Boston Foundation finds progress of school innovation efforts

First months after ‘Race to the Top’ show student gains, highlight need for continued expansion of reform efforts Report finds promising results for turnaround schools, strong growth for charters

December 7, 2011

BOSTON - Less than 2 years after Massachusetts passed sweeping reform legislation that led to a $250 million ‘Race to the Top’ award from the federal government, an examination of the state’s reform and innovation finds many schools benefitting from the new rules and tools created in the reform legislation in the city of Boston and other districts, but cautions that systemic efforts must be made to broaden and deepen the pace of reform. The report, titled Toward Closing the Achievement Gap: A One-Year Progress Report on Education Reform in Massachusetts , was written by Boston Foundation Senior Program Officer Elizabeth Pauley. It looks at the progress of school reform in the state since the passage of the Achievement Gap Act in January 2010, through close evaluation of data and interviews with stakeholders. It also lays out a number of recommendations to support continued change.

The report was used as the basis for Pauley’s testimony on progress since the passage of the Achievement Education Gap Act, which she gave on November 10 at a hearing of the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education.

“We are encouraged to see the early signs that the efforts to reform and improve the state’s most struggling schools are showing signs of making significant real change for students,” said Paul Grogan, President of the Boston Foundation. “This analysis shows that the longer school days, flexibility and resources given to improve these schools are working. But while we acknowledge the success, the report also illustrates that these are tools that must be provided to all schools, if we want real, long-term, success for all students.”

Among the key findings:

  • More than 90 percent of the state’s turnaround schools have made progress on at least one of their    key indicators of improvement in the 2011 MCAS 
  • Large majorities of the state’s 63 charter schools continue to exceed the state average for Proficient or higher scores in the English/Language Arts and/or Math MCAS in 2011   
  • The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved a historic number of charter schools in February, and the “replicating charters” demonstrated both high rates of Proficiency on English/Language Arts and Math and high levels of student growth.   
  • Interest has been strong in the early stages of the efforts to create in-district Innovation Schools, with 18 schools open as of September 2011, and others in the planning stages
  • Superintendents surveyed for the analysis have used new “tools and rules” to bring about change in their turnaround schools, many praised reform efforts for giving them the resources, flexibility and autonomy to extend the school day and make needed structural changes to improve student outcomes.

“The schools that are part of the reform effort have had an opportunity to make meaningful structural changes to put student achievement first. That flexibility and autonomy is critical to the success of meaningful reform,” said Grogan.

But there are words of caution in the report – particularly for schools that were listed as Level 3 – and did not qualify for turnaround status. An analysis of those schools’ scores on the 2011 MCAS found that almost a third actually saw an increase in the number of their students scoring Warning or Failing on the MCAS in both English/Language Arts and Math.

“Our analysis of MCAS scores and interviews showed that while there are measurable improvements for students and enthusiasm for the change progress at turnaround and charter schools, there are significant hurdles yet to be cleared,” said Elizabeth Pauley. “We cannot and should not wait for schools to fall to Level 4 before giving them needed support, nor can we end our efforts when a Level 4 schools achieves success.”

The report also notes that while charter and turnaround school programs have spread in Boston, reform efforts have not spread as widely in “gateway cities” like Springfield, Worcester and Lowell, which have thousands of available seats under its ‘charter cap’.

“Thanks to the legislation, low-income students in Boston have more school options – but these other cities have the same issues, and we must find ways to foster new efforts throughout the Commonwealth,” said Grogan.

Early Results: Turnaround Schools

The research finds a number of signs that investment in some of the state’s most underperforming school districts has made a difference in so-called ‘Level 4’ underperforming schools. Students at 31 of the state’s 34 turnaround schools made progress in at least some of the key indicators of turnaround, with 23 schools increasing their rate of students scoring proficient or above in English/Language Arts, and 29 scoring proficient or above in math in the 2011 MCAS tests.

Superintendents interviewed by the research team praised the flexibility the reform measure gave them to rework collective bargaining agreements and hire new principals and staff, while extending the school day, improving professional development opportunities and connect teacher and administrator evaluation to school performance indicators.

But the research also found a troubling trend for schools listed as ‘Level 3’, and thus not eligible for turnaround interventions. Several superintendents expressed their concerns that some of the success of Level 4 schools came at the expense of Level 3 schools. 2011 MCAS data showed that almost a third of Level 3 schools had an increase in the percentage of students scoring Warning or Failing on the MCAS in both English/Language Arts and Math – data suggesting a larger, more systemic response to support these schools is needed before they drop to Level 4.

The report also recommends a focus on building district capacity to support these schools and a focus on attracting and developing a cadre of external partners who can partner with districts and provide support for ongoing, broad efforts.

Early results: Charter Schools

The state’s 63 Commonwealth and Horace Mann charter schools again performed well in the 2011 MCAS, with 46 charters above the state average in their rates of students scoring Proficient or above in English/Language Arts, and 37 of the 63 above the state average in Math. In addition – 16 charters demonstrated “high growth” in English/Language Arts and 27 demonstrating “high growth” in Math.  The charters that have been approved by the state as proven providers demonstrated both high rates or Proficiency and high growth.  Replicating charters with both include: Community Day in Lawrence, and Boston’s Edward Brooke, Excel, Match, and Roxbury Prep.

While the replicating has significantly increased the number of charter school seats in Boston, successful charters have been slower to replicate outside of the city. Boston has used almost all of its charter seats, but a number of other cities, such as Fall River, Lowell, Lynn, New Bedford, Springfield and Worcester, have large numbers of available seats. Charters also face challenges finding appropriate buildings, and the state has to determine its capacity to manage the growth and accountability of quality charter schools. The report also notes that there has been limited interest in establishing in-district ‘Horace Mann charters,’ although that might change as more communities hit their cap of Commonwealth charter seats.

Innovation Schools

Eighteen new and conversion Innovation Schools opened across the state in September 2011, with a 19th approved in October 2011 and at least nine more in the process of getting local approval. Most of the schools thus far have been initiated by district level leaders, but the growth and interest in the Innovation Schools concept suggests the Achievement Gap Act’s goal of sparking innovation within districts appears to be gaining traction.

Pauley notes that as the number of innovation schools grows, the need for strong partners to help schools think broadly about innovative ways to meet the needs of their students will grow sharper. In addition, she suggests that the state explore ways to provide additional capacity to support the planning and review process for groups of Innovation Schools in large districts, and dedicate financial support for planning and implementation at the school level.


The Boston Foundation, Greater Boston’s community foundation, is one of the oldest and largest community foundations in the nation, with assets of $796 million. In Fiscal Year 2010, the Foundation and its donors made more than $82 million in grants to nonprofit organizations and received gifts of close to $83 million. The Foundation is made up of some 900 separate charitable funds established by donors either for the general benefit of the community or for special purposes. The Boston Foundation also serves as a major civic leader, provider of information, convener, and sponsor of special initiatives designed to address the community’s and region’s most pressing challenges. For more information about the Boston Foundation, visit or call 617-338-1700.