On Monday, May 23rd, the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs hosted an evening program for a dozen K-12 school superintendents visiting from Israel. The delegation met on campus as part of a program sponsored by Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) and the Boston-Haifa Connection. Throughout their stay these Israeli school officials will be visiting various Greater Boston schools to share experiences and bring back best practices for improving public education in Israel, especially for disadvantaged students. The Israeli delegation included two Israeli Arab school officials.
The program at Northeastern featured three leading educational leaders from Boston as guest speakers: Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association; Michael Goldstein, co-founder of the MATCH Charter School; and Abby Weiss, executive director of the Boston Full-Service Schools Roundtable.
Following dinner, Mr. Toner began the evening’s program with an explanation of the role of teachers unions in Massachusetts. More than 100,000 public school teachers are affiliated with the Mass Teachers Association which in turn is a member of the National Education Association. In addition, there are about 20,000 teachers who are members of the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. These unions not only represent teachers but also instructional aides, custodians, and assistant principals.
Although clearly one of the main purposes of the MTA is to negotiate wages and benefits on behalf of their members, Mr. Toner views the mission of the union as much broader – to serve as the voice of teachers in improving public schools. Toner agrees with sentiments expressed by Dean Barry Bluestone that teachers unions must demonstrate that they are fundamentally committed to improving the quality of education for all students. The union is proud of the fact that Massachusetts students score at the very top of the annual NAEP test, the closest thing to a national standardized test in America. At the same time, Toner acknowledges that Massachusetts has a substantial achievement gap that everyone including his union must work to overcome.
Toner stressed that the MTA has worked closely with the State’s Commissioner of Education and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on policies and initiatives aimed at improving education in Massachusetts. The union participated in Massachusetts’ successful effort to win federal Race to the Top funds.
One of the key issues facing the state has been teacher performance evaluation and the role of student test scores in assessing individual teachers. According to Toner, the MTA agrees that student learning and achievement should be a component of teacher evaluation. However, he stressed that evaluation should be based on a range of data and not solely on MCAS scores. A good evaluation system would take into account observations of teacher performance in the classroom and a review of the materials prepared by teachers for their classes. Toner noted that such evaluation is rare in part because school principals do not have the resources to conduct such rigorous teacher reviews. The MTA president also stressed that performance evaluations should not be used as a “gotcha” system for firing teachers. Like any good performance management tool, they should first be used to encourage continuous improvement and to help teachers identify where and how they can improve their teaching.
Michael Goldstein, the founder of the MATCH Charter School, followed Toner’s presentation. The school is considered one of the highest performing schools in Massachusetts. Goldstein shared with the visiting Israeli delegation how he first became interested in the concept and possibilities represented by charter schools when he was in graduate school at Harvard studying education policy. One of the things that appealed to him about the notion of charter schools was the ability to create a unified team approach to helping students to succeed.
Mr. Goldstein explained how charter schools work in the U.S. and specifically in Massachusetts. As part of his presentation, he noted that of the 5,000 charters schools across the U.S., about half high-poverty students. Of these, only 200 have been demonstrated as “unusually high performing.” He was proud to note that Boston is home to seven of these among the 15 charter schools now operating in the city.
Goldstein explained that the success of his school is based on parent engagement, a school culture that pays strict attention to rules about behavior, small classes, and most importantly, tutoring for each student. Every student at MATCH receives two hours of tutoring each day. In order to provide this amount of tutoring, MATCH has full-time AmeriCorps members, college graduates who live on the top floor of the school and receive a small stipend for the work they do with students.
MATCH was recently contracted to help bring this tutoring model to eight schools in Houston that have been designated for turnaround. Early evaluations have revealed much higher outcomes for students that have received this dosage of tutoring.
Goldstein cautioned that he personally does not believe that the concept of “charters” itself is a panacea for solving the issues of improving education for low-income urban students. He believes that most of the education policy debates are focused on matters that don’t actually have that much impact on outcomes. What really matters comes down to fundamental, nitty-gritty details of how to run a good school. When asked which of the many design features of the MATCH School is the most important, Goldstein responded that “culture” was so essential – having the team of adults all “rowing in the same direction” – that he couldn’t imagine how you could have a successful school without that.
Goldstein also screened an ABC news feature about the MATCH School which demonstrated some of the points he made in his presentation. In one scene the video captured how MATCH operates under a strict set of rules regarding student behavior. There are rules even regarding posture in class. On screen, MATCH’s principal noted that if a student is slouching or has his head down on his desk, disengaged, even for a minute, then that’s a minute that they’ve lost and they can’t spare to lose a single minute. In talking about culture, Goldstein said this was an example of something where you need every teacher and adult in the school on the same page – even about shirts being tucked in properly.
Knowing that the superintendents would be visiting the KIPP School in Lynn the next day, Goldstein pointed out that they would see the importance of culture when they visit KIPP.
The third member of the evening’s panel, Abby Weiss, is the director of the Boston Full-Service Schools Roundtable. Her organization works to promote and support the implementation of schools being able to provide a broad range of services and opportunities to meet the multiple needs of their students: mental health services, health care, quality out-of-school time programs, family engagement and support, and connections to other community institutions and agencies.
Ms. Weiss noted that students arrive at school every day with a host of needs, often unmet, especially for low-income students. Although schools are not equipped to meet all of these needs directly, they can, through partnerships with non-profit organizations and government agencies, arrange to have these services and programs provided in and around the school. She pointed out how Boston enjoys an incredibly rich array of non-profit organizations whose mission is to serve children and youth. Yet navigating, selecting and managing these partnerships is a daunting challenge for school principals who already have their hands full. So the Full-Service Schools Roundtable works with principals and the Boston School Department to help them find and manage the appropriate set of partnerships.
Early in her tenure, Boston School Superintendent Carol Johnston realized that she did not have very good or complete information on all of the many partnerships throughout Boston public schools. She asked the Full-Service Schools Roundtable to help collect this information. Ms. Weiss worked with school officials to design and implement a survey of principals about the community partners in each school building. She recently completed the survey with a 93 percent response rate from principals and submitted the draft report to Superintendent Johnston.
The survey report should help both the district and individual principals have a better understanding of the extent to which each school is leveraging various community partners to better meet the needs of their students. It will help to inform district-wide strategies to better support and guide principals regarding the type of partners that are ideal for each school. It should also help to identify gaps in terms of which schools have greater unmet needs for their students.
In the closing Q&A session, several of the Israeli superintendents remarked on how similar all of these issues are to the ones they face in Israel. They appreciated being able to hear from these three education leaders and hoped to bring back ideas to their own communities. Ruth Kaplan, who is coordinating the delegation’s trip on behalf of CJP and the Boston-Haifa Connection, noted that the evening was an outstanding opportunity for the visiting superintendents to hear first-hand about the challenges facing inner city schools in Boston and share with the panel the joys and frustrations of working to overcome the education gaps that continue to exist in both countries.