Boston’s Education System Is a Microcosm for the Country

My colleagues Bonnie O’Keefe, Melissa Steel King, and I have a new report out this week looking at recent educational trends in Boston Public Schools (BPS). Even if you’re not from Boston, Boston’s educational outcomes are on a similar trajectory as the nation as a whole. We write:

In general, Boston’s performance on standardized tests has tracked the national trends since the early 2000s, but Boston made faster progress when the nation as a whole was improving, and Boston’s slowdown in the past five years has been more pronounced. Furthermore, while Boston continues to outperform many other large urban districts, some peer cities have instituted reforms…that have contributed to more rapid progress in recent years compared to BPS. Meanwhile, BPS has struggled to make a dent in persistent racial and ethnic disparities in test scores and graduation rates. Without the launch of new and innovative initiatives to improve equity and address stagnating achievement trends, BPS could be at risk of losing its status as a national leader in pre-K-12 education.

Speaking personally, I found writing the report to be a sobering exercise. BPS was certainly busy over the last ten years — including big changes to teacher hiring practices, an expansion of pre-K, and a change to how it funds its schools, among other things — and yet student achievement scores didn’t budge. Worse, some initiatives, like a re-designed school assignment system, led to increased racial segregation and may have contributed to declines in achievement for black and Hispanic students. Meanwhile, other efforts, such as plans to deal with Boston’s aging school facilities and to create a unified school application process, have struggled to get off the ground amidst political battles and public pushback.

Boston’s education system is unique in its particulars, but the broader story is similar to what’s going on in the rest of the country. And Boston, like the rest of the country, is now at an inflection point. Boston is currently searching for its fifth superintendent in 10 years, so it will be critical for that leader to articulate a clear vision forward. While we don’t claim to have answers, we hope our report is useful to leaders in Boston and elsewhere to diagnose current trends and give some historical explanations of what happened and why. (You can also watch a live discussion of this report here.) Like Boston, the country is becoming more diverse, and any future gains will depend on how well schools are able to provide educational services to our most disadvantaged students.