A Whale of a Tale

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 headlineHard numbers: Turnaround schools that remove most teachers have best records.

Sea minus
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.

Land Ho!
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.

Send tips and comments to tips@haveyouheardblog.com.


  1. File this under “God bless the Czar and keep him far away from me”. Pia Durkin threw SPED overboard and nearly drowned it in Boston when she was at the helm of the department. Lawsuits ensued. And though it seems impossible to be unaware of Brockton’s success, it’s not, if you spend all your time in an echo chamber.

    1. Ahh LaMissy… When seeing the name “Pia Durkin” I was immediately transported back in time when Pia first came to Boston Public after being driven out of Rhode Island. She was the person who put the ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder) children back in Boston Public’s mainstream and made referrals of Special Ed students part of the principals evaluation and school WSIP (Whole School Improvement Plan). High SPED referral = bad evaluation! Principals across the city set up “teams” (gatekeepers) who prescreened any teachers SPED referral! Teachers stopped referring students because they were targeted and told it was their fault the kid wasn’t succeeding. It was the birth of “diversify your instruction” and unsupported inclusion in the BPS.

      It seems, Boston Public closed the boys & girls reform schools they had for students with ODD issues and placed (hid) them in “LAB” (Learning Adaptive Behavior) clusters around the city which was supposed to service only emotionally disturbed (ED*) kids. That amounted to a significant cost saving to the BPS, because the State and Feds picked up the cost of services for emotionally disturbed (ED) kids but not for the ODD kids. The City was supposed to pick the cost to service the ODD students.

      Pia catches wind of this and, overnight, mainstreams the ODD out of the LAB clusters and into regular ed population. Teachers were told if a kid was a constant behavior problem it was their fault! I can remember the fights, extortion, drugs, and weapons those “children,” and oftentimes their bad behavior supporting parents, brought to our classrooms. That disfunction continues in Boston Public to this day.

      * School districts keep the ED and ODD populations in separate schools because they require different interventions and the ODD kids exploit the ED kids. Colleagues of mine working in normal districts were horrified that Boston Public threw them all together!

  2. I think the problem is Race to the Top. That has just four school intervention models to choose from and I don’t see the wonderful things that Brockton did as fitting into any of those models, which are: the Turnaround model, Restart model (reopening as a charter), School closure, and the Transformation model.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think what Brockton did fits the Transformation model, because there are way too many requirements for that. See: https://www.rtt-apr.us/about-apr

    1. Unlike New Bedford, however, Brockton was never designated a Level 4 school. Brockton High made all of its literacy based changes over a decade ago before No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top.

  3. I’d have to find out more about the Brockton High reforms before I’d recommend them to anyone. From the Commonwealth article, it sounds as if the principal goosed up MCAS scores by turning every class –history, science, art, etc. –into test prep for the English/language arts section of the MCAS. Of course scores would rise, but at what cost? Do Brockton grads know anything except how to pass the MCAS? What do the teachers think? What do the kids think?

      1. Thanks for the link. I’m still not convinced Brockton hasn’t resorted to glorified test prep. “Teaching literacy” has good connotations for many people. For me, it’s come to stand for educational snake oil –a mutant form of education far, far removed from the liberal arts I love. So-called literacy skills such as inference-making are actually in-born functions of our brains. Literacy teachers who elicit these from kids falsely take credit for imparting or strengthening these skills. They merely elicited (and maybe lubricated) them. What kids are NOT born with, and what schools can undoubtedly teach, is knowledge. And it is knowledge that is the true key to literacy. If you KNOW 90% of the words in a text, you will understand it. If you know only 50% of the words, no amount of “literacy skills” will enable you to understand it. So teaching content is the best form of teaching literacy. This is E.D. Hirsch’s profound insight, but he’s been sidelined by the literacy-industrial complex centered on Lucy Caulkins and Teachers College. If the kids of Brockton High are knowledge-poor, they will be bad readers and writers notwithstanding their scores on the anemic MCAS.

  4. Does the superintendent or those who support her offer any research to back up their claim that firing half the staff and all the administration is the most productive means of turning around a school? Or do they simply make that assertion?

  5. 1) Brockton’s results are not THAT different from New Bedford’s results.

    2) The 10th grade MCAS is an absurdly low bar. The level of difficulty is not that much higher than 8th grade, and the cut scores get WAY lower. Neither school is knocking it out of the park. Look at the difference between 8th grade and 10th grade…I doubt it’s the teaching but rather fact that the 10th grade test is too easy to pass.

    3) What is impressive is that steadily increasing number of advanced scores at Brockton. They’re heading in the right right direction.

    1. Might the rise in advanced scores be a result of changing demographics? I think of Diane Ravitch’s debunking of the Balanced Literacy “success story” in NYC’s District 1. Score spiked and Balanced Literacy was given credit. What really happened: the district had rapidly gentrified. Interpreting data is very tricky.

    2. Dig deeper into the data, my friend! The first thing you need to know about Brockton is that it’s enormous. With more than 4,000 students it’s not just the biggest high school in Massachusetts but one of the biggest in the country. So when 90% of their students not just graduate but, according to their just-retired principal, are headed to college, that’s some serious volume. What interests me is the depth of improvement that they’ve managed to produce in the ten year span. I see so many *miracle* turnarounds where it’s clear that there’s nothing going on beyond math and ELA, or charters where high MCAS scores are clearly not translating into AP success. What matters here is that the Brockton’s teachers and administrators didn’t just have the narrow goal of increasing their MCAS scores–they wanted to transform the school. What’s frustrating to me is that almost nothing they did is possible under the state’s new approach to turnarounds–there isn’t the time, they have zero interest in teacher-led efforts, and ALL of the emphasis is now on MCAS. Let me know if you’d like me to assemble a little bibliography for you!

  6. This is something my wife wrote about her experience as a brand new teacher at a failing school on the West Side of Chicago back in 2000-2002. In her second year, the school started to be phased out because of its long-term struggles to attract students – it was a career academy magnet school – and educate the ones that showed up. (It was also the setting for that brilliant piece of teen movie drama, “Save the Last Dance.” – try it with some Andre champagne or a wine cooler). I know most of you will think this is heinous, but she was in the first year of Teach for America Chicago and was the only TFA teacher at her school.

    “I worked in a school in Chicago while it was in the process of being shut down. And it was sad and hard for a lot of people. I understand the frustration. But I can tell you that I did not doubt the decision to shut that school down for even a minute. The administration had run the school into the ground and created a culture that would have been hard for anyone to turn around. I saw teachers do things that were so unprofessional, you wouldn’t believe it (playing checkers with their kids rather than teaching chemistry, writing the answers to the standardized tests on the board, coming to school drunk, reading the newspaper every day while kids copied maps endlessly, coming to school over an hour late 3-4 times per week and selling drugs to kids). There were other less egregious examples of bad teaching and really disliking the kids. The thing that was amazing to me was that there were still some amazing teachers in the building. And I think pretty much all of those teaching poorly hadn’t originally been out to be lazy. They were in a situation where no amount of work seemed to matter because the whole building was so, well, screwed up. I could see that they lost their ability to care after years of being beaten down. And I felt bad for them. But I didn’t think that meant that the school should remain open. Kids were graduating from high school without being able to read. It was not okay. If a few teachers’ jobs needed to be sacrificed for kids to get a better education, so be it.”

    I don’t know if this picture matches what is going on in New Bedford, but I think there are some good reasons to shut some schools down and start over.

    1. I love “Save the Last Dance”! And you’re right–a wine cooler would be a perfect accompaniment… Alas, the consulting company that New Bedford hired to do an analysis of what’s wrong with New Bedford High does not appear to have uncovered the sort of problems your wife witnessed… (They pointed to a lack of engagement among the students and a failure to work collaboratively among the teachers. Teachers I talked to said that the school lacks consistent discipline policies and a clear mission). Much of the debate in New Bedford boils down to your last sentence: If a few teachers’ jobs needed to be sacrificed for kids to get a better education, so be it. The state is aggressively peddling the idea that turning around urban schools is as simple as sloughing off the dead weight. But firing teachers is just a tactic–it can’t take the place of a clear pedagogical purpose.

  7. I’m not familiar with Brockton’s literacy initiative, but I do know that they have created a trauma-sensitive district that supports students around the trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences that causes many children to experience chronic toxic stress and physically damages developing brains. This initiative probably plays a much bigger role in the success of their students than literacy initiatives alone.

  8. @ Mathteacher: My school was “turned around” after just one year of under performance. Let me enlighten you a bit about turnaround schools. I know that your daughter the TFA is probably your “expert” source, but to be honest, her anecdotes don’t impress me. What I know, about my experience, does inform a bit more, in my opinion.

    Our district closed a school for chronically under performing, moved all their kids to our (Recognized Title One) school, moved our kids to another school and then our principal left our school because he did not want to be stuck with all the kids from the other one. That year we had fights every day, kids setting fire to the school, kids cussing out teachers, parents spitting on teachers…I hated, HATED my job when before I really loved it: no matter what I did I could not get the kids in line when our new principal just shut the door and hid. Literally. By halfway through the year, my kids still did not know who our principal was.

    There were good kids, nice parents, kids that wanted to learn. However, the 20% who did not ruined it for many. A strong principal, a decent person with a work ethic, could have dealt with it. We did not get that type of administration.

    After that year, we were Unacceptable. Rather than go into a second year, after the really awful principal left and we received yet another lazy one, we were told that the longitudinal study on the kids that we were teaching “proved” that we would not be able to get them where they needed to be…so they were closing the school and we all had to reapply for our jobs. I was one of 6 rehired. I had been there 3 years at that point. Many of our other teachers had been there 10. They had been there and been part of a Recognized campus, for years but suddenly, they were “ineffective”?

    So regarding your comment ” If a few teachers’ jobs needed to be sacrificed for kids to get a better education, so be it.” I actually disagree with that. I don’t think “sacrificing” a teacher who works hard, who has proven themselves, so that a charter can come in and make big bucks is ever moral. And how in the world can you state that you just know that they will get a better education? What an assumption. And I personally, someone who worked 11 hours yesterday to help my kids, am not ever going to be okay with being “sacrificed”. Now I understand that your daughter probably used her limited TFA experience to move onto a cushy job but I am myself, from an elite educational background that is probably very similar to the one that got your daughter in TFA, did not get into teaching to pad my resume. Like TFAers do. I actually care enough to stay in the classroom.

    But glad to hear that a fellow teacher is okay with “sacrificing” me….or HALF of the teachers in that school. Nice to know that you have a fellow teacher’s back.

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