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The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

District Accountability and Assistance: Update on Fall River and Lawrence

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
October 14, 2011

At the October 25 meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education I will provide an update on the Department's district accountability actions and the assistance provided for the Fall River and Lawrence public schools. No Board action is required at the October meeting.


The Board adopted comprehensive regulations for underperforming schools and districts in April 2010, which provide the basis for the Framework for Accountability and Assistance. Pursuant to the Framework, districts are placed in Level 4 as a result of (1) systemic district weaknesses identified by a district review, and/or (2) inadequate school performance - having at least one school that is placed in Level 4 due to low student achievement and improvement. The regulations set the parameters for a district to move up or down from Level 4. A district may be considered for reassignment from Level 4 to Level 3 if practices and student performance are substantially improved, or from Level 4 to Level 5 if the district requires more intense intervention - receivership or a co-governance model - to improve its systems and student outcomes. Under the regulations, the Commissioner is responsible for executing support and technical assistance for districts at Level 4 and using the information gathered during district reviews and monitoring efforts to determine whether to recommend to the Board that a district move up to Level 3 or down to Level 5.

Level 4 Districts

Twelve districts currently are in Level 4 either because of a district review or because the district has Level 4 schools.1 The Board received a memo in June 2011 outlining the Level 5 district receivership process and requirements. No district has yet been recommended for Level 5 status.

Two documentation protocols provide the Commissioner and the Board with information about a district's performance and progress, to assist in determining the level to which the district should be assigned. One is a District Review Report and the other is a Progress Report describing the district's implementation of an improvement plan directed by the Department. At the February 2011 Board meeting I provided information on the District Review process as established by Mass. Gen. Laws Chapter 15, Section 55A. For reference, see February 24, 2011 memo: District Accountability Reviews - Process and Next Steps. The Board has also received annual Progress Reports for districts implementing Department-directed district improvement plans. I have committed to providing the Board with updates on the Level 4 districts that we are working with and watching most closely because of historical underperformance in these school systems.

We have identified seven of the 12 Level 4 districts as requiring a strong district-wide turnaround plan and support for the plan's effective implementation. These seven districts are: Fall River, Gill-Montague, Holyoke, Lawrence, New Bedford, Randolph, and Southbridge. Therefore, these seven districts have been or soon will be implementing newly-developed Level 4 District Plans to Accelerate Student Learning.

Level 4 District Plans

At the March 2011 meeting, I provided the Board with our written guidance and template to direct and support districts in developing and submitting these Level 4 District Plans. For reference, see March 16, 2011 memo: Level 4 District Reviews. At that time, four districts had begun engaging with Plan Managers to develop and implement these plans: Gill-Montague, Holyoke, Randolph, and Southbridge. These Level 4 districts are the ones that the Board previously designated "underperforming" pursuant to the laws and regulations in effect prior to the establishment of the Framework for Accountability and Assistance. At the March 2011 Board meeting, I also presented the reviews of each of these districts that formed the basis for my decision to continue Department monitoring of the improvement plans, and for having them develop focused plans to replace the previous "Turnaround Plans" that they worked to implement in prior years.

At the Board meeting in June 2011, I provided you with an update about New Bedford Public Schools, the fifth district that was to be placed on a Level 4 District Plan. For reference, see June 17, 2011 memo: Update on New Bedford Public Schools. In that memo, I informed the Board that Mayor Scott Lang (the School Committee Chair) and Superintendent Mary Louise Francis agreed to develop and implement this district plan following the release of the district review report. The district review found that the district's systems were insufficient to consistently deliver standards-based instruction, monitor student learning, make needed changes to programs and services, support teachers and principals to improve their practices, and maximize human and financial resources to meet student needs. The Department agreed to support New Bedford in the development of its district plan by providing the assistance of Cambridge Associates, which has been working with district leaders in the role of a Plan Manager.

At this point, Gill-Montague, Holyoke, Randolph, Southbridge, and New Bedford are in the process of refining and implementing their district plans, all with the support of Plan Managers provided by the Department's Center for Targeted Assistance and under the oversight of monitors provided by the Department's Center for District and School Accountability.

For the reasons presented below, I have decided to provide the Fall River and Lawrence school districts with the same level of support and accountability we have established through the Level 4 district planning process. I have made this decision based on student achievement data and district conditions described in two reports.

Fall River

The Department's design of its new district planning process began with its work in Fall River Public Schools following a January 2009 district review conducted at the request of then Mayor Robert Correia. The district review found shortcomings, which led to the development of a district plan called the Fall River Recovery Plan. At my direction, the plan focused on the four key areas that were found insufficient during the review. Signature features of this plan included: (1) a focus on key district systems of support, (2) a strong focus on plan development and implementation, (3) the inclusion of measurable benchmarks, and (4) regular, clear progress reports to the School Committee that included the monitor's assessment of the district's progress with respect to the benchmarks in the plan.

Since that time, regular monitoring reports for the Fall River Public Schools' Recovery Plan have demonstrated measured progress on many of the district's strategies and initiatives. The last Fall River Public Schools progress report was presented to the Board in March 2011. The final summative progress report after two years of implementation was completed this month. See Attachment #1: Fall River Progress Report.

Fall River Progress Report

The report shows that the district has made significant progress in three of the four areas in the plan. From fall 2009 to summer 2011, substantial progress has been made in the Recovery Plan areas of Teaching and Learning, Human Resources, and Financial Management. The improvement over the past two years holds promise in putting the district on a track toward greater improvement in student achievement through higher quality teaching in the Fall River Public Schools; increased and differentiated support from the central office to the schools in the areas of curriculum delivery, instructional monitoring, and supervision; and the provision of more targeted professional development. Unlike two years ago, Fall River now has a functional human resources department and financial office.

However, the work in Fall River is by no means done. The improvements are still new and require ongoing refinement and monitoring of central office, school, and classroom practices. Fidelity of practice must exist throughout the system so that all students, including those whose first language is not English and those with disabilities, have their learning needs met. The new practices have begun to take greater root in the school system and student performance and growth in the Fall River Public Schools have improved, but modestly, in both English language arts (ELA) and mathematics. The district did made gains in ELA proficiency that exceeded gains in the state proficiency rate from 2010 to 2011 for the aggregate and for subgroups. The district's gains in mathematics were comparable to the gains across the state. Although the improvement is encouraging, the achievement gap between Fall River and the state demonstrates that a continued press to accelerate progress is critical.

In spite of considerable progress in three of the areas of the Recovery Plan, I remain seriously concerned about the insufficiency of Fall River's progress in the area of Governance. Specifically:

  • The School Committee has not demonstrated the capacity for continuous improvement on its own through the self-evaluation and improvement process it agreed to implement in the Recovery Plan.
  • It has not fulfilled its legal responsibilities to follow the policies it has set.
  • Further, it has not been successful in ensuring that a collective bargaining agreement is established. The district has been without a contract in place for teachers for over a year.

Leaders at the highest levels, particularly the School Committee level, must take the most responsibility for this continuous press toward a high quality education. The role of the School Committee is a critical one. The Education Reform Act of 1993 made it clear that this governing body is responsible for setting the policy that lays the foundation for district operations, as well as for hiring and evaluating the superintendent and overseeing the budget. In order for Fall River to be successful, the School Committee must establish a culture of collaboration, agreements between parties, and policies that support the educational mission of the district. Depending on its effectiveness and efficiency, the governing body has the power to create a productive and stable working environment for staff, or seriously undermine it.

Next Steps for Fall River

In order to stabilize the district and support its continued trajectory of improvement, I am committed to increasing both our support and our monitoring efforts in the area of Leadership and Governance. As the current practices of the School Committee threaten to undermine recent hard-fought improvements made by district leaders and staff in the Fall River Public Schools, a customized plan of support and monitoring will need to be established in partnership with the school system. To support the other areas of ongoing work in the district, the Department is prepared to assist Fall River in making the transition from the more detailed Recovery Plan to a more targeted Level 4 District Plan in line with the plans developed by other Level 4 districts working to dramatically improve systems of support for their schools. The Division of Accountability, Partnerships, and Assistance will work with district leaders to roll out the next phase of support for and monitoring of the Fall River Public Schools.


I would also like to call to the Board's attention the district review conducted of the Lawrence Public Schools from May 23-May 26, 2011, by the Center for District and School Accountability. As you have been made aware by the information I provided at the Board meeting in February 2011, the district review is a rigorous process that follows a protocol designed to understand the extent to which districts meet the district standards of (1) Leadership and Governance, (2) Curriculum and Instruction, (3) Assessment, (4) Human Resources and Professional Development, (5) Student Support, and (6) Financial and Asset Management. Each of these six standards contain three to five descriptive indicators of practice that serve as the basis for the review team's collection and analysis of information; this information is gathered through interviews, review of data and documents, classroom observations, and other observations of practice.

Lawrence District Review Findings

The Lawrence district review yielded 15 findings. In the area of Leadership and Governance, the review found that the school committee has delayed actions on critical matters under its oversight, as evidenced by:

  • the failure to hire a new superintendent,
  • inattention to data to inform policy development or understand policy implementation,
  • the lack of fiscal management to ensure district programs and services are adequately funded, and
  • delays in putting in place a capital improvement plan to ensure building safety.

Rather than focusing on governing priorities, the School Committee has spent much time addressing other issues, including issues and concerns about individual students or staff members which are better left to administrators. Review team members also described a tone set by the School Committee that created tension, fear, and distractions from the educational activities in the schools.

Central office leaders in Lawrence were found to need clearer and greater direction. Although the review team found that these leaders were working diligently, the collective impact of these efforts was insufficient to strengthen school practices:

  • In the area of Curriculum and Instruction, the review found that the district's curriculum guidance and materials are insufficient. The secondary level lacks a common curriculum and full-time principals to serve as the leaders of instruction and the vision-keepers for each of the six small high schools. According to the report, although leaders, instructional coaches, and teachers articulated an understanding of effective instructional practice, teaching quality was inconsistent.
  • In the area of Assessment, the review found that practices are inconsistent, especially at the high school level, and instructional staff have not been sufficiently supported in using data. The district is working on putting together a comprehensive set of assessments that will help teachers monitor student progress better and make the appropriate adjustments to instruction.
  • In the area of Human Resources, staff evaluations need to be carried out with greater consistency. Over one-third of the teachers scheduled for evaluations in the past two years had not been evaluated, and administrators had been without evaluations for almost two years at the time of the review.
  • More focused professional development in alignment to district goals was found to be needed, especially to support the improved use of assessment data and the teaching of English language learners.
  • Over one quarter of the district's students are learning English, but there are currently too few teachers qualified to shelter content and teach English as a second language.
  • In the area of Financial Management, the review found that the district has sound systems for managing its finances and has built or renovated several schools, but continues to struggle with an inadequate budget (the city of Lawrence has not met required Net School Spending for several years), and some school buildings are in bad repair.

I am deeply concerned that inconsistent governance and leadership and insufficiently coherent and comprehensive district systems are standing in the way of district and school leaders and staff doing their best work on behalf of Lawrence students, and that student performance has suffered.

Student Performance

My level of concern is amplified by a drop in the district's student performance over the past year.

  • The proficiency rate in mathematics dropped from only 31 percent in 2010 to only 28 percent in 2011, and the median Student Growth Percentile (SGP) in mathematics fell from 49 in 2010 to only 39 in 2011, below the range considered to be moderate (40.0-59.9).
  • The proficiency rate in English language arts remained the same from 2010 to 2011 at 41 percent proficient, while the median SGP in ELA dropped from 50 to 45.
  • From 2010 to 2011 the percentage of students reaching proficiency in Lawrence declined or remained flat for every grade level in both subjects, except for grade 5.
  • Out of the 24 schools in Lawrence with tested grades, 19 declined in ELA and 18 declined in mathematics performance from 2010 to 2011.

The drop in performance from 2010 to 2011 and the district review demonstrate the need for urgent action in the Lawrence Public Schools so that their students can receive the high quality education that they deserve.

Next Steps for Lawrence

In order to put the district on an accelerated improvement trajectory, we have selected a Plan Manager to work with district leaders in Lawrence, including interim superintendent Mary Lou Bergeron, to develop a Level 4 District Plan. The appointment of a new superintendent will be critical to that work.

Beyond the Level 4 District Plan, I am committed to taking additional steps to increase and focus our assistance and accountability efforts to address the serious systemic deficiencies and leadership issues in the Lawrence Public Schools shown by the findings described above and also by the district review report's 13 recommendations.

The Department has a long history in Lawrence and we are deeply committed to its success. See Attachment #3: History of Accountability and Assistance in the Lawrence Public Schools Download PDF Document  Download Word Document. The need for state intervention in the Lawrence Public Schools was first identified in January 1998 following a July 1997 State Auditor's report and a subsequent Fact-Finding Review conducted by the Department in Fall 1997. The Department established a Memorandum of Understanding with the Lawrence Public Schools that launched a partnership in January 1998, and from 1998 to 1999 the Department and consultants worked with Lawrence High School, the School Committee, and the Central Office to develop and implement revised procedures.

In 2000, the Department appointed a Partnership Team to provide technical assistance to the district and monitor improvement. The Partnership focused on five priority problems: (a) ineffectual governance, (b) deficient management, (c) reluctance to acknowledge deficiencies in operations and performance, (d) failure to establish priorities and set plans for improvement, and (e) a culture of low expectations. Department support services were provided to address these problems in seven areas: (1) executive coaching, (2) school committee training, (3) central office technical assistance, (4) planning assistance, (5) improvement capacity-building; (6) instructional capacity-building, and (7) implementation monitoring. The team continued to meet with Superintendent Wilfredo Laboy to monitor improvement in the district, reporting regularly to the school committee. During the period of Supt. Wilfredo Laboy's tenure, there was a strong focus on improving curriculum and instruction across the district.

When the Partnership was officially dissolved in August 2005, the district's systems appeared to be improving and this level of Department oversight was no longer deemed necessary. Since then, the Department has continued other accountability and assistance work, including work with Lawrence as a district with two Level 4 schools: Arlington Elementary and South Lawrence East Middle School.

The identification of a strong superintendent for the Lawrence Public Schools has been a high priority for the Department over the past 13 years. The district's unsuccessful search for a new superintendent this year gives me cause for concern. The interim superintendent's contract ends December 31, 2011, and there are no plans for a contract extension. This situation leaves the Lawrence Public Schools with no identified leader as of January 2012.

Next Steps for the Department

I am monitoring closely progress in Lawrence. My central focus is on whether the district is functioning and providing a viable school district for the students of Lawrence. I expect to update the Board at the November 2011 meeting. It is possible that greater state intervention in the Lawrence Public Schools will be required to provide stable and effective leadership for the students and citizens of the city.

The Department's Center for District and School Accountability will evaluate each of the seven Level 4 District Plans. Once the plan is in place for each district, quarterly monitoring Progress Reports will provide an assessment of implementation progress, early evidence of change, and short and long term impacts. In each case the monitor will report findings not only to me, but also at school committee meetings, so that the leaders and citizens of each community will be well informed.

I will continue to provide the Board with regular progress reports on each of the seven districts on Level 4 District Plans. Senior Associate Commissioner Lynda Foisy and Eva Mitchell, Director of our Center for District and School Accountability, will be present at our October meeting to respond to Board members' questions.


Download PDF Document  Download Word Document
Attachment #3: History of Accountability and Assistance in the Lawrence Public Schools

Last Updated: October 21, 2011
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