Thursday, June 9, 2011

Improving education in Boston Public Schools

Films like Waiting for Superman feed into the common belief that urban education in America is dismal and getting worse. Yet in yesterday's post I wrote about the strong work of Ellen Guiney and the Boston Plan for Excellence, and I promised to share some data today about how education in Boston is steadily improving for its 56,000 public school students.

Improving a whole school system is a lot harder than improving a school. An inspirational school leader, a surge of parent involvement, and a cohort of skilled and dedicated teachers can convert one school into a high-flying outlier. But to see steady improvement in the performance of students across a whole district requires a different level of persistence, good curriculum, good professional development, good use of data, and good policy. How does Boston look?

Twelve years ago, 58% of Boston tenth graders failed the English Language Arts section of the respected Massachusetts state test, MCAS, the first time they took it. Only 18% scored Advanced or Proficient.

In 2010, after steady improvement, only 8% of first time test takers failed the tenth grade English test, while a full 60% scored Advanced or Proficient. That's a huge difference.

Math results tell a similar story. In 1998, 75% of Boston tenth graders failed the math MCAS, and 13% scored Advanced or Proficient. By 2010, only 14% of first time test takers failed, and 60% scored Advanced or Proficient. What a huge difference in preparation for these kids who have been through a school system in a period of reform.

You might think these results come from teaching to the test or from the state test getting easier over time. After all, there's a pattern of state test scores rising while national test scores stagnate. But that's not the story here. Yes, schools and districts who embrace standards see their greatest score improvements on tests also aligned to those standards. But if the increases reflect real improvements in learning, we should see an echo of the improvements in other test results.

Since 2003, Boston has participated in the Urban District NAEP trial. Our urban districts have a concentration of kids who are poor, who don't speak English as a first language, or who come from ethnic groups that have traditionally not performed well in school. Their data can get lost in the overall mix of state performance data, and the point of the Urban Trial was to uncover the differences that exist. At grades 4 and 8, the "Nation's Report Card," NAEP, pulls out the scores of particular participating urban school districts, so they can directly compare their performance with one another, with states, and with the nation as a whole.

In 2003, Boston 4th graders scored 11 points behind the nation in reading and 15 points behind in math. By 2009, the last year I have found, those gaps had decreased to 6 points in reading and 4 points in math. Over six years, the reading gap fell by almost half and the math gap by almost three fourths.

Over the same time period, the gap in 8th grade reading performance between Boston and the nation fell from 11 points to 7, and the gap in 8th grade math performance fell from 16 points to 4. In the case of both reading in math, national scores increased, but Boston scores increased faster.

These changes are huge. The improvement in the scores of Boston children suggest that in reading, by 2009, Boston's 4th and 8th graders were performing almost one instructional year higher than they had six years earlier. In math, student performance improved by more than one year's worth. Standards and performance are rising.

This is a story that is not being told about urban education. Tomorrow I'll write about what I think are the most important factors behind these improvements.

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