With the specter of state control looming, Boston Public Schools is being sharply criticized for failing to “carry out basic operational functions,” among other problems with equity and educating at-risk students.
The district, which will be searching for a new superintendent at the end of the school year, has not addressed systemic barriers to providing an equitable, quality education or adequately served its most vulnerable students, says the latest in a series of reviews by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“This moment requires bold, student-centered decision-making and strong execution to ensure the district delivers the quality education its students deserve,” the review says. “BPS needs immediate improvement.”
The series of reviews began in 2020 in an agreement with the district to forestall a state takeover. The latest report, released Monday, credits outgoing Superintendent Brenda Cassellius–who is departing in June after two years on the job–with making progress in adopting high-quality instructional materials, prioritizing early literacy, and updating graduation requirements. She has also overseen a diversification of the teacher pipeline, and improvements in professional development and services for English learners.
The district is now using ESSER funds to build up staff at underperforming schools and begin much-needed facilities repairs, renovations, and upgrades. “The superintendent effectively led these initiatives, despite challenges in managing a central office with entrenched dysfunction,” the report says. “Ongoing work in these areas is in early stages of implementation and remains highly vulnerable to disruption.”
Two of those disruptions could be continued turnover in the superintendent’s post and other leadership positions, and an inability to monitor the progress and impact of district initiatives. Here’s a closer look at the major ongoing concerns identified in the review:
1. Serving the most vulnerable students: “BPS has shown little to no progress in addressing the needs of its students with disabilities, English learners, and students at the district’s lowest-performing schools, resulting in continued poor outcomes for tens of thousands of students.” These challenges have been exacerbated by high leadership turnover in the special education and English learner departments and a lack of urgency to make improvements. The district also has not made a significant effort to educate special education students in the least restrictive environments and black and brown students are being disproportionately placed in “substantially separate settings.”
2. Systemic barriers to equity: The review found that the district has not made progress in overhauling its school assignment system, which “concentrates high levels of student need in a fraction of the district’s schools.” It has also failed to alter its transportation contract, which has made the service unreliable for some students. Despite the steady drop in enrollment, district leaders have not tried to capitalize on the excess capacity or maximize the “considerable financial resources” at their disposal. “Without addressing these deeper systemic challenges, school and district improvement efforts will continue to flounder,” the report says.
3. Struggling with essential functions: The district is not meeting the minimum performance standards in transportation, facilities, safety protocols, and data reporting. Transportation has been plagued by late buses and uncovered routes while the lack of a comprehensive facilities master plan has caused a “significant variation in the quality of the district’s facilities.” It also does not have an effective and consistent process for tracking and responding to parents’ complaints about bullying, among other safety concerns.
4. Challenges with leadership continuity: Cassellius’ replacement, expected to be hired before the fall, will be the district’s fifth superintendent since 2013, leaving the system without the strong institutional knowledge needed to tackle its persistent challenges. The report also questioned the wisdom of the school board’s self-imposed tight deadline, noting that there are likely fewer qualified candidates available this time of year and that superintendent searches often take a year or more.
In responding to the report, The Pioneer Institute, a free market think tank, said money is not the problem, noting Boston Public Schools spends $26,000 per student annually, second among the 100 largest school systems in the U.S. The organization says that bullying is rampant and also accuses the district of underestimating the number of English language learners while overestimating graduation rates in recent years. It also says a majority of Boston’s students are not taught the material on which they are tested.
“The third review of the Boston Public Schools in fewer than 20 years makes clear: Things are getting worse,” the institute said. “Graduation rates are down, achievement gaps are up, an unacceptably large percentage of students attend schools ranked in the lowest 10 percent statewide.”