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New Bedford Educators Ask BESE to Change Parker Turnaround Plan

Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester named New Bedford’s Parker Elementary School a Level 5 school on October 30, 2013. This was a surprise to many since the school’s MCAS growth scores were on the rise and the percentage of students failing MCAS had dropped since 2011. The commissioner named New Bedford School Superintendent Pia Durkin as the Parker receiver and required all staff to reapply for their jobs.

The commissioner released a preliminary turnaround plan for the school on March 7 and a final plan on April 9. The New Bedford Educators Association filed an appeal with the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on May 9 seeking modifications. An appeal hearing will be held on May 19.

While the commissioner is responsible for creating the plan, the board is ultimately responsible for the quality of education provided in Level 5 schools, just as a school committee is responsible for district schools. This appeal gives the board the final say in modifying the plan to ensure Parker students realize rapid academic achievement. The NBEA argues that the plan as written is underdeveloped, does not meet the legal requirements of a Level 5 plan, and will not lead to the rapid academic achievement of students. The following issues highlight some of the key areas of concern articulated in the appeal. The board should send the plan back to the commissioner and require him to address the plan’s deficiencies.

Legal Violations

  • Lower rate of pay violates the statute. The plan requires teachers to work 29 percent more time – including longer days and 25 additional days per year – without providing fair compensation for those additional hours. The result is a net reduction in their rate of compensation, which is unlawful. The Achievement Gap Act specifically mandates that the commissioner “shall not reduce the compensation of an administrator, teacher or staff member unless the hours of the person are proportionally reduced.” (Appeal, pp. 31-34.)
  • No financial plan violates the statute. The Act mandates that Level 5 plans include a detailed financial plan. The commissioner’s financial plan is vague and lacking in such detail, containing no line-item budget articulating how funds will be spent in the first year and no financial plan at all for the second and third years of the plan. The board has no way to determine if the funding is both adequate and allocated to the services, programs and staff needed to bring about the rapid academic achievement of students. (Appeal, pp. 16-17.)
  • Procedures ensuring local stakeholder input were violated. The Act provides a crucial role for local stakeholders to provide vital input into the turnaround plan. Various procedural irregularities prevented the stakeholders from being able to fully review, deliberate and propose modifications to the plan. (Appeal, pp. 12-16.)

Poor working conditions drive away experienced teachers. The plan establishes onerous teaching and learning conditions that will impede the school’s ability to attract and retain excellent teaching staff. After the plan was released, all but three of Parker’s teachers applied to transfer. The NBEA cites research showing that replacing experienced, qualified staff with less experienced teachers is detrimental to student achievement. In addition, Parker teacher and parent stakeholders believe that the changes will disrupt the social and emotional growth of Parker’s high-need students, as well as their academic performance.

  • Longer hours, lower rate of pay. The reduction in teachers’ rate of pay described above is a prime factor in driving many excellent teachers out of the school. The NBEA recommends paying Parker teachers at a rate commensurate with the work expected and/or hiring additional staff to provide expanded learning time for students.
  • Ineffective pay-for-performance plan. The plan abolishes the salary schedule and replaces it with a pay-for-performance system based partly on student growth scores. Growth scores are not a valid and reliable measure of teacher quality; research does not support performance pay as a way to improve student achievement; and Parker teachers believe it is divisive. The NBEA recommends rejecting the pay-for-performance plan. (Appeal, pp. 35-41.)
  • No schedule. The plan contains no schedule of the teacher or student day and no guarantee that there will be time in the day for teachers to accomplish all that is required under the plan. Thus, the stakeholders were unable to review and provide input; teachers were forced to choose whether to reapply without this information; and the board has no way to determine if the schedule will promote rapid student academic achievement. The NBEA recommends that the plan include a schedule that provides adequate time for planning, preparation, professional development and required meetings, and that the stakeholders have the opportunity to offer recommendations concerning the schedule. (Appeal, p. 29.)
  • No neutral dispute resolution. The plan abolishes the normal grievance process and gives “substantial deference” to any personnel decisions made by the receiver. The plan offers no rationale as to how depriving staff of a neutral dispute resolution mechanism will improve student achievement. To the contrary, its absence will have a negative impact on staff morale and will discourage them from speaking freely about what is or is not working in the plan, which will hinder the success of the plan to realize rapid academic achievement. The NBEA recommends restoring a fair and impartial grievance process. (Appeal, pp. 41-43.)
  • Lack of teacher input. The NBEA identifies poor leadership in the school as a central problem in improving student achievement. Rather than address that issue, the plan gives more authority to the principal and creates no effective mechanisms for teachers to offer their expert opinions on how to help their students succeed. This top-down model will discourage experienced, creative teachers from seeking to work at Parker, or to remain there if they are hired. While the Lawrence Level 5 district plan is held up as a model for the Parker plan, there is much more teacher input in the Lawrence system than in this plan.

Inadequate resources and programs. The plan fails to provide the resources and programs that are needed to advance the rapid academic achievement of students.

  • Inadequate preschool. Since many students come to Parker already behind, stakeholders agree – and extensive research supports – that preschool is essential for improving achievement. The plan only calls for increasing preK enrollment from 4 percent to 10 percent of the eligible neighborhood children, which is completely inadequate to promote rapid academic achievement. The NBEA calls for a plan to improve recruiting preK students and meeting the need for all four-year-olds in the Parker zone. (Appeal, pp. 19-21.)
  • Inadequate services for students with disabilities. The plan continues to rely on a disruptive “pull-out” model and substantially separate classrooms for students on IEPs. Not only are these models not working (as evidenced by their growth scores being substantially behind their peers) but the exclusive reliance on these models may be violating these students’ federal and state right to an education in the least restrictive environment possible. Parker teachers and other stakeholders instead call for teaching these students in the least restrictive environment possible by ensuring that a co-teaching model is available and appropriately staffed. (Appeal, pp. 17-19.)
  • Inadequate technology. The plan fails to address technology instruction and fails to commit to upgrading and increasing access to technology. The NBEA recommends a comprehensive review of the school’s technology and a commitment to a timeline for upgrading technology infrastructure, ensuring sufficient age-appropriate technology devices in the classroom, and incorporating technology instruction in the curriculum. This commitment is necessary to ensure that students are adept with the technology if PARCC or another online assessment is implemented and to ensure their rapid academic achievement. (Appeal, pp. 21-23.)
  • Lack of detail on wraparound services. The Act requires the plan to address social service and health needs of students and their families. Indeed, such “wrap-around services” are a cornerstone of the Act, which recognized the large impact that these needs have on academic achievement. Yet the plan only pays lip service to these concepts and lacks details about specific steps that the receiver will take to secure these services. The plan also notes that such services are “subject to appropriation.” Again, the stakeholders, many of whom come from these service fields, had no opportunity to review and provide input on any specific steps. The NBEA recommends that the commissioner revise the plan to remedy this inadequacy. (Appeal, pp. 23-25.)