Only sweeping school reform will do

Boston’s public schools have struggled for decades. A massive investment in tutoring and other human infrastructure would be a game-changer.

Only sweeping school reform will do

H. Hopp-Bruce / Globe Staff; archiZGAdobe

Last month, the state issued another blistering report on the Boston Public Schools, finding that the district has failed to meet the needs of “tens of thousands” of its most vulnerable students.

City and state officials are negotiating a plan to lift more of those kids to success.

But the plan will only go so far if it doesn’t confront a big structural problem that has bedeviled urban education for decades: economic and racial segregation.

When classroom after classroom is filled with children who are distracted by hunger or preoccupied with neighborhood violence or worried that their families might get evicted again, it’s very difficult to make broad, sustained gains.

Yes, there are individual teachers and schools that deliver; some of Boston’s charter schools have produced especially strong results. But Massachusetts voters rejected charter school expansion in 2016. And even if substantial charter growth were possible, that would still leave tens of thousands of students in big, heavily segregated public school systems.

Segregation isn’t an inevitability, though. It’s a choice. And Massachusetts could choose something different. It could make a moonshot investment in integration.

Decades of research shows that integration leads to stronger academic performance, greater college attendance, and higher adult earnings for low-income kids of color. Wealthier white kids do just as well in integrated schools as they do in mostly white ones, and they are better equipped to navigate an increasingly diverse society.

Integration can’t just happen within the Boston Public Schools; only 15 percent of the district’s students are white these days. And that means the state will have to find ways to bridge the urban-suburban divide.

Brick-and-mortar investments in new or renovated schools that can draw kids from all over the region will be necessary. But the state will also have to spend on human infrastructure — on the people who can make integration work.

Lawmakers could start by doubling or tripling the size of the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity program, known as Metco, which sends about 3,000 Boston students to wealthy suburban school districts with extraordinary results — dramatically improving its charges’ chances of graduating from high school and attending college.

An expansion of Metco would mean hiring more teachers in receiving districts and adding a classroom or two to some crowded suburban schools — costs that could be partially offset by the closure of some urban schools.

Metco is just part of the solution, though. At the heart of any sizable investment in integration would be the construction of a large new network of regional schools that would put urban and suburban kids in the same classrooms.

No one would be forced to attend these schools; the magnets would use attractive themes like aerospace or the performing arts to draw families from all over. Free pre-kindergarten could be a selling point, too.

The state of Connecticut has built just such a system in Greater Hartford — and it has produced strong results. The thousands of city kids who attend suburban schools through a Metco-like program or attend regional magnet schools consistently outperform their peers in the traditional Hartford city schools.

The Connecticut integration effort was born of a civil rights lawsuit known as Sheff v. O’Neill that dates back to the late 1980s. And it may take similar lawsuits in Massachusetts to compel programs in Greater Boston or in the Lawrence, Springfield, or Worcester areas. But why wait for a court ruling? The state could do the right thing now.

Still, if integration is the best chance for broad, meaningful change, there are ways the state can meaningfully expand opportunity in urban school districts as presently constituted.

One of the most promising ideas is early college — allowing high school kids to take college-level courses for credit.

The idea, like many of the most innovative in education, was born in Massachusetts — at a school called Simon’s Rock, built on an old farm in Great Barrington in the 1960s.

But in recent decades, the Commonwealth has ceded leadership to states like North Carolina and Texas, the latter of which now has over 200 early college programs serving more than 70,000 students.

The best-designed programs offer plenty of tutoring and advising support — the human infrastructure that’s so important to any successful educational intervention.

They also allow students to take classes on college campuses. And the experience can be transformative. Crossing the green, settling into a lecture hall, and learning how to navigate a syllabus can demystify the experience for students who may be the first in their families to consider college. And the chance to earn a substantial number of credits — or even an associate’s degree — before high school graduation can dramatically cut the cost of higher education.

Massachusetts’ relatively small early college program — about 4,500 students participate statewide — has produced enormously encouraging results.

Seventy-six percent of early college students in the Class of 2019 enrolled in college within six months of graduation, compared with 56 percent of students from similar backgrounds, according to research by the MassInc think tank. And during the pandemic early college students have been much more likely to stay in college than their peers.

The program, which is strongest in post-industrial cities like Lawrence, has a strong equity component, too. Two-thirds of participants are Black and Latino.

Elected officials are warming to the idea. Last month, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced an expansion of the city’s modest early college program. And the state Legislature looks poised to grow state funding from $10 million to $18 million next year.

Advocates say that sort of increase is just right, for now. But they’re hoping to expand the program to 10 times its current size in the next few years and serve about 45,000 students statewide. It’s a worthy ambition. Right now, fewer than 2 percent of Massachusetts’ public high school students are enrolled in an early college program.

Another idea deserving of a big public investment: intensive individualized tutoring.

One of the biggest challenges in urban education is that too many students fall behind early and then struggle to catch up as they’re passed from one grade to the next.

Teachers with 30 or 35 students of varying abilities can have a hard time getting the stragglers up to speed. But tutors working with just a couple of students at a time can be remarkably effective.

These tutors don’t need master’s degrees. They don’t have to be skilled in the arts of classroom management. They just need to have a good attitude, a working knowledge of the subject, and — to make the model financially viable — a willingness to work for relatively little.

That means tapping retirees, career-switchers, and recent college graduates willing to commit to a year of public service for a modest stipend.

Match, a charter school network, developed a program along these lines at its Boston high school in 2004. And a spin-off organization, Saga Education, has taken the model to public schools in other American cities.

The tutoring happens during the school day — not after school when students are eager to grab their jackets and race home. And it’s consistent — one class period, every school day. The signal to kids: This is an integral part of your education, not an add-on.

Several years ago, researchers put the model to the test, conducting a pair of gold-standard randomized-control trials with thousands of ninth- and 10th-grade students in some of the toughest stretches of Chicago.

Nearly all of the participants were Black or Latino. About 90 percent received free or reduced-price lunch. And close to one in five had been arrested before the program began.

The researchers decided to focus on math, since it is critical to success in school and to later earnings — and since in Chicago, math failure is a major reason why kids drop out.

The results were impressive. Students who were assigned to the intensive math tutoring learned two to three times as much as those who were not. And they were half as likely to fail math.

“To my understanding, this is the most promising intervention that we know of in education,” says Monica Bhatt, a coauthor on the study and senior research director at the University of Chicago’s Education Lab.

The real challenge, she says, isn’t demonstrating tutoring’s effectiveness.We’ve known for decades — even centuries — that concentrated individualized attention creates a superior learning environment. It’s figuring out the economics — how to make “high-dosage” tutoring cheap enough that it can be scaled up.

Saga has made important strides to reduce the cost. And Bhatt says unpublished research shows it can be sliced to about $1,900 per student, with similar results, if tutors are assigned four students instead of two — working directly with two of the kids on Monday while the other two do computer-assisted math, then switching the pairs on Tuesday, and so on.

That still may not be cheap enough to deliver at the required scale.

But with researchers studying ways to make heavier use of technology and reduce costs even further, big urban districts should start shifting resources out of ineffective programming for their most vulnerable students and into high-dosage tutoring. And Washington and Beacon Hill should start developing substantial new funding streams so that even more kids can benefit.

High-dosage tutoring changes lives. And the next big public investment should be all about changing lives.