MTA asks for changes to "turnaround" plans for Holyoke and New Bedford schools

The following testimony on Level 5 plans in Holyoke and New Bedford was delivered by MTA Vice President Tim Sullivan to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on April 29, 2014. The MTA is asking state education officials to change "turnaround" plans for schools in Holyoke and New Bedford. 

I am Tim Sullivan, vice president of the MTA, here to testify about the Level 5 turnaround plans for the Morgan Full Service Community School in Holyoke and the Parker Elementary School in New Bedford.

In addition to this testimony, I am providing each of you with a short video of interviews with Morgan teachers who want to share their views but can’t be here today to testify. I urge you to watch it. The teachers speak from the heart and from their many years of experience in urban education.



MTA leaders and staff have been working closely with the teachers in both schools to seek changes to the plans. We appreciate Commissioner Chester’s willingness to make some modifications, but the affected teachers continue to believe that the final plans will not lead to the rapid improvement in academic achievement that we all desire for our students.

In both schools, the vast majority of teachers are seeking to transfer rather than to work under the conditions described. They made their decisions with heavy hearts, and we feel the plans are driving experienced, trusted, licensed teachers away from schools where they are most needed.

The local associations in Holyoke and New Bedford will formally file appeals with the board seeking modifications to the plans, but let me give you an overview of their main concerns.

First, the teachers feel unfairly blamed for the low academic performance of their students. The plans presume that low test scores are, by definition, caused by poor teaching. We disagree. At the Morgan, student growth percentiles rose dramatically from 2008 to 2011, topping out at 67 percent – well above the state median. In that year, Morgan was named a Level 4 school by the state and interventions were mandated that led to a big turnover in staff. It is since then that the SGP scores have fallen and are now a little below the state median. Morgan staff members believe they have finally come to grips with the disruptions of 2011 and are optimistic that this year’s scores will be better than last year’s. They are concerned that another round of interventions and staff turnover will set the school and students back again.

Parker has a different story. Student growth there is strong by virtually all measures and performance has been on an upward trajectory since 2011, particularly in math. It is hard to understand why Parker was ever named a Level 5 school in the first place.

As in other low-income districts, the percentage of students scoring Proficient at both schools is well below the state average. Teachers believe this is mainly because students arrive already behind and aren’t given the supports they need to catch up.

At Morgan, there is no preK program in the school or neighborhood. This year, only three of the nearly 60 kindergartners knew their letters when they entered. Unfortunately, the Morgan plan only calls for preK “space permitting” – and there is no space. The Parker has a small preK program, but the plan only calls for an increasing the percentage of neighborhood students served from 4 percent to 10 percent by 2016. Teachers believe preschool for all 4-year-olds in their zones should be the highest priority.

In addition, both schools have high percentages of low-income students and students with disabilities. At Morgan, nearly half the students are English language learners. Yet neither plan has a clear program of staffing and services to provide these students with the kind of individualized instruction they need. A longer day isn’t sufficient if it doesn’t address the very specific learning needs of each student.

MTA Today Cover - Level 5 Opposition Read about MTA's efforts to fight for students and educators in Level 5 schools in the latest MTA Today.

The plans also lack detail about staffing and schedules. Despite the longer mandated teacher day – 8 hours for Parker teachers and 8.5 hours for Morgan – there is no guarantee that teachers will be given adequate time for planning, collaboration and professional development during the day. There is a belief among the teachers that they, like teachers everywhere, will have to work even more hours outside of the school day to meet their obligations. In both schools, teachers are being asked to work significantly more days and hours for only marginally increased pay. Level 5 teachers should either be adequately compensated for their time or the schools should be given the resources needed to provide students with a longer day and enrichment through flexible staffing schedules and community partnerships.

Morgan and Parker students need schools that are stable learning communities. This plan all but guarantees high turnover and instability for years to come. It shifts some of the burden for funding public education onto teachers through an unsustainable staffing model.

We urge you to give serious consideration to the appeals that our local associations will be filing seeking changes to both plans.

Thank you.