Reaching Capacity

A Blueprint for the State Role in Improving Low Performing Schools and Districts

The Massachusetts Education Reform Act (MERA) of 1993 sparked an unprecedented era of reform activity in schools and districts that continues to this day. Over the past decade, the state has more than doubled its local aid to schools and districts, and held local entities accountable by creating standards and assessments on which the progress of all students is measured. Massachusetts’ standards and assessments have become national models of rigor and quality, and evidence from national exams such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that students of the Commonwealth regularly perform at or near the top of comparisons across states. However, these indications that the state has made strides in creating and enforcing high standards do not account for the unevenness in the outcomes of education reform in Massachusetts.

The purpose of this report is to clarify the state’s role in helping
schools and districts address their needs.

This report begins from the premise that the state has an obligation that it is not meeting. Schools and districts—disproportionately those that serve low-income and non-white students—are struggling and need tools, resources and assistance to raise student achievement. Evidence from the past decade demonstrates that adding unrestricted funding is an insufficient remedy to the problem of chronic low performance. Both in Massachusetts and nationally, there is limited knowledge about how to educate poor and diverse students well at scale. Yet, this is the challenge that stands as the unfinished business of education reform in the Commonwealth, and this is the challenge that remains in completing an equitable and enforceable accountability system in which all students have equal opportunities to learn.

“State testing and the federal No Child Left Behind Act are
identifying hundreds of schools each year—an ever-growing
number—as low performing,” said Paul Reville, executive director
of the Rennie Center. “The state needs to move aggressively to
address these failures.”

Drawing on research with principals and superintendents in struggling, urban districts, the Rennie Center’s report recommends that the state develop its intervention capacity in specific areas where school administrators cite the greatest need.

Report recommendations include:

  • Increase state guidance on curricular and professional development options;
  • Develop a formative, value-added system to analyze MCAS data;
  • Increase state capacity to provide professional development, particularly in math, special education and strategies for English Language learners; and
  • Create state-level incentives to strengthen leadership at the local level.

To address these recommendations, the report calls for the Department of Education to make significant infrastructure changes, including increased collaboration with external turnaround partners.

“The SJC decision in the Hancock vs. Driscoll case placed the onus on the legislature and education policy makers to push reform measures that will support districts and schools labeled low performing” said Reville. “This report clarifies next steps for the state and its turnaround partners in building local capacity to improve student achievement.”

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