What is receivership and what would it mean for the Boston Public Schools?

An unflattering state review conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) this spring declared the Boston Public Schools (BPS) district in need of “immediate improvement.” Since then, local leaders have begun debating the best path forward for BPS as rumors of a potential district takeover by the state have swirled.

 Given the abundance of recent news coverage on receivership, we thought it might be helpful to compile some key information about receivership and its relation to the Boston Public Schools, along with our own position and suggestions.

What does “receivership” mean?

Massachusetts law allows the board of education to assume control of underperforming districts and appoint a “receiver” – an individual, group, or organization who will oversee a turnaround plan. According to the Boston Globe, before the state can officially take over a district, it must designate the district as chronically underperforming. 

“This label is based on performance on state assessments, district review reports, and other measures like graduation and dropout rates, according to the DESE. Any district that is performing in the bottom 10 percent of the state could be eligible for the designation.”

In this case, once BPS has been deemed “chronically underperforming,” the current education commissioner, Jeffrey Riley, can appoint a receiver to lead that turnaround plan. The Globe also states that under a 2010 law, “the receiver can have all the authority of a district’s superintendent and school committee and can make decisions that work within the plan.”

How does a receivership conclude? Turnaround plans for districts under receiverships typically have expiration dates. When the plans expire, the state reviews the districts again. In other words, if the district has made sufficient improvement and has demonstrated increased capacity to sustain that improvement, the receivership can be lifted.

What’s our position on a state takeover?

Like many of Boston’s leading education figures – including Mayor Michelle Wu, the Boston Teachers Union, and the City’s Education Committee Chair, Julia Mejia – we have opposed the idea of a BPS state takeover. There are several factors that make receivership a dubious solution to the issues raised in the DESE report: a mediocre track record of success in other districts, receivership privileging certain definitions of success, but most importantly, receivership’s omission of those voices closest to the work in schools. We’ll dive into these reasons fully below. 

1. Receivership has a suspect track record

Currently, there are three districts in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts under state receivership: Lawrence Public Schools, Holyoke Public Schools, and Southbridge Public Schools. An analysis of receivership effectiveness by the Boston Globe’s Great Divide team largely indicates that school takeovers by the state haven’t worked.

“A Globe analysis of test scores, graduation rates, college enrollment, and a dozen other metrics in Lawrence, Holyoke, and Southbridge shows the state has failed to meet almost all its stated goals for the districts.” The state did not set goals around college enrollment, but all three districts saw declines there, too.

It’s worth noting that all three districts are also smaller than the Boston Public Schools. Banking on receivership being the answer for BPS would mean betting that an already-flawed process can be scaled up to meet the needs of a significantly larger district. 

2. Receivership measures scores, not progress

Receivership largely privileges certain definitions of success. It measures progress through MCAS and state assessments – saying all students need to be at a certain level – rather than employing a growth-focused lens. The progress of a student improving their grades from an F to a C, for example, would not be easily captured through a receivership barometer. Commonwealth Magazine (State receivership wrong step for Boston schools) further explains how the state’s accountability system is inherently discriminatory. 

“Study after study concludes that the use of a single standardized test, MCAS included, produces results more strongly correlated with race, income, language, and disability than student learning and school quality. Change is needed to ensure that every Boston student is provided a high-quality education and social, emotional, cultural, and academic support to graduate with multiple career, education, and life opportunities. But the city and district should make these changes, not the state.”

3. Receivership does not value the voices of those closest to the work

In a recent Boston Globe Opinion piece: Scathing report, tricky path forward for Boston Public Schools, we argue that the most sensible plan toward BPS improvement is one that relies on the expertise of those who are closest to the process. Under a state takeover, the process often prioritizes solutions from folks on the outside, rather than from the people who are facing the problems themselves. 

In the case of BPS, we believe strongly in valuing the collective experience of community organizations, family groups, and businesses that are embedded within our school communities and have been for decades. They are best positioned to tell us what isn’t working and why. Community organizations in particular are poised to offer advice. Many are already dedicated to work that improves outcomes for the Boston Public Schools on a small scale. How we leverage this experience and choose to include families and school partners in this decision-making will be key to any solution for BPS.

What’s next?

Whatever the future holds for the Boston Public Schools, there is a clear need for more consistency. Over the last decade, the district has experienced a constant change in leadership – a revolving door of superintendents that has left little chance for sustained progress. Many superintendents weren’t around long enough for their improvement plans to become fully realized, let alone gain traction. This reinforces our belief in leveraging the lived experiences of those constants that have remained in our school communities over the years – our community organizations, family groups, and businesses. For decades, teachers have trusted local organizations with a seat in classrooms alongside their students. We believe we’ve earned a seat at the table for this conversation, too.

If receivership is indeed the outcome of this latest BPS evaluation, we’re committed to working within that system in order to continue providing valuable support to our city’s students. But we’re also committed to finding a way to be heard, to share our nearly 60 years of insights from within classrooms. We know there’s a more inclusive solution than a state takeover – and one may still be coming soon. Either way, we’ll be ready to offer our school partners the consistency that BPS students need now more than ever.