Commissioner’s Role in Turnaround, Part 2: New Authority Needed

Recently, the Connecticut Council for Education Reform (CCER) highlighted Massachusetts’ five-tiered Framework for District and School Accountability, and explained why it might be a useful model for Connecticut.  Given the importance of a clearly defined and effective intervention framework for Connecticut, we’ve asked Jesse Dixon, the Director of the Office of District and School Turnaround in Massachusetts, to share three main takeaways from Massachusetts’ process and success with their school-turnaround plan and intervention framework.

In 2010, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education began a partnership with nine districts to turn around the Commonwealth’s lowest performing 34 schools.  A new law was passed in January that gave flexibilities to superintendents to turn around the schools, but required each school to turn around in three years or face state takeover.  Our newly created Office of District and School Turnaround worked closely with each district to ensure a plan was produced that included an analysis of the reasons for the schools’ underperformance, steps to turn around performance, and detailed benchmarks for how they would monitor progress regularly to ensure the strategies would change practice and accelerate student achievement.

One year later, we are happy to report that 22 out of the 35 schools have made combined gains of five percentage points or higher in student proficiency. This means that nearly two thirds of the identified schools are already showing significant improvements after the first year, with 10 schools achieving gains of 10% in both English language arts and mathematics.   Given this early success, CCER has asked me to discuss three key takeaways from the process of developing and implementing our new intervention framework and plan.

Takeaway #1 – Set rigorous expectations for low-performing schools and provide support to help them meet that standard

In January 2010, the Governor and legislature passed bold legislation providing authorities to superintendents of underperforming schools with greater flexibility over scheduling, budgets and collective bargaining agreements.  The legislation also gave the Commissioner of Education the unilateral authority to intervene if those schools don’t turn around in three years’ time.  The law created a sense of urgency by sending a clear message for what we should expect from our struggling schools.  However, if districts knew how to turn around schools they would have already done it. So, the Department’s Office of District and School Turnaround worked closely with each district to clarify expectations and requirements, assist in the analysis of student performance, connect districts with proven partners, network district leaders through a community of practice and build district capacity to respond to the turnaround challenge with sustainable research-based strategies.

Takeaway #2 – Additional funding can be helpful, but is not necessary for turnaround

The majority of the schools that made substantial gains in student achievement in Massachusetts did not receive federal school redesign grant funds (SIG) during the 2010-11 school year.  This is significant because it demonstrates that significant gains in student achievement is less an issue of additional funding and more about the repurposing of existing resources and the creation of the right conditions for success.

Takeaway #3 – School Turnaround is possible and should be expected

Nationally, more and more districts and schools are showing that the most struggling schools can quickly turn around performance with the right people, practices and processes.  In Massachusetts, the early and accelerated gains in student achievement are rooted in a shared belief that turning around our lowest achieving schools and districts can and must be done.  While some schools are doing it with existing staff and others are replacing all the staff, we are seeing everything in between.  If we know it can be done, there can be no excuses.  We cannot settle for incremental improvement of educational conditions for our most struggling students.

State education agencies do not turn around schools, hardworking educators do! Through the right mix of accountability and assistance, states can create the conditions for districts and schools to make the politically challenging but necessary decisions to improve student outcomes quickly.  We are inspired by how Massachusetts district and school leaders have responded to this challenge and look forward to continuing our partnerships to build on these early successes.

Jesse Dixon has been directing the Office of District and School Turnaround at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) since November 2010. Prior to that role, Jesse spent two years in DESE’s Division for Accountability, Partnership, and Assistance – coordinating a statewide effort to redesign the Massachusetts system for identifying, intervening, and supporting districts and schools. Before joining DESE, he was a chief of staff to members of the New York City Council, New York State Assembly, and Massachusetts State House of Representatives.