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Report: Massachusetts takes over school districts, then fails to make substantial, permanent gains

Student follow the path of the sensory walk at the H.B. Lawrence School in Holyoke, Massachusetts, in 2019.
Alden Bourne
Student follow the path of the sensory walk at the H.B. Lawrence School in Holyoke, Massachusetts, in 2019.

School district takeovers by the state of Massachusetts, known as receivership, haven't worked, according to an analysis of data by The Boston Globe.

Reporters Christopher Huffaker and Bianca Vázquez Toness looked at the Massachusetts districts where the state manages schools, considering test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment. They looked at data across three districts already in receivership, including Holyoke, also Lawrence and Southbridge.

Jill Kaufman, NEPM: The state takes over schools and districts because the state says they are chronically underperforming when local school committees are in charge. What did you find out about the schools and how they performed after they were taken over by the state, in general?

Christopher Huffaker, The Boston Globe: For the most part, the state was not able to produce the sorts of improvements that it set out for itself. There are limited cases on a temporary basis where certain metrics improve, but they don't seem to be able to make sustainable gains and build upon them. And, in most areas, they don't seem to make gains at all.

And is that measured by the MCAS, by the state standardized test, in terms of the English, science and math scores?

Yeah, one of the things that we looked at pretty in-depth was the math scores, particularly in English and math, but we also looked at graduation rates, attendance rates, dropout rates — all things that the [state] set out for itself and the turnaround plans it created for those districts. And we also looked at some metrics that it did not set out for itself, like college enrollment rates by graduates of these three school districts.

I want to point out that The Boston Globe analysis comes as the state of Massachusetts is considering taking control over the Boston Public Schools. Mayor Michelle Wu, who is less than a year into her term, says that receivership is not the answer. And you hear this in other cities, too. Holyoke also has a new mayor. The school board, the families — they say local control and resources from the state, and a real partnership with the state, will make the difference over time. What did local educators and others have to say to you in your reporting?

Yeah, so it's a very interesting point about local control, but state resources. And that is very much what we heard. There were cases where local leaders were happy with aspects of receivership. They appreciated that their receiver brought in certain initiatives.

But what they don't like is there's no local accountability really whatsoever. The elected school committee loses almost all of its authority. And there's also no official path out of receivership. There's no marker where if you hit this point and these metrics, you'll be returned to local control.

The 2023-24 school year will be under a new governor. Receivership overall is allowed by law, but a new administration will change up the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. How could politics play out here?

Yeah, that's obviously going to be a really big question and could throw a real wrench in the gears of any of these processes. The current commissioner of DESE, Jeff Riley, he made his bones as the original receiver in Lawrence when they were making those initial widely reported improvements.

And so, a new governor comes in, has a new person in the department, it's a question whether they'll support receivership as a method. And so, if they were to put Boston under receivership next school year and then only a year later, there's someone else in charge, really big question how that would go and what that would mean for the district.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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