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With 40 Low Performing Schools, Is There Really Quality Choice for Boston Families?

How does BPS currently measure the "quality" of schools and whether families will have a better chance of assignment to the high-performing schools under the new proposals.

At the most recent community meetings regarding the school assignment proposals Boston Public Schools (BPS) presented to the External Advisory Committee on School Assignment (EAC), the most common question or comment from the public is still regarding the lack of quality schools in Boston. Though long, it is informative to watch the video from the February 4, 2013 Community Forum.

From the beginning of this process on March 10, 2012, the consistent feedback from the public has revolved around the lack of quality schools in BPS, not whether a school is close to home, which was the original focus of the new assignment proposals by BPS. Of course, schools close to home are also popular, but because many families do not have a high-performing school, or in some cases any schools at all, close to home the public has continued to focus on the lack of "quality" schools in Boston. Because of the push-back by individuals and groups, BPS and the EAC turned their focus to "equity access to quality seats." 

Equity access does not mean equity assignment which is a distinction that needs to be made. Just because a new model may bump your chances up by 2.9-6.0% does not mean your child will actually get assigned a seat at that quality school, only that you have a statistically better chance of it happening, in theory. Unfortunately, equity access to seats in quality schools will not fix the underlying issue which is that there are few quality schools overall, therefore the number of seats available stay the same whether we re-draw or eliminate the lines on our maps. 

In addition to the lack of seats available, is the issue that we also lack the ability to add seats at many of our schools, high-performing or not. This became more evident to me at the community forum held at the Trotter School when one woman said that no matter which proposal the EAC picked, students in Dorchester and Roxbury would continue to be bused out of their "home district" due to the lack of capacity to add seats at any of the schools. 

BPS is proposing to expand capacity at schools, but having gone through the exploration process at the Mozart School in Roslindale without success I am well aware of how much red-tape is involved along with what could potentially be lost to accommodate such additions: children placed into "modular classrooms" (trailers) and playgrounds eliminated just as an example. And after a year of exploring the options to merge the Mozart and Bates or add seats at either of them we found out it could not be done primarily due to push-back from neighbors, so I tend to be skeptical that BPS would have better success in the more highly-populated areas of the city.

In a district which has 79 elementary, K-8 and middle schools, according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Accountability data our BPS elementary and K-8 schools fall into the following designations:

13 schools have "insufficient data"*

9 schools are "Level 1"

17 schools are "Level 2"

32 schools are "Level 3"

8 schools are "Level 4"

Boston Public Schools District overall is designated as "Level 4" and determined as "Needs Intervention" for special education technical assistance or intervention. 

Understanding DESE designations is important to understanding how BPS is now classifying schools into a "Tier" system under their new proposals. Below is the explanation of what each level represents:

Accountability and Assistance Level: Massachusetts' Framework for District Accountability and Assistance classifies schools and districts on a five-level scale, classifying the highest performing in Level 1 and lowest performing in Level 5. Eighty percent of schools are classified into Level 1 or 2 based on the cumulative PPI for the "all students" and high needs groups. 

For a school to be classified into Level 1, the cumulative PPI for both the "all students" group and high needs students must be 75 or higher. If not, the school is classified into Level 2. A school may also be classified into Level 2 if it has low MCAS participation rates for any group (between 90 and 94%).

Schools are classified into Level 3 if they are among the lowest 20 percent relative to other schools in their grade span statewide, if one or more subgroups in the school are among the lowest performing 20% of subgroups relative to all subgroups statewide, if they have persistently low graduation rates (less than 60% for any subgroup over a four-year period), or if they have very low MCAS participation rates for any group (less than 90%). 

The lowest achieving, least improving Level 3 schools are candidates for classification into Levels 4 and 5, the most serious designations in Massachusetts' accountability system. 

*A small number of schools each year will not be classified into a level: small schools, schools ending in grades 1 or 2, new schools, or schools that were substantially reconfigured.

In general, a district is classified into the level of its lowest performing school, unless the district was independently classified into Level 4 or 5 as a result of action by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

(*For more information regarding the data used by the DESE to classify schools and districts, please read the DESE Accountability Report.)

According to the DESE data above and explanation of the levels, this means that of the 79 elementary, K-8 and middle schools over 50% (50.632911% or 40 schools) are in "the lowest 20 percent relative to other schools in their grade span statewide" or are "the lowest achieving, least improving Level 3 schools". BPS has 57,000 students, of which there are 6,366 students in Level 4 schools (11.2%) and 23,763 students in Level 3 schools (41.8%) for a total of 30,129 BPS students in the lowest performing schools (53%). 

For the purpose of the new BPS assignment proposals, a colorful rating system (green being best and red being worst) has been added on the maps which indicates three "quality indicators":

  • MCAS Tier Level
  • DESE MCAS Level (Spring 2012 data)
  • Popularity (Choice data)

According to this new BPS Tier system, BPS has created a list of the schools and which Tier they fall into. This table does NOT include the middle schools, even those designated as part of a "feeder" pattern already (i.e. Irving or McCormack).

Please keep in mind that all of the BPS data used to predict school choice patterns and the quality levels of schools for their proposals is based only on school years' 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 MCAS results and information regarding new students (no siblings) during Round 1 Kindergarten registration data. This means there is no current analysis which takes into account how the information would change when impacted by choices made for children older the age of 5, new students who have sibling preference, families who do not take part during round 1, transfers, students who are English Language Learners (ELL) or students with disabilities (SWD) whose school choice is designated primarily via their Individual Education Plan (IEP) pursuant to special education laws or other pertinent data I have not outlined here. 

All of the above information is provided to help create a better understanding of how BPS currently designates schools as "quality" schools and is predicting choice patterns for incoming students. 

Myself included, many families do not choose a school based on the MCAS designation or because other people choose a school; we pick a school based on what our individual child needs and how the schools in our choice set match up with what we quantify as being important for our family and child. One of my daughters' is in a Level 3 school because despite it's designation as such, I know from 3.5 years experience that the school is actually a quality school which is only now starting to show the progress that can be made with a dynamic principal and dedicated staff. Of course, because each family chooses schools based on individual need and assessment, this means there is no concrete manner to evaluate exactly how families will choose a school, but I give credit to BPS and the MIT partners who have used what they have available to make generalized predictions for this process.

Many people made similar observations as I do above at the community meetings held from March to June in 2012 so the EAC came up with a definition of a quality school:

Acknowledging that quality varies for each individual, the EAC Defining Quality and Equitable Access Subcommittee – with its members’ expertise, community feedback, and BPS research on quality – has drafted the following preliminary definition of a quality school to include: 
•Academic excellence and student academic growth in all grades, across all subgroups of race, ethnicity, English Language Learners and students with disabilities; 
•Principal effectiveness and teacher excellence with caring teachers and school staff;
•Parent engagement and a sense of community within and outside of the school;
•Effective community partnerships; 
•Focus on the development of the whole child and the needs of all learners, through arts, music, athletics, and program and course offerings;
•Safe and positive school climate including social and emotional support; 
•Adequate and appropriate facilities; and,
•As close to home as possible.

BPS acknowledged that not all of the components listed above can be measured by current data and that they will work toward creating a way to measure quality using the above definition. As all of the above are in line with my recent article regarding school climate and I have submitted my proposal for increasing the number of quality schools in Boston to Dr. Johnson, my hope is they incorporate some of my suggestions.

Unfortunately, whether the EAC picks one of the Home-based models or the modified 10 zone a.k.a. the new "11 zone" assignment model, we still have a serious problem in BPS regarding the lack of quality schools within the district. As it is unlikely that any of the 40 schools that fall into the lowest performing levels is miraculously going to become a level 1 or 2 in time for the registration process to begin in January 2014, the choices families may have under the new proposals could be even more limited and lead to further inequities across the city. 

I understand and agree that we need a new assignment model for a number of reasons, but as an advocate for students and public education I want to be sure that we are not only simplifying the process for families, but are also ensuring that every child receives a superior educational experience no matter which school in Boston they may attend. I truly believe that Boston can provide every student with an exceptional education in all our schools if they are given the funding and resources necessary to improve, not measured by MCAS testing alone.

Before a school assignment proposal is chosen, I urge you as current and potential families and community members, to get involved now. Attend an EAC meeting (listed on right side of bostonschoolchoice.org site) if possible. We should all be calling and writing/emailing the EAC members, BPS Superintendent Dr. Carol Johnson, the Boston School Committee (BSC) members, Mayor Menino and our elected officials to insist that detailed, concrete plans to increase the quality at each of our schools be produced by BPS prior to the Boston School Committee voting to pass any proposal recommended by the EAC and Dr. Johnson. A complete list of email addresses for the people listed above is available here.

The only way to provide true equity for all students is to ensure that all of our schools are high-performing, quality schools. Unless we have detailed plans to improve quality for every school and the guarantee of funding (in writing by BPS and Boston city officials) to put those plans in motion as well as benchmarks to assess their effectiveness for each school, our students are at risk of simply being guinea pigs for a new assignment model. 

If you would like to contact me with questions/comments or send me a copy of your emails to any of those I listed above, please email me at bpsnightmare@gmail.com.


This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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