Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Tale of Two Schools and the Failure of Education Reform

When most people think about Massachusetts, they envision Boston with its beautiful skyline, world-class universities and hospitals, sports teams, and of course Revolutionary War reenactors. Western Massachusetts, which is not so far from Boston, often feels like it is light years away. As a western Massachusetts native, who now lives in Boston, it is a place I love dearly. It is home to an eclectic mix of urban and rural, strong sense of community and diversity, and an interesting mix of college professors and the working class.

Since the days of Shays Rebellion, western Massachusetts has been long neglected by the powers-that-be in Boston. In fact, most residents in the eastern part of the state have little knowledge of Springfield beyond the Six Flags amusement park or the Basketball Hall of Fame. What they may not know is that Hampden County, which includes Springfield and Holyoke, is now the poorest county in Massachusetts with a per capita income of $24,718. Despite recent economic improvements nationwide, the unemployment rate there is still over 10%. Many of the former New England factory towns in the area struggle to revive their economies. Most people in eastern Mass. will also not know that Springfield was recently ranked the 12th most dangerous city in the U.S., with much of this violence spreading to Holyoke, a neighboring city, and, as featured tonight on 60 Minutes, local law enforcement is now using counterinsurgency methods to reduce gang-related crime in the area. To make matters worse, a devastating and incredibly unusual tornado destroyed much of downtown Springfield in 2011. Many of the buildings downtown remain in rubble. Since Springfield has its own media market (the Springfield stations are not carried on Boston cable), Bostonians almost never hear of the struggles faced by their fellow Bay Staters to the west. Needless to say, the state spends much more of its attention and resources on developing the economy and solving the problems in eastern Massachusetts.

I often peruse the online pages of the Springfield Republican to stay engaged in the local news of my hometown. Recently, I read this headline, "Massachusetts Education Commissioner on Holyoke's Dean Tech: Results Absolutely Disappointing; It's a Real Travesty." The reaction of the Commissioner of Education seems unusual, since two years earlier, it was his and the state's solution to required "the city put Dean Tech under outside management because school officials and staff have failed to turn around students' persistently poor academic performances." The "turnaround" company chosen was the Collaborative for Educational Services and it was paid over $600,000 a year to turnaround Dean Tech. As a result of these changes, there were dramatic changes for Dean Tech. Student enrollment dropped from 650 students to 530 students, while the school's faculty decreased from 160 to 121. After less than 3 years, there has been little change in test scores (which have been relatively unchanged since the first years of the state MCAS test) and the Collaborative for Educational Services, citing insufficient state money, terminated their contract with Holyoke. As a result, and forced by the state, the Holyoke School Committee has recently decided to transfer control to a new private operator, Project Grad USA out of Houston, Texas, who offer similar promises of turning the school around. Despite their website's glossy photos of graduating students, it is doubtful this private company will have any effect on Dean Teach.

Why am I choosing to use Dean Tech as a perfect example of the failure of recent so-called education reform? Over a decade ago, when I was an undergraduate at UMass Amherst, I first worked as a TEAMS tutor, then a student teacher, and later a substitute teacher at Dean Tech. In fact, from my experiences, I saw something very different in Dean Tech than the Commissioner of Education. Unlike the Commissioner, I spent everyday at Dean Tech. Instead of being a "travesty," I saw it as a transformational place that offered incredible hope to its students.

There is a reason why Dean Tech's test scores are so low. It is not an issue of "bad" or uncommitted teachers. Although I certainly witnessed a few teachers who should have retired earlier, the vast majority of the classrooms I observed had teachers who were incredibly dedicated and caring. The teachers had strong relationships with their students and they often worked hard to engage their students in the curriculum. I saw teachers convince more than one student to not to drop out of school. I witnessed this care on display during the annual teacher-student basketball game. During and after the game, the students seemed to view their teachers almost as an extension of their families. Although I do not recognize many of Dean Tech's current faculty (which I assume is exacerbated by all of the reforms enacted there in the past decade), I have to imagine much of this same school culture persists. It is not an issue of poor management. The principal was respected by the parents and students. Teachers were generally happy working there (many had spent their whole careers there). Despite Holyoke having a high crime rate, the school was relatively safe. There were rarely incidents of violence at the school. With over 600 students moving about the hallways during passing time, I was always amazed that in my time there I never witnessed a single fight. Although the school is not new, the physical plant was maintained and in relatively good shape.

The issue is poverty and the resulting segregation. According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, about 96% of Dean Tech's students are low-income, making it one of the most economically disadvantaged schools in the state. Since it is a vocational school, where students attend specifically to learn a trade, it is often a school that supports students that do not traditionally excel in school. From my experience, many of the students hated learning the traditional school subjects, but loved their shop courses (subjects not tested on the MCAS). With that being said, to continue in the shop programs students were required to pass their academic subjects. As a student teacher in history, I took this as a challenge. I made sure to teach many lessons on the connections between U.S. and Puerto Rican history (where many of my students' families came from), as well as historical lessons about technology and engineering (which connected to their trades). It was an amazing way to help students that, for all intents and purposes, probably would have dropped out of school. Moreover, about 40% of Dean Tech's students are labeled Special Education, which is more than double the state average and 97% of the students have been labeled "high needs" by the state, which means a student belongs to at least one of the following at-risk populations: low income, English Language Learner (ELL), or a student with disabilities. Moreover, Dean Tech is one of the most segregated schools in the state. Over 91% of students are Latino. Almost 70% do not have English as their first language and 30% are not proficient in English. The vast majority of students are Latino immigrants/migrants or the children of immigrants/migrants. The state highlights two main reasons for a needed takeover at Dean Tech: its poor graduate rate and low MCAS scores. It is true that Dean Tech had a 5-year graduation rate of 29.1% with a 46.3% drop out rate. Only 37% of students passed the MCAS, compared to 88% statewide. There are few schools in the state with this many barriers. Without Dean Tech, I can only imagine what might have happened to these students at non-vocational schools. Many Dean Tech graduates now have successful careers in the trades and contribute to the economy of western Massachusetts. It is unfair to judge Dean Tech on the same scale as traditional high schools, where for many college is the ultimate goal. In fact, not recorded in the data are the many drop outs that attend the night school program in Holyoke or the many others who took and passed the GED test (since for many of them a traditional high school diploma is not needed to attain a job in their trade).

Without a doubt, Dean Tech could be doing better. However, one thing that will assuredly not help improve the school are takeovers by private management companies. To better understand how Dean Tech can be improved, I would like to use the current school where I teach, a school located in another former factory town (albeit, in eastern Massachusetts), as an example. With 30% of students being low-income, Framingham High School has about a third the poverty level of Dean Tech. In 2000, only 58% of Framingham High's students passed the MCAS exam. The school was struggling. However, the reaction to poor MCAS results was quite different then what occurred at Dean Tech. First, teachers were empowered by the school district to solve the problems that plagued the school. No private companies were brought in to repair the school. Instead, the teachers were given more time to collaborate and participate in professional development. This time was not spent by paying outside companies to come in and tell the teachers how to teach. Rather, department heads were given the responsibility to lead their teachers in problem solving, seeking their own ways to improve learning. Second, a substantial number of social services were created to support those students that faced serious social and economic barriers. The school strengthened its ELL program and found a loophole in state law to continue bilingual education. The school created a medical center staffed with nurses and hired social workers and psychologists to be housed in the school's support center. They increased the number of special educators and support staff. They renovated the school building and upgraded the technology. They created numerous mentoring programs to help students that often fall through the cracks and continued to support an alternative high school for students on the other side of town. Finally, the school did not become obsessed with MCAS scores, but developed a culture where teachers worked together to improve instruction. Teachers were asked to co-teach at least one course with another teacher in their subject area, routinely share lesson plans, and observe their peers teach. Today, over 90% of Framingham High students pass the MCAS. It has one of the lowest dropout rates for immigrant students in the state and an overall drop out rate of only 7.3%.

Dean Tech needs these types of reforms if there is to be sustained improvements. Although these reforms might not produce results over night, it will make a positive difference. Due to its mission as a vocation school and its location in one of the poorest cities in the state, the reality is that Dean Tech may never have a reasonable drop out rate or high MCAS scores. Yet, it can continue to be a place where many students persevere despite the serious challenges of poverty and help find their students a meaningful career. I hope it is not too late to switch course and do what is right to save a very important place.

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