MTA’s vision for public schools vs. ‘Innovation Partnership Zones’

MTA’s vision for public schools vs. ‘Innovation Partnership Zones’

Laura Barrett, Communications Specialist

Three recent events are important for telling a story about a huge fissure over how to improve public schools in Massachusetts for students who need help the most. Strategies backed by most educators in the state are in stark contrast to those supported by the Baker administration and others who supported Question 2.

On Tuesday, Nov. 8, the public voted 62 to 38 to reject Question 2, the ballot proposal backed by big-money interests to expand privatization of public education by greatly increasing the number of charter schools. The No on 2 campaign successfully made the case that public funds belong in public schools that are accountable to their local communities.

Despite that victory — or more likely because of it — Governor Charlie Baker announced in his State of the Commonwealth address on Jan. 24 that he supports legislation to give the state more power to take over and, yes, privatize public schools in selected “zones.” This plan sounds suspiciously like creating new charter-like schools, even against the will of the affected communities.

Cynically, the specified schools would be part of “Innovation Partnership Zones,” though the proposal provides for neither creativity nor true collaboration. It simply gives the commissioner of education more power to appoint private boards to oversee certain schools, disempowering parents, teachers and local school committees in the process. In fact, the proposal Baker is backing doesn’t require that a single educator or local official serve on any of these private boards.

News flash: Money matters. Adequate funding is especially important for low-income children who don’t have access to enriching activities outside of school.

About two weeks after the governor’s speech, on Feb. 8, state education officials acknowledged that the state takeover of the Dever Elementary School in Boston has been a failure. Commissioner Mitchell Chester had picked a private company, Blueprint, to manage the school. As reported in The Boston Globe, “Blueprint’s three-year oversight of the Dever has been marred by turmoil. … The school has experienced high teacher turnover and has had six temporary or permanent principals during that time, creating difficulties in executing a turnaround plan.” The Boston superintendent will take over as the school’s receiver in June.

The Dever fiasco looks a whole lot like the takeovers that would be allowed under the new proposal.

The Baker-backed plan, contained in bills filed by Sen. Eric Lesser and Rep. Alice Peisch, goes in exactly the wrong direction. It provides no new funding for struggling schools and it disempowers teachers and local communities in the hope that educators who don’t flee the system can be browbeaten into somehow raising test scores.

There are no magic bullets in education, but the MTA believes there are some fundamental principles that should undergird any effort to support quality education for all students. These are embodied in an omnibus bill supported by the association titled “An act strengthening and investing in our educators, students and communities.”

Among its goals:

Provide adequate funding. There are many on the right who dismiss the importance of funding in education. Quite a few of these people send their own children to private schools that can cost more than $40,000 a year because, well, for their kids, having small class sizes, well-equipped science labs and excellent foreign language instruction clearly does make a difference.

News flash: Money matters. Adequate funding is especially important for low-income children who don’t have access to enriching activities outside of school. The nonpartisan Foundation Budget Review Commission concluded that Massachusetts public schools are underfunded by about $1 billion a year. The MTA-supported bill requires funding to address the main problems identified in that report.

Rethink high-stakes testing. If you ask a group of public school teachers and parents to raise their hands if they believe there is too little testing in our schools, none will go up. Ask them if there is too much and hands will shoot up across the room. The vast majority of teachers polled consistently identify the excessive focus on standardized tests as an impediment to good teaching and learning.

Prepping for tests in two subjects is crowding out other subjects and emphasizes rote learning over creative problem-solving. And that’s even before addressing the time, money and energy that are going to the next great boondoggle: Next Generation MCAS tests. Those tests are being rolled out in a couple of months, causing significant confusion among educators trying to help their students navigate frequent changes in testing protocols and content.

Teaching and assessment go hand in hand, and the classroom teacher is best equipped to know his or her students’ strengths and challenges. Education takes place within relationships: We need to honor and support these, not undermine them through standardization and defining learning by a test score.

The MTA-supported bill calls for a three-year moratorium on the high-stakes use of standardized tests to give educators, parents and students a chance to reflect on their best, most profound experiences in school in order to help shape what they want their own community’s schools to value.

Promote child development. Some schools have cut back on recess to make more time for test prep. Students need time to play and socialize to support their development as human beings. This bill would mandate that recess be part of the school day through grade 5.

It also returns to school districts the authority to decide how best to educate English language learners, a growing segment of the school population. Top-down mandates governing ELL instruction are hampering the ability of districts to innovate and make decisions based on the needs of their students.

Community-centered support. While the Baker-backed bill makes no reference to social and emotional support for students, the legislation that the MTA supports includes those crucial components. Before a school can be designated “chronically underperforming,” the state would have to identify student and family needs and provide resources to address them, in a manner similar to the “community schools” model in which wraparound services are offered.

There would be many options to choose among, including summer programs, internships, GED programs, mental health services, English language instruction for parents, and homelessness prevention programs.

Massachusetts has many excellent public schools, wonderful educators and successful students. We want more. Educators need to be leaders in figuring out how to meet the needs of their students. Our aim is to build on strategies that work and demolish the growing mountain of mandates, sanctions and privatization plans that are stifling true innovation and meaningful collaboration in our schools.