Boston Indicators Project report, forum explore growth of autonomy in city’s public schools

March 20, 2014

Number of students in charters, Boston schools with structural autonomy nearly doubles in 2008-2013 

Boston – The public school landscape in Boston looks sharply different than it was even five years ago, according to a Boston Indicators Project special report released today in an Understanding Boston forum at the Boston Foundation.

Taking Stock: Five Years of Structural Change in Boston’s Public Schools, takes a broad look at the overall makeup of public schools in Boston, combining results from the Boston Public Schools and the city’s Commonwealth Charter schools to provide a snapshot of how school structures and student performance have been affected by reforms that have expanded autonomy to larger numbers of schools.

“The past five years have been among the most dynamic in the history of public education in Boston,” said Paul S. Grogan, President and CEO of the Boston Foundation. “This report captures the dramatic extent to which efforts to empower school-level leaders to improve teaching and learning have been implemented in both charter and district schools, and takes a broad look at how all of our public schools and their students are headed in terms of performance.”

The report was shaped by Jessica Martin, Director of the Boston Indicators Project and Elizabeth Pauley, Education to Career Program Director at the Boston Foundation. It was written by the Boston Foundation’s Director of Public Relations, Ted McEnroe, and was initially presented to Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh earlier this year. Using publicly available state data, the report combines information and results from 20 Boston charter schools and the more than 120 schools in the Boston Public Schools, and takes a focus on student growth on the MCAS, as well as proficiency, to examine student performance.

To view the Understanding Boston discussion, visit our channel on

A fundamentally different system

In the report, the Indicators Project found that not only has the overall number of public schools in changed, the makeup of those schools has shifted markedly away from more traditional structures and grade levels to a system of more autonomous schools are likely to cover broader grade levels.

Among the highlights:

  • The percentage of public schools in Boston with significant autonomy has nearly doubled, from under 25 percent in 2007-2008 to more than 44 percent in 2012-2013.
  • The rate of autonomy has accelerated exceptionally in the years since the passage of the Achievement Gap Act in 2010, which doubled the charter school cap and created new categories of Turnaround and Innovation schools, which are provided with greater flexibility to improve student learning.
  • The number of students in these more autonomous schools has also nearly doubled, but contrary to popular perception, the increase has been driven by much larger numbers of students in autonomous BPS schools, as opposed to Commonwealth Charters.
  • The percentage of Boston schools defined as “elementary”, “middle” or “high schools” has dropped from 74% (113 of 153) in 2007-2008 to 60% (87 of 144) in 2012-2013. Meanwhile, the percentage of schools whose grades span broader grade levels has risen from 20% (31 of 153) to 33% (47 of 144).

Improvements in performance 

The report also takes a broader look at all Boston students, including charter school students, to calculate how performance of Boston’s public school students has changed in the 2008-2013 time period. The report finds that district students have improved in the percentage scoring proficient or higher on Math and English Language Arts MCAS tests – with African American and Latino students slightly closing the achievement gap.

Overall, the percentage of students across grades scoring proficient or higher on the ELA MCAS rose from 46% in 2007-2008 to 52% in 2012-2013. In math, the rise was even more pronounced, from 39% to over 47% over the time period.

Looking more closely at individual grade levels, the report also examines Boston students’ performance on key indicators. While performance improvements were not evident in the Kindergarten DIBELS and DIBELS Next assessment or in the Grade 3 ELA MCAS, the report found that student performance had improved on MCAS measures in Grade 6, 8 and 10. Schools offered a higher level of autonomy – such as Commonwealth Charter, Horace Mann Charter, turnaround, innovation and pilot schools were likely to outperform their peers in each case.

To further test that theory, the research tracked student growth on the 2013 ELA and Math MCAS as measured by student growth percentile (SGP) with levels of school autonomy – and found a correlation between schools that had higher levels of autonomy and those where students posted higher median SGP in Grades 6, 8 and 10. In Grade 4, there was a correlation in ELA but not in math.

“The research raises an interesting thesis – that school autonomy, while not a guarantee of student improvement, may be a precondition of student improvement,” said Grogan. “It’s encouraging to see that, in addition to the documented success of charters, the elements of reform have made a positive impact on dozens of district schools.”

Understanding Boston Forum 

The release of the report was followed by a panel discussion of the impact these changes have had on schools and the district. To view the panel discussion and the presentation of the report, visit the Boston Foundation’s UStream channel at


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