Are Massachusetts Officials Out to Harpoon New Bedford High School?
Ahoy, matey! That great looming specter in the distance is not a mighty white whale but New Bedford High School being turned upside down and shaken till 50% of its teachers fall out. School turnaround time has come to this scenic, hard-scrabble seaport and our trusty state education captains have launched a full sail operation to convince New Bedford residents that throwing half of the high school’s teachers overboard is the only way to reach the distant shores of Excellence. But are the captains on a fool’s errand that could end up capsizing the ship of public education in the Whaling City?
Davey Jones Locker
First: a bit of back story. New Bedford High School is listing. Home to 2,500 mostly low-income students, 1/4 of whom speak a first language other than English, the school was recently classified as Level 4 by the state—the Davey Jones Locker of academic performance—for chronically low test scores. Fortunately there is an easy fix at hand, at least if you listen to New Bedford’s newly installed schools captain, Superintendent Pia Durkin. According to Durkin, righting New Bedford High’s ship is as simple as replacing the entire administration and half of the teaching staff. That’s because, as Durkin insists, this particular turnaround model has been proven *most effective* in shoring up troubled schools. If that’s too subtle for you, the local paper was happy to provide this helpful headline: Hard numbers: Turnaround schools that remove most teachers have best records.
Now reader, turning around schools, much like whaling, is a messy business and to say that the above statement rather, ahem, overstates the case for this particular approach, would be an understatement. But what Durkin et al never acknowledge is that not a single Massachusetts high school has been restored to health by casting off its teachers. Take Boston’s English High School. In the three years since operation turnaround began at English High, 75% of teachers and administrators have been replaced. As teacher morale and experience plunged, the drop out rate and absenteeism increased. Today English High is in worse shape than ever and should serve as a cautionary ship wreck of a story of the perils that lie ahead for New Bedford High.
So is there nothing to be done for poor New Bedford High? Here’s where our tale takes a strange and fantastical turn. You see, it just happens that the most successful high school turnaround in Bay State history took place a mere 40 miles away from New Bedford in Brockton, Massachusetts. Once among the lowest performing high schools in the state, Brockton High, which educates an even higher percentage of low income students and English Language Learners than New Bedford High, now ranks up near the top and has a graduation rate of close to 90%. And how did Brockton High rise from the murky depths of academic performance? Not by forcing half of its teachers to walk the plank. Instead, teachers and administrators worked together to implement an innovative literacy program that incorporated reading and writing in every class. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Commonwealth Magazine editor, and education *thought leader* Michael Jonas:
Brockton High School stands as one of the best examples of what can be achieved when there is clarity, purpose, and a pedagogical foundation for an effort to drive improved academic outcomes. And Brockton drove huge gains in student achievement without any added authority to get rid of teachers or any of the other strategies English [High School] used, which only look like gimmicky fads when implemented so poorly.
Thar she blows!
No doubt you’re feeling a bit puzzled at this point, not to mention seasick. Why would education officials ignore Brockton’s now 15-year-long success story in favor of a turnaround model that has never worked for a troubled high school? The obvious answer, of course, is that Durkin and her state counterparts have never heard about what teachers and administrators accomplished in Brockton. But that seems unlikely since Brockton High has garnered extensive press coverage, including this front page story in the New York Times. Also, the Massachusetts Secretary of Education, Matt Malone, was the former superintendent of the Brockton Public Schools, so surely he could let his ship mates in on the secret.
The white whale of education reform
Call me EduShyster—I suspect there may be something else in the water here. You see, state education admiral Mitchell Chester has a particular vision of what schools in the state’s urban districts should look like. We’ll use the term *portfolio* as 1) that’s what it’s called and 2) the consultants who benefit handsomely from the ceaseless turning around of local schools carry *portfolio*-style briefcases, stuffed to the gills with *studies,* not to mention invoices. And just what is a *portfolio district,* you ask? It’s the white whale of education reform in which all schools are above average and every student exceeds expectations.
Awash in choice
In fact students in New Bedford will soon be awash in a veritable sea of choice, including two single sex public schools staffed entirely by volunteer teachers, the hardest working kind. As of next fall, New Bedford will welcome a third high school: City on a Hill, a high-flying college prep academy with a mission to help New Bedford’s public school students “reach their God-given potential and get accepted into college.” Except, of course, for the 65% percent of students that City on a Hill predicts will drop out of its new school before graduation. They’ll likely be headed back to New Bedford High School—or whatever remains of it.
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