Spend it on what works!

The purpose of the Student Opportunity Act (SOA) is to provide $1.5 billion over seven years to school districts statewide to close the persistent achievement gaps between caucasian, middle-class students and students of color, low-income students, English-language learners, and students with disabilities. In fact, according to the Commonwealth’s Commissioner of Education, “closing these gaps is our collective work for the next decade.”

District resources must be used to support the identified student subgroups as intended by the Massachusetts legislature. For its part, the state has updated and increased the foundation formula first established by the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 (MERA) and increased funds for these subgroups. Worcester Public Schools (WPS) are expected to receive some $98 million in additional funding (or about $14 million each year) divided over the next seven years.

To meet the goal of closing disparities in achievement, each district is required to submit to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) a three-year, evidence-based plan that details the programs that will be implemented and the metrics for determining their success. (The first plan must be submitted to DESE by April 1.) SOA identified nine categories of school practice that have reduced disparities in achievement.

Each district decides what areas of operation are appropriate for development of a three-year plan that will lead to successful results. These include: expanding learning time (day and/or year), providing common planning time for teachers, providing services to address social and emotional issues, improving professional development, expanding early childhood education, diversifying the workforce, purchasing curriculum aligned with frameworks, and preparing students for college and careers. SOA expects school personnel, parents and community members to be included in the development of each plan.

As noted previously, Worcester should spend its new resources on what we know works. After two decades of research (starting with MERA in 1993 and the Federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001) on schools that have succeeded in raising the level of achievement of the listed subgroups and reducing the achievement gap, a clear pattern has emerged. One need look no further than Lawrence Community Day Charter School in Lawrence, which was recently named the best middle school in the nation by The Best Schools (an independent, nonpartisan organization that employs well-regarded educators to rank schools nationwide based on a variety of criteria) and commended by the state for high achievement and narrowing the proficiency gap. The same is true of a number of schools in Boston — both charter and district schools. Outside Massachusetts, the Success Academy network of charter schools in New York City has the highest levels of student achievement in the city and the state. (87 percent of students enrolled are children of color and 69 percent receive free and reduced-price lunches.)

Improving academic performance is a function primarily of what happens at each school, not at the district administration level. Since SOA designates per-pupil spending for the targeted subgroups, the district should give each school its own budget based on the number and type of students it includes. By having control over the financial resources, the school’s principal — with the assistance of teachers, administrators, the school improvement council, parents and community members — can develop and implement the agreed-upon school improvement plan. Measures of success aligned with district and state standards must be part of the plan. The principal can then be held accountable to both the district and DESE for the results.

The principal should also have the authority to select and assign staff based on school needs and teacher qualifications without regard to seniority. (How can you reach your goals if you cannot choose your team?) He or she should also be able to hire teachers in fields that are in great demand in the private sector, such as those who teach STEM subjects, at a higher salary than other teachers.

The school should also provide daily after-school tutoring and homework help for students who need supplemental instruction and focused work on skill development. Schools that have narrowed the achievement gap generally have longer school days, longer school years, and/or summer programs for increased instructional time.

The school should have subject-area coaches who are responsible for providing faculty with consistent classroom observation and feedback. Such coaches commonly assist the principal with implementation of curriculum and collection, analysis, and interpretation of student assessment data to guide instruction, among other functions.

The school should develop a “school culture,” that is, a set of core principles and expectations that guide the outlook and action of staff and students alike. Developing such a culture is considered second only to school leadership in improving student performance, because it clearly communicates high academic standards and exemplary conduct, and holds students accountable for their performance and behavior. The school culture could also include a modest dress code or simple uniform of khakis and a collared shirt.

The expectations for academic performance and appropriate behavior need to be clearly communicated to parents and guardians. In brief, each school should have a mission and culture compatible with the needs of its distinct population.

The question remains: When will Worcester Public Schools try what has worked elsewhere?

—Roberta Schaefer is the founder and former president of Worcester Regional Research Bureau.