BOSTONCitywide Education Progress Report
Key Takeaways: System Reforms
A new tool for parents making school choice decisions, the Boston Schools Finder, provides parents with information on district, charter, and Catholic schools in the city. Community engagement practices are improving and new local organizations are pushing for more family involvement, yet the city must continue to ramp up efforts to reach families most impacted by low-performing schools.
Is the education system continuously improving?
Do schools have the resources they need? School improvement happens at the school level, but making sure resources are available requires sound, citywide policy. Having the right talent in a city is critical for schools to be able to provide students with a quality education. Schools should also have control over their budgets so they have the resources to address the needs of their student population.
► Do schools have the kinds of leaders they need?
Boston, a highly sought-after city in which to live, has no shortage of applicants for leadership positions in Boston Public Schools (BPS) or charter schools, thanks to multiple pipelines and high starting salaries. The Boston Compact, a partnership between district, charter, and Catholic schools, has a citywide recruitment fair aimed specifically at attracting teachers of color. A local program, the Lynch School of Education, has trained a third of all school leaders—district, charter, and Catholic. Latinos for Education provides a yearlong fellowship for Latino leaders, district or charter. In addition to these cross-sector efforts, both BPS and charter schools balance internal pipelines with local and national sources. BPS is currently working to refine and standardize the competencies it uses to recruit and hire leaders and to develop a scoring method so decisions can be more data-driven. There is no data about leaders in the charter sector to fully assess quality or fit.
► Do schools have the kinds of teachers they need?
BPS uses nine different pipelines to attract and screen applicants. Those who pass the vetting process are made available to schools, which directly hire candidates they deem to be a good fit. Within the past year, BPS has focused on improving the racial and ethnic diversity of applicants. There is no sectorwide data about charter school teachers. Anecdotally, interviewees said that schools across the city struggle to find certified applicants to teach science or special education and English language learner (ELL) students. To address this, both sectors use internal programs: BPS operates a licensure program in partnership with the University of Massachusetts, and a handful of charter schools have site-based licensure programs. Both charter and district leaders also note the need for improved teacher evaluation systems so each sector has more nuanced data about teacher quality.
► Does funding equitably follow students?
BPS allocates less than 50% of district money to its schools using a student-based allocation formula (based on an analysis of fiscal year 2013-14). Funds follow students with additional weights based on poverty level, grade level, ELL ability, and disability, among others. The district’s budget office provides strategic support to schools during their budgeting process. The budget office also provides easy-to-understand information for families about the budget process and student-based allocation.
Do students have access to a high-quality education?
Do school choice and supply meet family needs? This goal addresses how well the city is doing with providing families access to quality schools. We look at what the city is doing to ensure quality schools are in every neighborhood, and how well the choice process is working for families who want to use it.
► Does the school supply represent an array of models?
Of the schools that opened or expanded between 2014-15 and 2017-18, only one has a nontraditional instructional model (expeditionary), but two offer curricular emphasis like STEM or social-emotional learning. In general, Boston has a fair amount of curricular and instructional diversity. Charter schools work closely together to share curriculum and teacher training. A new initiative, Mass Ideas, draws together charter and district school teams to design or redesign schools.
► Is transportation working for families?
A state law requires BPS to provide free transportation (via district bus or transit pass) to all charter and district students living outside the school walk zone. Despite having exemplary policies in place, interviewees identified transportation as a concern because of the high cost of current school bus services and its unreliability and poor safety record. BPS choice policies make sure students can apply to the closest high-quality district school, but students without a good school in their neighborhood—often low-income students—bear the burden of traveling to attend the school assigned to them. Interviewees who work with low-income families say that many families place their preference for quality below other more immediate concerns, including transportation and distance from home. One example cited by a 2018 interviewee was the unintended consequence of a policy that provides free transit passes to high school students living outside of their school’s walk zone. Low-income families for whom a transit pass was a critical resource were said to be choosing schools farther from home, regardless of quality, to secure the benefit of a free pass.
► Is the city strategically managing its school portfolio?
BPS uses enrollment and performance data to close schools, and the Massachusetts Department of Education uses transparent criteria as the basis for renewing or closing charter schools. However, interviewees said that there is no active management of the city’s schools that takes into account capacity, demand, and quality. Interviewees report that high-quality schools are at capacity, and there is no mechanism in place for expanding or replicating high-performing models. For families who don’t get into selective high schools, there are few quality options. The city also lacks a common performance framework that can guide cross-sector school performance management. BPS is currently updating its facility master plan, BuildBPS. While this could help guide school siting decisions, interviewees expressed skepticism that the effort has impacted the decisionmaking process to date. Boston is currently at the state’s charter cap, which limits a district’s net school spending on charter school tuition at 18%, so charter schools cannot open or expand in the city.
► Is the enrollment process working for families?
For the 2017-18 school year enrollment, the city’s charter schools adopted a single application, streamlining the process for parents interested in applying to multiple charter schools. But lotteries that determine who is awarded a spot are still conducted at the individual school level. BPS has a central school assignment process, but pilot and exam schools have their own individual application processes, as do Horace Mann charter schools, which have their charter approved by a local school board. In interviews, community groups reported that families perceive a lack of transparency in the district’s home-based assignment process (which provides families with a list of schools to select from, including options that are high quality and close to home). However, high-quality district schools fill up quickly, so families end up being assigned to underenrolled schools, many of which are low performing. Affluent families can send their children to independent schools when they are not happy with the option provided by the enrollment system.
► Do families have the information they need and know how to use it?
In 2017 the Boston Schools Fund released its Boston Schools Finder, a consolidated school guide that provides a school description, basic academic information, student and staff demographics, extra-curricular information and state-collected performance data. All students are guaranteed student services no matter what school they attend, but community advocates reported that families want better information about school-level special education and ELL services. Interviewees said that families may not know until their special needs or ELL child is enrolled and encounters problems that a school is not in the best position to accommodate specific needs. Education leaders are aware of these issues and are discussing ways to address them.
Is the education strategy rooted in the community?
Is the whole community engaged? Education is a citywide endeavor. When families, community organizations, and city leaders have the opportunity to provide feedback and share in the vision, the strategy is more likely to be sustainable and meet the needs of all students. In this goal, we look at how well the city is doing with engaging key stakeholders.
► Are a variety of groups engaged in education?
In Boston, a cross-section of nonprofits, business groups, and advocacy organizations play a pivotal role in providing services to individual schools. In 2018, the district’s community engagement office reported that it was improving its outreach to community groups that work with historically marginalized families. Several nonprofits advocate for families most impacted by poor performing schools, and Ed Navigators recently opened an office in Boston to support families through the choice process. But there is a perception that these groups do not have as much influence as affluent parent groups that have long been vocal in the city.
► Does the city engage families in educational decisions that impact them?
Both the charter and district sectors have fairly fluid closure policies around family engagement, but BPS is working to formalize engagement practices. While the new policies have not yet been put into place, interviewees in 2018 noted the district’s intensive engagement for the Mattahunt school restart. The charter sector also has some stopgap measures, like a state law requiring that schools alert families about potential closures. Community members perceive that families are less engaged in school openings. The citywide parent council typically weighs in on new school locations and models for district schools, but the umbrella organization represents each school’s parent council and does not necessarily represent local family interests.
► Does the education system respond to community feedback?
While still nascent, BPS is planning and launching some innovative community engagement work. In 2017 some advocacy organizations emerged that work with families most impacted by low-performing schools. In 2018 the district launched a community engagement advisory to provide these organizations with information about district initiatives, which they can communicate to families so communities across the city can engage with the district from a common knowledge base. This will hopefully address what interviewees in 2017 expressed as a perception that the district is not listening to all families, especially low-income families of color. Charter school families can engage at the school level or through pro-charter advocacy organizations, some of which are starting to participate in the coalition supporting education citywide.
► Is there a strong and deep coalition of support for the education strategy?
Mayor Martin J. Walsh steadily lost confidence in BPS Superintendent Tommy Chang and was one factor in Chang’s departure in June 2018—only three years into his tenure. In the past, the superintendent, the mayor’s office, and the Boston School Committee were fairly well aligned on district-related initiatives. There also continues to be good collaboration between sector leaders through the Boston Compact. However, contentious community politics around charter schools make it challenging for education leaders to move forward on citywide initiatives that concern both sectors.
Where did we get this information?
► Interviews with district, charter, and community leaders
► Policy documents from district, charter, and state websites
► School data from each city
► A 400-parent survey administered in March, 2017 in Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis, Memphis, New Orleans, Oakland, and Washington, D.C.
How did we score the
system reforms and goals?
Each indicator is scored with a rubric on a 4-point scale. We added the scores for the indicators to get an overall goal score. See the Methodology & Resources page for details.
Boston Public Schools (BPS) has long been a leader in school autonomy and choice. Both the first charter school and the first district autonomous school opened in 1993. BPS also has in-district charter schools, Horace Mann charter schools, and Innovation schools. Massachusetts has high academic standards and strong authorizing practices for charters, which have set a high bar for accountability. All schools in BPS have a great deal of autonomy over staffing and budgeting. While education leaders across sectors collaborate regularly, community-level politics between the charter and district sectors are still challenging.
School Choice in the City
All charter schools are open enrollment. In 2014-15, BPS implemented a "home-based" assignment plan for K–8 students, which offers families a list of district school choices that includes all the schools within a mile of their home, plus high-performing options.
In 1991, a seven-member Boston School Committee was formed to oversee BPS schools and hire the superintendent. The mayor appoints new School Committee members from candidates recommended by a Citizen’s Nominating Panel comprised of parents, school staff, and community representatives. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is the sole charter authorizer in the state. In-district Horace Mann charters are additionally approved by the Boston School Committee.
2016 District and Charter Student Body
Enrollment: 65,461 students (BPS and charter schools)
Race and ethnicity: 42% Hispanic, 35% black, 14% white, 9% other
Low-income: 70% free and reduced-price lunch (participating in one or more of these state-administered programs: SNAP, TAFDC, DCF foster care, and MassHealth).
2017 School Composition
Note: Enrollment data for both charter and district schools. Demographics data for BPS schools only.
Source: Boston Public Schools, 2016.
School data from researcher analysis of public records, 2016-17.