Boston Schools, Once a National Model, Risk State Takeover

The Boston Public School System — once revered as a national model, including for Maryland’s landmark Blueprint policy — is now failing and at-risk for a state takeover. What went wrong?

During the 1990s and 2000s, Boston Public Schools was a nationally inspiring school system. Compared to similarly situated urban districts, Boston’s schools outpaced its peers in testing and graduation rates. The district also earned a reputation for innovation, successful charter schools, and “generous funding.”

As quickly as the district impressed, it has fallen in ranks, amid “academic stagnation and rapid leadership churn.” In March, Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley ordered a comprehensive audit of both, the Boston district and Massachusetts as a whole. The review follows a 2020 report that concluded, among other things, that individual Boston schools were not as responsible for the slip as, “district-wide policies and systems are significant contributors to student underperformance, particularly of Boston’s economically disadvantaged and other high needs students.”

The March audit was published earlier this week and the situation calls for “immediate improvement.” Of particular concern was a finding that “the district has failed to effectively serve its most vulnerable students, carry out basic operational functions, and address systemic barriers to providing an equitable, quality education.”

One longtime issue facing the district is “staggering” rates of student absenteeism — which readers will recognize as a systemic problem in Baltimore Public Schools as well. Reporting indicates that “in all, close to one-in-three Boston students attended schools that ranked in the bottom 10 percent across the state.”

The report is leaving many to wonder if Massachusetts state officials may consider a state takeover of the district, known as a “receivership.” According to education reporting site The74 Million:

The prospect of receivership (as takeovers are known locally) is hardly unprecedented in Massachusetts, which allows its education department greater latitude to reshape failing school districts than most state authorities elsewhere. But the structural problems facing Boston cast doubt on whether such an effort can be successful.

For three decades, the district has operated substantially under mayoral control, and newly elected Mayor Michelle Wu has already made clear her opposition to state intervention. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker — an education reform ally whose tenure has seen several takeovers — will soon be leaving office, likely to make way for a Democratic successor with sharply different views.

Maryland looked to Massachusetts Public Schools when forming its own Blueprint

The Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, mostly referenced as the Kirwan Commission, worked for years to develop a framework to advance Maryland’s public schools. During its work, it frequently referenced the systems and outcomes from other systems both within and outside the United States – with Massachusetts being among the most-often noted example.

From the introduction letter of the Commission’s final report:

Massachusetts comes up again in the Commission’s work as a “high performer” multiple times, as its own aggressive funding program sought to target inequities in public school outcomes – much the same as Maryland’s blueprint plan seeks for our own state.

Read the full report from The74 Million.