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MTA responds to Commonwealth Collaborative plan

On March 10, Mass Insight Education released a plan called the Commonwealth Collaborative, along with a list of 115 "Turnaround Schools." These are schools that have low mathematics and English language arts scores and that have been identified as needing to improve under either the state or federal accountability system.

In brief, this plan calls for the state to allocate $25 million to these schools (about $217,000 each)  to develop "improvement plans" that could include, for example, an extended school day, site-based professional development, curriculum alignment, leadership training, data-driven instruction and incentive pay for "high-quality" teachers. There are few details available about how these changes would be selected or implemented. In addition, the plan calls for speeding up the process under which schools may be declared "chronically underperforming," giving principals greater powers to fire or transfer teachers.

MTA agrees with some aspects of the Mass Insight plan and disagrees with others. The jury is still out on the parts of the plan that have yet to be spelled out in detail.

Agreement:

Resources needed. Schools serving low-scoring students often lack resources and/or leadership capacity to make dramatic improvements. We agree with Mass Insight Education that many struggling schools need more than the minimal resources they now receive to achieve state standards. We believe they should meet these standards in all seven areas covered by the curriculum frameworks, not just in two subjects. Indeed, that was the basis of the Hancock lawsuit, which we supported, over the opposition of the Romney administration. Providing those resources in a long-term, stable way is preferable to a grant program that could easily be cut during a budget crisis. That said, any new (not diverted) resources would be better than nothing.

Disagreement:

How schools are identified. While MCAS scores can be used to trigger a deeper look at schools, we don't believe that scores on tests in two subjects should be used to determine which schools are in greatest need of help, or what help they need. We believe that priority schools (what Mass Insight calls "turnaround schools") should be identified after on-site evaluations are conducted.

Speed-up of timeline. While we don't agree with every aspect of either the state or federal accountability system, we do agree with the reality acknowledged in both systems that changing schools in a deep and meaningful way is rarely accomplished overnight. Many of the schools on Mass Insight's list have experienced changes in leadership, changes in regulations and changes in standards that must be implemented in a thoughtful way. Speeding up the timeline with the threat looming that "heads will roll" if rapid test score increases aren't achieved is likely to cause highly qualified teachers to leave the schools that need them the most. It also would make it harder for these schools to recruit the highly qualified teachers that every child deserves.

More power to administrators, but no role for teachers. The proposal calls for administrators to have "emergency powers" to make changes in their schools. This ignores the reality that the key problem identified in most low-performing schools is poor leadership. In addition, even when the school leadership is strong, this is a "top-down" approach to reform that is not likely to succeed. MTA, by contrast, believes that genuine school reform must involve all the staff in a school – administrators, teachers and support staff. Parents and the community must also be involved. The MTA is currently working in five struggling schools in Massachusetts under NEA's "Priority Schools Initiative" to implement lasting reforms from the bottom up.

See http://www.massinsight.org for a list of the "turnaround schools."