Holyoke, a small city of 40,000 in Western Massachusetts, has become a major battleground in the conflict playing out across the nation between democratic control of public schools and top-down “education reform.”
Residents of this working-class city of color have banded with the teachers union to fight back against what they see as misguided attempts by the state to wrest away local control of their schools and impose reforms. Now, the community-labor alliance faces its biggest test yet: a threatened takeover of the entire district.
The term “education reform” and the promises that come with it — education equity, college readiness, bright futures — can sound benign to unfamiliar ears. But critics say there’s a hidden agenda. Lois Weiner, a professor of education at New Jersey City University, writes in Race, Poverty & the Environment, “The purported aim of increasing educational opportunity masks the real intent of these so-called education reformers [which is] to create a privatized system of public education that has a narrow, vocational curriculum enforced through standardized tests.”
Over the past five years, the state of Massachusetts has made Holyoke a laboratory of education reform, handing over two schools to outside managers through the state’s “receivership” process and raising the frequency and stakes of standardized testing throughout the district.
In 2011, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) placed the city’s Dean Technical High School under receivership because of the school’s chronically low test scores. In 2014, DESE turned over Holyoke’s Morgan Elementary to the Texas-based nonprofit Project Grad, citing the school’s “chronic underperformance.” DESE brushed aside a complaint by the teachers union that the turnover put hundreds of thousands of dollars in the pockets of Project Grad and outside consultants, rather than investing in the classroom.
Meanwhile, Holyoke has seen a massive uptick in high stake standardized testing imposed by DESE districtwide over the last five years, according to Agustin “Gus” Morales, president of the Holyoke Teachers Association (HTA), a local of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. On top of that, in 2013, the HPS administration ordered the usage of “data walls”, which posted children’s test scores outside every classroom.
Receivership appears to have borne little fruit: Although Dean Tech has been under control of a manager since 2011 — first by the nonprofit Collaborative for Educational Services and then Project Grad — the school remains rated a level 4 (of 5), meaning it is “among [the] lowest achieving and least improving schools.”
Be that as it may, DESE commissioner Mitchell Chester is now threatening receivership for the entire district. In November 2014, DESE targeted Holyoke for district review after concluding that district-wide test scores has remained “stagnant” for over a decade. If the review shows that Holyoke is not making significant improvement, DESE could place the district in receivership.
Currently, decisions concerning all Holyoke Public Schools except Morgan are made by the democratically elected school committee. A districtwide receivership would change that by granting an outside manager, such as an educational management organization or a state-appointed superintendent, complete control of all schools.
“There are improvements that need to take place in our schools,” says the HTA’s Morales, “smaller class sizes, culturally responsive curriculum, and an end to the incessant testing.” But, he says, “these issues are not going to be fixed by a receivership. These private entities that get hired by the state to ‘fix’ our schools are snake oil salesmen. Plus, a receivership is going to drive away the best of the best [teachers].”
The fear of losing teachers is very real. Private entities like Project Grad have the power under Massachusetts education law to void union contracts, fire teachers without due process and refuse to rehire teachers who reapply for their jobs under the new management. This lack of security can drive teachers away. According to the HTA, when Morgan was taken over, only 7 of 43 teachers reapplied for their jobs.
Speaking in favor of a receivership, Chester told MassLive, “The achievement record in Holyoke is very poor and the longer it continues the more students are harmed.…Poverty should not be a destiny and I’m concerned that the voices in Holyoke too often put a ceiling on progress. We have a moral and ethical responsibility to do what we can to provide the youth of Holyoke with a strong education.”
The community, however, is not buying Chester’s line.
The opposition sprang into action as soon as the possibility of a district-wide receivership was announced on January 8. That night, Holyoke residents created a Facebook page against the takeover.
On January 15, the HTA hosted a community meeting where teachers, parents and students strategized on how to fight the receivership. Some 200 community members attended. Parents and students passed around a joint petition calling on the Holyoke City Council and the Holyoke School Committee to pass resolutions opposing the receivership. On February 3, the city council unanimously did so and on February 12, the school committee did the same.
The success of the petitions speaks to the growing power of Holyoke’s movement against education reform, which has a number of victories under its belt. When teachers were ordered to put up data walls in 2013, Holyoke teachers and community members successfully beat back the practice. When Morales, a middle school teacher and then-president-elect of the HTA, was fired in 2014 after speaking out against high-stakes testing, the MTA (an affiliate of the National Education Association) and the community banded together and won his job back via protests, a petition and legal action. When DESE proposed “performance based” teacher licensing for the state’s teachers in October 2014, the MTA and HTA mobilized and nipped the proposal in the bud.
A review, but no conclusion
DESE conducted its review of the Holyoke schools on January 20 – 23 and 26 and made the report public on February 24. Its upcoming March 24 board meeting is the earliest that DESE could decide on receivership.
The report doesn’t come to a formal conclusion about whether the district has made “significant improvement.”
Instead, the 65-page document details HPS’ strengths and challenges across six standards used by DESE: leadership and governance, curriculum and instruction, assessment, human resources and professional development, student support, and financial and asset management. Overall the report indicated approval of the district’s [current] plans for improving student achievement, even though they haven’t resulted in higher test scores. The report showed that the district did not reach its 2014 Composite Performance Index (CPI) targets for ELA, math, and science.
The report lay some blame for lack of progress at the feet of the teachers union: “Progress in advancing district initiatives has been hindered by an absence of constructive participation by the Holyoke Teachers’ Association.” It did not mention the “economic injustice, including homelessness, transience and poverty” that MTA president Barbara Madeloni has cited as more likely contributors to the “underperformance” of Holyoke Public Schools.
“When I hear people say that ‘teachers are failing students,” I get upset because I know the problem is not with teachers but with the state — underfunding, understaffing, over-testing,” says Holyoke High School senior Rachel Hall. “I love Holyoke teachers. Teachers have done everything — gone the extra mile to help me succeed. I know teachers who come in early and leave late to help students who need extra help. That’s why I’m fighting the receivership: I don’t want to lose our amazing teachers.”
Dorothy Albrecht, a math teacher who has been teaching in Holyoke for 17 years and is a member of Educators for a Democratic Union, a reform caucus in the MTA, has been speaking out at community and school committee meetings. Albrecht sees the impending receivership as “an attack on our democracy.”
“Parents and the community should have a say in what goes on in our schools,” she says. “This education reform agenda is so stressful, so demanding, [with] no support to teachers. And we know anyone the state chooses to take over [the district] is going to go along with this agenda.” Albrecht is concerned that the exodus of teachers at Morgan would be replicated districtwide. “We have teachers who live in the community, are invested in the community, and we’re afraid that this receivership is going to get rid of them.”
Annie Rodriguez, a former HPS parent who now has grandkids in Holyoke schools, is concerned about receivership taking control of schools away from the community. She feels that parents and community members are already disempowered, but that a receivership will close off the possibility of organizing to influence the school committee. “I raised my children in Holyoke Public Schools; I remember feeling disempowered. The receivership is a way of disempowering parents — disempowering the community — more.…Parents have been excluded from decision-making about their children’s education. We need to organize parents to realize their collective power and use that collective power to hold the school accountable.”
Albrecht, the math teacher, is confident in the strength of the community and HTA. Receivership is “not inevitable,” she says. “We are fighting it.”
Morales shares her confidence. “This is a tough city. There is going to be a huge fight. We are not going to let them come in and take over.”