GUEST OPINION: More Than Money Required to Transform Lagging Schools

This was originally published on MassLive and in the Springfield Republican.

It’s nice to see these business leaders step up. We need more of this please.

(Yes, EduMom is looking at you.)

 

By Tricia Canavan and John Davis

Springfield Public Schools have been improving by some measures. Yet, there is still much work to be done. Seventy-six percent of Springfield students fail to meet state expectations for math, and 70 percent fail to meet state expectations for English Language Arts. Compared to their peers in other communities, Springfield’s students lag behind significantly. These large and persistent achievement gaps mean Springfield’s youth will face real obstacles as adults – in higher education, in their careers, in supporting themselves and their families.

In addition to low MCAS scores, 23 percent of Springfield students don’t graduate from high school in four years and only 17 percent of our 9th grade students go on to earn a post-secondary degree or credential within six years of high school graduation, in part because many graduate unprepared for post-secondary success. This last statistic is particularly troubling in a state where 72 percent of jobs will require a career certificate or college degree by 2020. As a result, students fail to qualify for future jobs that could put them on an upward trajectory, and our state’s employers continue to struggle to find qualified employees.

A commonly-identified solution for this urgent challenge is simply spending more money. But it’s unrealistic to expect that spending more while doing all the same things will be enough to knock down decades-old barriers that stand between underserved students, often those of color, and post-secondary success. More money alone will not bring about the dramatic improvement that is desperately needed for our students.

The Governor, Senate, and House have all filed education finance reform legislation that proposes to increase state and local spending on K-12 education, particularly in districts with high numbers of economically-disadvantaged students and English language learners. Springfield Business Leaders for Education, the Springfield Regional Chamber and other business groups have joined the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education in urging them to resist writing a blank check. We must seize this critical moment as an opportunity to ensure that every dollar is leveraged to improve outcomes, particularly for our most vulnerable students.

Reforms that promote innovative approaches to meeting student needs must accompany new money. We are calling for putting a small portion of new money into a competitive grant fund that will be available to teachers, principals and superintendents who want to test innovative ideas that could improve student outcomes. This fund will help identify the types of bold strategies needed to help Springfield catch up with other cities across the state.

In addition, school leaders should be given greater autonomy and flexibility to make decisions in the best interests of their students. This also necessitates greater public transparency in how funds are spent so that we know which approaches are working. Transparency in spending and results will help hold district offices accountable for scaling successful approaches and dropping those that don’t improve student outcomes.

While state reforms that promote innovation, autonomy and transparency are important, Springfield Public Schools should not wait for a deal on Beacon Hill to recommit to these principles. Springfield Public Schools have received large boosts in funding before, through the introduction of federal grant programs like Race to the Top; however, this hasn’t translated into the improvements our students need. Springfield Public Schools should set targets for improving measures of student preparedness, like kindergarten readiness, third grade reading and other indicators that students are on track to meet grade-level expectations. It should also make public its plan for how it will use money differently to achieve results, and commit to reporting both how money is spent and the results achieved. Students, parents, teachers, principals, and community members deserve to know the district’s vision and progress.

Springfield businesses, and the entire Springfield community, have much to gain from the success of Springfield Public Schools. There is a risk that the opportunity created by school funding reform will not lead to a brighter future for Springfield’s students. How money is spent matters. We must start talking about how we can improve our education system to close the achievement gaps we experience in Springfield and to prepare all of our children for success. As members of the business community, we are ready to contribute to this conversation, and to doing our share to provide students the opportunities they deserve.

Tricia Canavan is president of United Personnel Services and serves as co-chair of Springfield Business Leaders for Education. John Davis is a principal at Ventry Industries LLC, a Director of The Irene E. & George A. Davis Foundation, and co-chair of Springfield Business Leaders for Education.

 

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