The Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 established a requirement for annual evaluations of schools and districts, as well as the creation of the designations "underperforming" and "chronically underperforming." The basis for placing schools or districts in these two categories has changed over time in response to federal and state requirements.

In 2010, the Massachusetts Achievement Gap Act changed how "underperforming" and "chronically underperforming" schools would be identified, and it specified what actions must be taken in those schools. In combination with federal requirements related to No Child Left Behind, the DESE created an accountability system that placed schools and districts at one of five levels, ranging from Level 1 to Level 5. Level 4 corresponds to underperforming and Level 5 to chronically underperforming.

How DESE Designates School Levels

Level 3

  • Any school is designated Level 3 if its performance is in the bottom 20 percent on a number of indicators based on a complicated formula.
  • The commissioner of education is empowered to designate Level 3 schools as Level 4 or Level 5.

Key Numbers

The total number of Level 4 and 5 schools is limited to no more than 4 percent of all schools or about 70 schools.

In 2016-17, there were 33 schools in Level 4 and four schools in Level 5.

Level 4

  • Superintendents are given additional authority in Level 4 schools to develop and implement a School Improvement Plan, with some oversight by the commissioner.
  • Level 4 schools that receive federal school improvement grant funding must implement specified intervention strategies that include substantial changes to staffing, scheduling and leadership.
  • Any changes to the collective bargaining agreement are negotiated using an expedited process, with unresolved issues decided by a joint resolution committee representing both parties and a neutral third party.

Level 5

  • In schools and districts designated Level 5, the commissioner takes control of the school or district and appoints a receiver, replacing the authority of the School Committee.
  • The commissioner/receiver also has expanded authority to make substantial changes, similar to that of the superintendent in Level 4 schools.
  • A Level 5 receiver has the option of making substantial changes to the collective bargaining agreement, and the obligation to bargain over those changes is greatly diminished.

Standout before meeting with Sen. Lesser in Springfield

Share Your Story With Us

The MTA is interested in hearing from educators, students and parents about their experiences working and learning in Level 4 or 5 schools. Make your voice heard by commenting on issues such an adequacy of resources, staffing, school climate, support services, curriculum and instruction and leadership.

Share your experiences

Support, Not Sanctions

We are against sanctioning educators, schools and districts rather than providing them with support.

"Innovation Partnership Zones" Disempower Educators

An alternative takeover strategy creates a separate zone consisting of one or more schools. Schools in the zone are managed by an appointed Board of Directors, which replaces the elected School Committee. This board has the authority to change some district policies and provisions of collective bargaining agreements. 


Why We Oppose Innovation Partnership Zones

Our Vision for Supporting Struggling Schools

MTA’s legislative proposals offer a different vision for how to support struggling schools. They include a three-year moratorium on high-stakes testing, community control of school improvement efforts, adequate funding and support for a community-school model.


Read Our Legislative Agenda

Education Management Organizations

An EMO is a private organization that is given control of school management, policies and budget.

The use of education management organizations has been part of the DESE strategy for schools labeled underperforming and chronically underperforming since 2010. An EMO is a private organization that is given control of school management, policies and budget. The EMO, not the School Committee, is in charge of the school.

While state takeover and the appointment of a receiver are required for Level 5 schools and districts, the use of a private provider is an option for superintendents of Level 4 schools; superintendents are charged with developing a "turnaround" plan for these schools.

In a number of instances, the commissioner has forced Level 4 schools to select an EMO approach for their school plan, using Level 5 designation as a threat.

Private Providers in Massachusetts

Five private providers have been given control of Massachusetts schools or districts. Only one of those providers is currently working with the schools — UP Education Network. Empower Schools does not have control of any school or districts; but, it advises and supports the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership.

Provider School Status
EdLabs Five schools in Springfield Left after one year
Blueprint Paul A. Dever School, Boston Contract not renewed after three years
Project Grad Morgan Full-Service Community School, Holyoke William J. Dean Vocational Technical High School, Holyoke Morgan – contract not renewed after one year Dean – contract not renewed after two years
UP Education Network Two district schools in Lawrence One Horace Mann charter school in the Springfield Empowerment Zone One district school in Boston Two Commonwealth charter schools in Boston All contracts active
Collaborative for Educational Services Dean Vocational-Technical School, Holyoke Terminated its contract after two years
Empower Schools Advises and supports schools in Lawrence, Salem and Springfield Current contract to support Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership
Level 5 Districts

In 2011, Lawrence became the first Massachusetts community to have control of its schools taken away from its School Committee and given to the commissioner of education. The commissioner and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education took over the Holyoke Public Schools in 2015 and the Southbridge Public Schools in 2016. At least 65 percent of students in each of these school districts is  economically disadvantaged — and all three districts rank among the 15 with the highest poverty rates in Massachusetts.

Each of the Level 5 districts has an individual (not an organization) serving as receiver.

Level 5 Schools

In addition to these three districts, the commissioner has taken control of two schools in Boston, one in New Bedford and one in Holyoke. In each school, at least 70 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged.

Three of the four Level 5 schools were assigned education management organizations as their receivers. In one school — the John Avery Parker Elementary School in New Bedford — the superintendent was named the school’s receiver.