upward economic mobility.
And because the state’s one-size-fits-all measures of school quality also fail to accurately portray the performance of inclusive urban districts, they discourage families with means from choosing these schools systems, furthering the concentration of poverty, which makes it that much harder for communities to provide fertile environments for economic mobility.
To overcome these problems, we’ve come to believe that Gateway Cities must devise their own complementary local accountability structures. In 2018, we’ll be producing a series of research reports exploring the ins and outs of this approach. However, it’s notable that two Gateway Cities are already on a similar path.
Last month, Lowell residents gathered for a Your Voice Matters Community Action Forum to brainstorm how their school district can better educate students, engaging parents as well as the broader Lowell community. With support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, Project LEARN is facilitating this process in partnership with Lowell Public Schools.
Prior to this session, they held eight community circles to identify challenges facing the district as well as community assets. At the December meeting, facilitators honed in on five key themes to focus the conversation: Student Voice & Learning; Cultural Competency, Language Access and Diversity; After School & Outside of School Opportunities; Parent and Community Involvement and Engagement; and Logistics, Schedules, Operations and Facilities. Attendees then split into action groups based on these five topics. These groups will continue to meet as part of the ongoing effort to develop and prioritize strategies for implementation.
Worcester is also crafting a strategic plan for the public school district. Led by the Worcester Education Collaborative and the Worcester Regional Research Bureau, with support from the Rennie Center and funding from the Barr Foundation, the strategic planning taskforce has convened 15 focus groups and several community forums to solicit ideas. Five subcommittees are developing strategies in the following areas: access to availability of higher level learning; educator resources and development; governance, finance, and operations; instructional resources and technology; and social and emotional learning and school climate.
In taking stock of where we are and where local efforts can lead us, we must acknowledge that despite the limitations, state-based accountability has created pressure on Gateway City districts to improve teaching and learning. Real strides have been made as a result. But it is not enough, further progress will require bolder change. The state is unlikely to drive this type of change; communities must take matters into their hands, decide what they want, and what sacrifices they’ll need to make in order to get it.
That’s the real promise of local accountability. As we watch the efforts already underway in Lowell and Worcester, we will see whether these communities are able to break away from the constraints of traditional systems and processes to really think anew about what learning should look like in the 21st century.
– Ben Forman
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