Communities are not doing enough to hold their public schools accountable

MassINC report calls for increasing “local accountability” with new school-funding package

Massachusetts’ landmark 1993 education reform act placed more accountability on public schools to improve student outcomes in exchange for a sizeable increase in state funding. Beacon Hill leaders are debating another significant infusion of state resources in Massachusetts’ public schools. Accountability is, once again, at the center of this funding discussion.

A series of new reports from the nonpartisan think tank MassINC argues that Massachusetts should replay the strategy that was successful with the last funding increase, and attach a higher level of accountability to these additional dollars, but there’s a twist: This time, communities should be asked to do more to hold themselves responsible for increasing student achievement.

Ben Forman, MassINC’s research director, says: “The evidence is compelling. Now that the state has stepped up to provide more oversight, it is time to encourage communities to do their part. This means setting some of their own goals for student achievement and holding themselves responsible for meeting these goals.”

Forman believes this is necessary because the state’s ability to determine what’s best for students in any given community is limited. The state can use standardized tests to determine how well all schools across the state do in core academic areas, but communities are in the best position to determine their priorities when it comes to other dimensions of student learning—whether they be health and wellness, vocational training, commuter coding, or music and the arts. Once a community settles on its priorities, they should develop corresponding measures for student progress to ensure that their schools are doing their best to continuously improve in these areas.

Although nothing prevents communities from exercising local control in this manner now, Forman says it isn’t happening. To make this case, MassINC’s research team collected a sample of school and district improvement plans for Gateway Cities (communities with a disproportionate number of schools deemed underperforming by the state and a major focus of the funding debate unfolding on Beacon Hill). Under state law, all communities must prepare these plans annually for schools and every three years for districts.

For the Gateway Cities analyzed, approximately three-quarters of recent school (69 percent) and district (76 percent) plans did not include any measurable student learning goals that were not already present in the state’s accountability formula, which relies primary on standardized test scores and graduation rates to calculate school performance.

Superintendent evaluations provided another indication that Gateway Cities are not doing their part to hold schools accountable for locally determined results. A majority of the recent superintendent evaluations MassINC analyzed contained no measurable goals related to student learning outcomes.

The study ties the dearth of local accountability in Gateway Cities to issues with the bodies that govern their local schools and school districts.

Given their make-up, Gateway City school committees are not in a strong position to exercise local accountability. While two-thirds of Gateway City students are nonwhite and 80 percent of Gateway City educators are female, nonwhite members hold only 11 percent of seats on Gateway City school committees and females make up less than 40 percent of Gateway City school committee members. More than half of Gateway City school committees have no nonwhite members.

Massachusetts’ 1993 education reform law created school councils to provide each school community with the ability to set priorities and create plans to achieve their goals, but these bodies haven’t assumed the role envisioned.

MassINC demonstrates this problem with a statewide survey of school council members. Fewer than one-third of respondents to the survey “agree” or “strongly agree” that the council they serve on has influence over the hiring of principals or decisions regarding the school budget. Only 15 percent agree when asked if their council shapes curriculum, and just 12 percent report influence over the hiring of teachers. Even in operational areas that seem particularly suited to school council involvement, such as engaging community partners and communicating strategic priorities to parents, less than half of members surveyed agree that their council performs such functions.

According to Forman, the good news is that relatively modest change could lead to more balance so that the state and communities are both doing their parts to set expectations for performance and ensure that schools make as much progress as possible. “If the state simply sent stronger signals that this is valued, I think you would see communities respond. Right now, educators think state overseers are looking for improvement only in what they measure, which really constrains the ability of principals and superintendents to think about what else their students need, and to place attention on those things as well.”

But Forman acknowledges that addressing the more systemic governance issues will be a bigger lift: “In urban communities that experience constant demographic change and where so much goes into ensuring that youth from all backgrounds are thriving, the traditional school committee model no longer makes sense.”

The report recommends moving toward a hybrid model, with some members elected by ward and others appointed based on the positions they hold in the community. A governing body with this structure would be more representative of those served. And it could integrate the perspective of the early education, afterschool, healthcare, workforce, and higher education partners that form the web of educational opportunities and supports that effective urban school systems must offer.

Meet The Author

Llyr Johansen

Communications Director, MassINC

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