News, schools, and views from a uniquely Lowell perspective

Memo re Madigan

TO:      Dr. Karla Brooks Baehr
FROM:  Paul Schlichtman, Coordinator, Research Testing & Assessment
RE:       Kathleen A. Madigan article
DATE:   Jan. 15, 2008
After the publication of Kathleen A. Madigan’s op-ed piece in the January 11 Worcester Telegram & Gazette, I compared her assertions to verifiable data.  This memo contains several excerpted sections of her article and the relevant data. Some of Ms. Madigan’s claims are based on the state’s Office of Educational Quality and Accountability (EQA) 2005 district audit, which covered a three-year period ending in June 2004.  The percentage of students earning proficient or advanced MCAS scores has grown by 33 percent since that time.

Madigan: The dropout rate at Lowell High School is more than triple the state average.
The Department of Education reports that Lowell has a higher dropout rate than the statewide average, but it is not “triple the state average.”  According to the Lowell High profile on the DOE website, the school has a 5.4% dropout rate compared to a 3.3% rate statewide.  The 2007 EQA report notes that “Lowell Public Schools 2006 graduation rate exceeded the graduation rate for urban districts.”  In addition, Lowell is one of only three urban districts where 50% or more of its sophomores earned Proficient or Advanced scores on the English Language Arts and Mathematics MCAS on their first try.

Madigan: Parents have made their own judgments about the district’s performance. Public school enrollment in Lowell has fallen by more than 10 percent since fiscal year 2003.
Ms. Madigan points to a declining enrollment in Lowell as a measure of dissatisfaction.  The decline in enrollment, however, corresponds to a 10.3% decrease in the total school-age population in the City of Lowell.  The public school system has maintained its market share during the past four years.  A local charter school has added one grade per year, and most of the 483 student increase in charter school enrollment has come at the expense of a 377 student decline at the city’s parochial schools.

Madigan: Student performance is the bottom line in public education, and the picture in Lowell is not encouraging. Nineteen of 23 schools in the district are on the federal “In Need of Improvement” list and comparable Massachusetts districts are doing better.

I am puzzled at the meaning of “comparable Massachusetts districts,” as it is a challenge to find another district that is comparable to Lowell.  Lowell has the highest proportion of Limited English Proficient students in the state (29.6%). Eight percent of all LEP students tested in Massachusetts were tested in Lowell, where the city administered only one percent of all statewide MCAS tests.  When compared to state MCAS averages, Lowell LEP students outperformed their peers statewide.

  • Statewide, 39% of LEP students scored in Warning/Failing in Mathematics, compared to 31% of Lowell LEP students.
  • Statewide, 42% of LEP students scored in Warning/Failing in English Language Arts, compared to 31% of Lowell LEP students.

Despite a growing proportion of test-takers who are poor or have special needs, Lowell schools are improving, as measured by the MCAS.  In the aggregate in 2007, 19 of 23 (83%) Lowell schools made Adequate Yearly Progress in English Language Arts, and 17 of 23 (74%) Lowell schools made Adequate Yearly Progress in Mathematics.  Of the five largest school districts in Massachusetts, Lowell has the highest percentage of schools making Adequate Yearly Progress in English Language Arts, and only Worcester (77%) exceeds Lowell (74%) in Mathematics.

Number (and percentage) of schools making Adequate Yearly Progress in the aggregate, five largest school districts.
English Language Arts:
Boston – 70 of 132 (53%)
Brockton – 10 of 21 (48%)
Lowell – 19 of 23 (83%)
Springfield – 18 of 44 (41%)
Worcester – 24 of 44 (55%)
Boston – 64 of 132 (48%)
Brockton – 13 of 21 (62%)
Lowell – 17 of 23 (74%)
Springfield – 24 of 44 (55%)
Worcester – 34 of 44 (77%)

Madigan: Even though scores improved in 2007, third-grade reading scores declined by 13 percent between 2004 and 2007. Research shows that third-grade reading is the single best predictor of future academic success.
The percentage of third graders at or above proficiency did decline by 13% between 2004 (39%) and 2007 (34%).  There was also a decline in the statewide reading scores.  Despite the work of every district in the state to improve reading instruction, there was a 6% statewide decline in the percentage of third graders at or above proficiency, dropping from 63% (2004) to 59% (2007).  Either the quality of instruction declined statewide, or it became more difficult to obtain a proficient score on the MCAS, especially for the Limited English Proficient (LEP) students.  The percentage of Lowell’s third grade students in the LEP/FLEP (Formerly Limited English Proficient) NCLB subgroup is 38%, the highest rate of any school district in the Commonwealth. Fourth grade tells an entirely different story.  While there was no growth statewide in the percentage of children reaching proficiency (56%), Lowell showed a 10% growth in the percentage of students achieving in the Proficient or Advanced categories from 29% (2004) to 32% (2007).  Even more dramatic, the statewide percentage of students scoring in the (lowest) Warning category on the fourth grade English Language Arts test increased by 11%, from 9% (2004) to 10% (2007)  While the state results were heading in the wrong direction, Lowell’s scores improved.  Lowell had a 12% reduction in the number of students in the Warning category, a reduction from 25% (2004) to 22% (2007).

Madigan: The EQA report also found little evidence that Lowell used MCAS test data to shape professional development programs or improve classroom instruction. There was no evaluation of the impact of professional development programs on student achievement.
The 2007 EQA report concludes, “Data is the center of the identification of priorities and improvement planning in the Lowell Public Schools.”  The report found that, “The district’s professional development program combined districtwide course offerings with school-based job-embedded collaborative professional development, particularly for grades K-8.”

Madigan: Chronic teacher absenteeism plagued the district.
At the time of the first EQA visit to Lowell in 2002, the district was asked to categorize and report teacher attendance data.  In 2003, there was a 4.03% absence rate for discretionary sick days.  The district was able to reduce that number to 3.01% in 2006.  A severe flu season caused a rise in discretionary sick days to 3.33% in 2007, yet the 2007 EQA report concluded, “The district monitored teacher attendance, identified teachers abusing leave, and intervened with proportionate corrective measures.  Teacher attendance improved in the schools where teacher absenteeism exceeded the district average on the last review.”

MadiganInadequate funding is routinely blamed for low student achievement, but state aid to Lowell schools rose 28 percent during Ms. Baehr’s tenure, accounting for $955 million out of $1.2 billion spent by the city’s public schools during that period.
Since FY2002, the Chapter 70 aid that reached the Lowell Public Schools[1] increased only three percent from $107,520,542 to $110,313,561. The EQA also documents other financial strains in their 2007 report.  “During the period under review (FY2005 – FY2007), the district experienced significant reductions in entitlement grants accompanied by contractual and fixed cost increases that resulted in dramatic reductions in programs, services, and personnel.”  Despite these fiscal constraints, Lowell has seen improvements in student achievement.

MadiganThe commonwealth’s 1993 Education Reform Act includes a formula to determine the minimum amount a municipality or school district must appropriate for public education. Lowell failed to meet that local threshold for several years during Ms. Baehr’s tenure, but she was either unaware of the problem or failed to disclose it. It took the EQA audit to expose Lowell’s underfunding of its schools.
When Dr. Baehr became superintendent, the city underfunded the net school spending requirement by $6,023,743.  Beginning in 2001, Dr. Baehr and the School Committee have raised this issue with the city officials who control spending decisions.  While the underfunding persists, the amount has been reduced to $305,812.

Madigan:  Karla Baehr has few examples of genuine reform to show for her work at the district level.
The Lowell Public Schools is widely recognized for exemplary practices in administrator and teacher professional development, higher education and community partnerships, and adult education.  One of its innovations, the Lowell Teacher Academy, is recognized as a model for induction and mentoring.  According to the 2007 EQA report, “The induction program for new teachers was comprehensive, including districtwide courses and on site mentoring, support and supervision.  It resulted in the retention of 87% of first year teachers and 92% of second year teachers.”

I believe it is important for the district to be proactive in correcting the impressions created by Ms. Madigan’s article.  I would encourage a wide distribution of this information to the public and opinion leaders throughout the state. 

[1] Chapter 70 aid reaching the Lowell Public Schools:  The state’s Chapter 70 appropriation, minus unreimbursed charter school tuition funded through the Chapter 70 formula.

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