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An Uneven Path: Student Achievement in Boston Public Schools 2007-2017

Bonnie O'Keefe
Melissa Steel King
Chad Aldeman

Title image for Bellwether publication "An Uneven Path," February 2019An Uneven Path: Student Achievement in Boston Public Schools 2007-2017 finds that Boston students outperform their peers in other cities on performance tests, but that a decade of tight budgets, aging facilities, and persistent achievement gaps in the city have narrowed Boston’s lead over its peers.

The paper looks at testing and graduation data, supplemented by interviews with key education stakeholders across the city, to examine policies and issues that provide context for the district performance. The authors find that Boston has made progress in some key areas over the last decade — such as high school graduation, college completion and pre-K enrollment. Boston also typically ranks among the top large urban districts in the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ Trial Urban District Assessment, although scores have plateaued or even declined in recent years.

The city has also increased the number of students enrolled in pre-Kindergarten: today well over half of Boston’s 4-year-olds are enrolled in BPS school-based pre-K programs. The district also received praise from a number of stakeholders for improving its “human capital” management, accelerating hiring and making other changes intended to give principals greater authority to shape their instructional teams.

However, BPS has struggled to make a dent in persistent racial and ethnic disparities in test scores and graduation rates within the district. Taken together, these trends suggest that BPS is in need of targeted, innovative strategies to improve equity and address slowing achievement trends in order to maintain its status as a national leader among large, urban school districts.

In interviews, stakeholders noted a number of other areas where the district’s direction was unclear or poorly communicated, in part because of turnover in the superintendent position. The next superintendent will be the district’s fifth (including interim appointments) in the past 10 years. The turnover has led to shifts in policy and what some stakeholders saw as mixed messages on areas such as school autonomy and a lack of consistent community engagement. Another key initiative, the “home-based school choice” plan, had been found to have little to no positive impact on access to quality schools, and efforts to change school start times to improve student achievement were scrapped after community pushback and complaints that parents and community members were left out of the planning process.

Overall, the interviewees said that community confidence in BPS’ prospects for effectively addressing inequities in school quality, facilities, and achievement was low.

While stopping short of suggesting prescriptive solutions for the incoming superintendent, the paper identifies three strategies that could accelerate improvement in BPS:

  1. Articulate a clear, concise theory of action and drive it through implementation. ​The next leader of BPS will have to articulate a coherent and focused vision, anchored in a defined set of key priorities, for the future. Without a clear set of targeted priorities, district leaders will get bogged down in trying to address every strategy at once, leading to inefficiency and weak execution.
  2. Make tough choices to advance equity. BPS’ persistent struggles with inequitable outcomes by race, ethnicity, income, native language, and special education status are incompatible with the city’s vision of itself as an urban district that stands above its peers.
  3. Double down on areas of strength and bright spots. Both the objective data and our qualitative interviews point to a few bright spots that merit continued investment and improvement. These strengths include expanded early childhood access and quality; changes to human capital processes that appear to be attracting a better, more diverse talent pool to Boston schools; and positive external partnerships.

Download the full report here or read it in the viewer below.