Classroom teachers recommend ways to narrow achievement gaps in Gateway Cities

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Jan. 11, 2013
CONTACT: Laura Barrett, MTA, 617-878-8267

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The state’s largest teachers union has released recommendations from teachers in low-income urban districts about ways to help narrow student achievement gaps, including replacing “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies that lead to high suspension rates with programs aimed at improving behavior within school settings.

The teachers’ recommendations stem from a collaborative project of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and New Voice Strategies, a nonprofit that has engaged in similar “idea exchanges” elsewhere. They are contained in a report titled “Addressing Educational Inequities: Proposals for Narrowing the Achievement Gaps in Massachusetts Gateway Cities,” which has been endorsed by the MTA.

Through the initiative, more than 300 teachers in 24 Massachusetts Gateway Cities plus Cambridge and Somerville shared their views in a freewheeling online discussion. Active participants were then asked to join a writing collaborative to craft the recommendations.

“We hope that the MTA VIVA project inspires discussions at the local level about what schools and districts can do about the critically important issues that our teachers have raised,” said MTA President Paul Toner. “The wide variety of opinions expressed during this project reminds us all that there is no single solution. Rather, there are a variety of strategies that can be effective if teachers, administrators, parents and community members all work together on behalf of students.”

The recommendations include:

  • Breaking the school-to-prison pipeline by reducing suspensions and promoting positive student behavior through in-school initiatives.
  • Offering both bilingual education and Sheltered English Immersion instruction to English Language Learners and promoting second-language fluency among native English speakers.
  • Transforming teacher preparation and professional development to address the challenges of a diverse student population.
  • Strengthening school-community relations.
  • Using flexible staffing schedules and collaboration with community-based organizations, among other methods, to lengthen the school day to provide enrichment and academic support for students and common planning time for education staff.
  • Encouraging Gateway Cities to collaborate on initiatives and jointly seek grant funding.

Gateway Cities are midsized urban centers that often serve as the “gateway” into Massachusetts for immigrant families. Many of these communities, including Holyoke, Springfield, Lawrence and Lowell, were former manufacturing centers. They have faced significant social and economic challenges since manufacturing has been in decline in the United States.
Education is often seen as the best means for building stronger economies in these communities, yet – as in Boston – student performance and graduation rates are significantly lower in Gateway Cities than in the rest of the state. For example, the five-year graduation rate for high school students is just 69 percent in Gateway Cities as opposed to 72 percent in Boston and 91 percent in the rest of the state.

One of the biggest challenges for school districts in Gateway Cities is that they serve a relatively high percentage of English Language Learners. Among other recommendations, the MTA VIVA teachers recommend a change in state law that would allow bilingual education services to be offered as well as the currently mandated Sheltered English Immersion. They also call on districts to do a better job of identifying ELL students who have learning disabilities so they can receive appropriate services at a young age. In addition, they encourage districts to provide early and effective second-language instruction to native English speakers so that they can become fluent.

On the issue of suspensions, the report recommends, “End all ‘no excuses’ or ‘zero tolerance’ disciplinary programs and policies that criminalize minor infractions of school rules and limit both in-school and out-of-school suspensions to only the most serious disruptions.”

The report also recommends strengthening school-community relations by, among other measures, extending school building hours “to allow students to have a safe place for before- and after-school activities” and establishing “home-school visitation programs,” such as one  in effect in parts of Springfield.

The authors recommend that Gateway Cities administrators work more closely together to share ideas and professional development opportunities and to apply jointly for grants.

The teacher-writers for the MTA VIVA project and the districts in which they teach are: Nancy Hilliard and James Kobialka, Worcester; Joel Patterson, Cambridge; Chelsea Mullins, Springfield; and Kathleen Sullivan, Malden. To reach any of these participants, contact Laura Barrett at MTA at 617-878-8267.

See Also: Teachers offer views on boosting achievement