Boston’s experiment with small, autonomous public schools appears to be paying off in higher test scores, attendance, and college-going rates, a report sponsored by supporters of the schools concludes.
Students in the city’s network of 19 “pilot” schools—set up through a partnership between the Boston school district and its teachers’ union—outperformed their counterparts in the city’s regular public schools on various indicators of student engagement and performance, the study says.
The report comes amid an ongoing dispute over the schools between the teachers’ union and district officials that has stalled the program’s expansion.
“Taken together, the pilot school results strongly suggest that personalized, autonomous schools are able to create nurturing learning environments in which students achieve academically,” says the study, released last week.
The analysis compares state test scores in English/language arts and mathematics for students in 14 of the pilot schools, covering grades K-12, with those of their peers in other public schools in the city. It also gauges student mobility and grade-retention rates, as well as other indicators of school effectiveness.
The report was commissioned by the Center for Collaborative Education, a Boston-based advocacy organization that promotes small schools and supports the pilot school project. Several independent researchers reviewed it.
Established by the 59,000-student district in 1994, the pilot schools are part of the 145-school system, and their teachers are covered by the union contract. But they have decisionmaking power over staffing, budget, curriculum, the calendar, and governance.
“Low class sizes, … low student-teacher loads, longer instructional periods, … collaborative planning time for faculty,” Dan French, the center’s executive director, said at a panel discussion of the report last week. “These are all ingredients that result in promising engagement and performance results.”
At the high school level, for example, more than 80 percent of the pilot school students passed the state tests in English/language arts and math, compared with fewer than 60 percent in other schools. And 75 percent of 2003 graduates of pilot schools went on to college, compared with 49 percent of graduates of regular public schools.
While the pilot schools aim to enroll students who are representative of district demographics, they have lower percentages of Latino students, English- language learners, and students who qualify for federally subsidized lunches, a standard measure of poverty.
Conceived as the district’s answer to charter schools, pilot schools have won praise from educators, business leaders, and community groups for providing school choice and innovation within the public school system.
Speaking on last week’s panel, Adam Urbanski, a Rochester, N.Y.-based union leader who directs the Teacher Union Reform Network, called the city’s pilot school initiative “one of the most important and one of the most promising examples in this nation, not only for labor-management collaboration, but for change strategies for schools.”
Yet the expansion of the program was blocked in 2003 by the Boston Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, and has been stalled ever since. A central issue in the dispute is whether the pilot schools should uniformly pay teachers for overtime hours. The union also wants some of the same autonomy for other public schools. (“After a 10-Year Run, Boston ‘Pilot’ Schools Sore Point for Union,” July 13, 2005.)
Aside from those concerns, BTU President Richard F. Stutman, who participated in the panel discussion, said he agrees with the report’s findings.
“The solution to the current standstill [over expansion of the program] will surely be collectively bargained and celebrated,” he said. “We are committed to what works well. We see the need for pilot schools to grow and expand.”
The district’s search for a new superintendent to replace Thomas W. Payzant, who will retire at the end of the school year, and the negotiation of a new teachers’ contract this year loom large over the effort to resolve the standoff.
At last week’s event, Mr. Payzant called the pilot schools “an incredible model in an environment where, whether we acknowledge it or not, it’s all about competition and choice.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2006 edition of Education Week as Boston’s Small ‘Pilot’ Schools Found to Outperform Others