The achievement gap wins one
EDITORIAL March 10, 2008
THE TOP priority for state education officials in 2008 is to close the academic achievement gap between white and minority students. But given a chance to do so last month, the state Board of Education retreated.
The Feb. 26 meeting of the nine-member board was a litmus test on charter schools. Charter supporters feared that the Patrick administration might shy away from approving additional charters, which operate independently of local school boards and teachers' unions. Local superintendents have complained bitterly about the loss of funding when their students decamped. Charter school backers held their breath. They exhaled only when the board voted to approve three of their four applications.
But it was a hollow victory. The one school that got shot down - the International Charter School of Southeastern Massachusetts - was the largest and boldest. Its rejection raises thorny questions about just how hard the Patrick administration is willing to push to achieve equity in education. This is an immediate challenge for the new secretary of education and the three new board appointees whom Patrick is expected to name soon.
The losing application came from a group of local educators, business leaders, and parents seeking to open a K-12 school in the Brockton area for 1,300 students. The founders proposed to contract for curriculum, training, and testing with the Minnesota-based SABIS Educational System, which operates a similar-sized charter school in Springfield.
From the start, the Brockton effort faced big hurdles: resistance from powerful school politicians; suspicion of SABIS, a for-profit entity; and concerns about the education management company's commitment to special-needs students in its Springfield operation. Acting Commissioner Jeffrey Nellhaus recommended approval of the SABIS proposal, but Board of Education chairman Paul Reville voiced sharp concerns. And the board listened to Reville, rejecting the Brockton SABIS school by a 7-2 vote.
But when the board jettisoned SABIS, it also unintentionally abandoned minority families in more than a dozen communities. SABIS is one of the few educational systems in the state where minority students not only perform on par with white students, but outperform them, as well. That accomplishment, combined with the fact that there is little charter school activity in Southeastern Massachusetts, should have balanced out other concerns with the application.
By high school, minority students in Massachusetts lag their white counterparts by more than 30 percentage points in math and English on the state's high-stakes Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test. But that is not the case at the Springfield SABIS school, where 94 percent of black 10th graders and 84 percent of Hispanics scored in the proficient or advanced categories on the English section of the 2007 MCAS. That compares with 77 percent of white students statewide. In math, the school's minority students are catching up nicely to their white counterparts. The board erred when it rejected an opportunity for minority students to traverse the gap that swallows so many.
Touchy-feely? Not SABIS
SABIS, an international company that operates 50 schools in 14 countries, isn't warm or fuzzy. The school stresses core subjects and tests relentlessly. Teachers work from weekly lesson plans that require each student to master specific skills and concepts before moving on to the next section. Good classroom participation, attitude, and homework diligence won't move a student forward unless he or she also tests well. And the proposed 7 1/2 hour school day leaves plenty of time for intensive tutoring.
Some educators dismiss the SABIS system of revisiting concepts and repeating exercises as "drill and kill." It doesn't suit everyone. Charter schools in Somerville and Foxborough adopted and later rejected the SABIS system. But it remains an effective way to get struggling students up to grade level. This army has plenty of volunteers. The 1,500-student SABIS school in Springfield has a waiting list of 2,677, the longest of any of the 61 charter schools in the state, according to the state's Charter School Association.
Board chairman Reville says SABIS shortchanged its special-needs children in Springfield. SABIS was out of compliance with certain special education requirements. But a Department of Education document noted that corrective action had been taken by 2006. Reville also points to the proprietary status of SABIS's trademarked weekly lesson plans and testing modules, calling them a possible "violation of the charter school law," which requires charters to serve as replicable models for district schools. It's a legitimate concern. But the best answer may be to lease SABIS materials and methods for the state's chronically underperforming schools instead of walling out the company. And state education officials don't appear to have a better strategy for rescuing its failing schools.
SABIS is asking the board to reconsider. It's unlikely. Members are loath to disrupt the Brockton school system, which makes exceptional efforts on behalf of students. Randolph, which might also find its students attracted by the SABIS option, is suffering from budget cuts and declining enrollment. Politically, SABIS might be wise to come back with a smaller proposal for, say, 750 students. But the proposal should find a home in the Brockton area. At the end of the school day, results, not intentions, are what matters.