Mass. Groups Unite to Improve Struggling Schools

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An education research and advocacy group in Massachusetts is launching a yearlong initiative to come up with a plan to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools and craft a national model for improving failing schools.

Mass Insight Education is supported by $600,000 from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The effort, announced Aug. 23, comes as the research and advocacy group is calling for a second wave of school changes in Massachusetts, 12 years after a school finance case led the state legislature to pass a landmark education improvement law. The law directed substantial levels of new funding into school districts and led to high-stakes tests linked to academic standards.

The institute earlier this year launched the Great Schools Campaign, an effort led by a coalition of business, education, and community leaders who have been lobbying the legislature to increase funding for the lowest-achieving schools in the state by nearly $30 million more a year for the next three years.

Organizers of the initiative announced last month hope to devise a “road map” for district and state intervention in low-performing schools. While Massachusetts has been a national leader in the push for standards-based academic improvement, the research institute says too many schools in the state continue to flounder. While more than 90 percent of the class of 2005 passed the state accountability exam, the institute notes, schools with high percentages of African-American, Hispanic, and low-income students are still struggling to meet state standards.

“Our goal is to ratchet up the sense of urgency,” said William H. Guenther, the president of the Boston-based Mass Insight Education. “It’s an effort to both synthesize what we know about interventions in low-performing schools and provide a road map for other states and districts in their implementation strategies.”

‘A Huge Need’

Jennifer Vranek, a senior policy officer for education advocacy at the Gates Foundation, said the philanthropy hopes that recommendations will be useful in more than a dozen states by next year. “There is a huge need for research-based ways to produce student achievement for large numbers of low-performing schools,” she said.

Achieve Inc., a Washington-based group formed by governors and business leaders to promote high academic standards, will help identify other states that may be able to adopt the recommendations that grow out of the Massachusetts initiative.

But turning around the worst schools will require a new way of thinking, according to Irving Hamer, a former deputy superintendent in Miami-Dade County, Fla., who was successful in improving more than two dozen schools there in one year.

Unions, district leaders, and state officials must work more collaboratively, he said, because legislatures that have grown frustrated with the chronic failure of low-performing schools are increasingly looking to alternatives such as charter schools and privatization for results.

“The huge lesson from Miami is you have to have urgency,” Mr. Hamer said. “You can get a lot done in a year.”

Vol. 25, Issue 02, Page 28

Published in Print: September 7, 2005, as Mass. Groups Unite to Improve Struggling Schools
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