The true prize in education is a recipe that vaults low-income students into the upper echelons of achievement. A blue-collar town in Massachusetts says the key is something as basic as more time.

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This is part two of a two-part series. Read about why Massachusetts tops the nation in education here.

FALL RIVER, Mass. — In public education the true prize is finding a way to reach all kids, wherever they start, and get them to the finish line with skills strong enough to succeed as adults. But even in Massachusetts, repeatedly held up as a national model for student achievement, this seemingly simple goal remains elusive.

For two decades since passing an ambitious reform plan in 1993, the state has surged in overall scores and college enrollment, doing well enough in science and math to rate near the top of the world.

Yet black and Latino students lag Asians and whites by more than 30 percentage points, a gap larger than Washington’s and one that makes education leaders wince when applauded for their wins.

 

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  

“As well as we have done, we said Massachusetts would educate all students to high levels. All means all, and judged by that standard, we have failed,” sighed Paul Reville, once the state’s secretary of education.

Massachusetts has not surrendered yet. Its initial push to provide a world-class education meant beefed-up preschool, higher standards and significant boosts to teacher training.

The next wave — aimed squarely at low-income, high-needs kids — has involved stretching the school day from the traditional six hours, up to eight, in more than 140 schools.

In 2005, state education reformers, by then 12 years into their overhaul, had come to terms with the fact that most low-income kids — an increasing proportion of the student population — arrive in kindergarten less prepared than their middle-class peers, without preschool, tutoring, music lessons, sports clinics, travel or any of the basics common in many middle-class families.

At Matthew J. Kuss Middle School in Fall River, Mass., the day is extended, allowing the rigor of academics to be increased. (Mike Siegel & Katie G. Cotterill / The Seattle Times)

A Harvard researcher, examining results from 35 charter schools in New York City, had determined that the tipping point for real gains came with 300 extra hours of schooling per year.

“It was pretty clear. If we were raising standards but kids didn’t have the time to catch up in their skills, we were never going to succeed as a state,” said Jennifer Davis, co-founder of the National Center on Time & Learning, a nonprofit based in Boston, where the mayor has called for every K-8 school in the city to stretch daily schedules by at least 40 minutes.

But there are lots of ways to fill time.

In Washington, where the standard day is six hours, districts from Marysville to Yakima are using federal money to give extra help to students who need it — but mostly as optional after-school tutoring, with uneven results.

The Massachusetts approach involves reconceiving the entire school day. To get state aid, districts must embed extra instruction, soft-skill classes and time for teachers to coordinate. This combination has brought several schools back from the brink.

Extended learning time at Kuss Middle School, in Fall River, Mass., allows teachers to spend extra time making learning more successful. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Extended learning time at Kuss Middle School, in Fall River, Mass., allows teachers to spend extra time making learning more successful. The students have shown better test scores as a result. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

Fall River, a mill town with a history of low performance, political upheaval and bitter relations between schools and their community, signed up to stretch schedules at three sites, primarily out of desperation.

It was 2005, and Matthew J. Kuss Middle School — with high suspension rates, low attendance and 200 families lobbying to get out — had earned the embarrassing label of Massachusetts’ first “chronically underperforming” site.

“Anything that was bad, you name it — they had it at Kuss,” said Nancy Mullen, a veteran principal from nearby Rhode Island who was recruited in a last-ditch effort.

To an outsider faced with dispirited educators and a mandate to make change, the chance to bulk up Kuss’ schedule, and pay teachers 30 percent more for their time, represented an enticing challenge.

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But what to do with the extra two hours? Not more drilling on math and reading. The district had already gutted art, music and physical education in a desperate effort to get students up to speed. Results were dismal.

“It was kind of sad, honestly,” said Mullen. “Certainly not what I would want for my own kid. Everything was the subjects they were testing — math, language and science, nothing fun at all.”

But tacking band practice or tutoring onto the end of a day made no sense. The kids were exhausted. Teachers, too.

Instead, Mullen and her team wove music, theater, martial arts, video production, cooking and other so-called “enrichment” subjects into morning and midday hours, each taught with an eye toward pointing out academic connections — the fractions necessary for cooking, the writing skills essential in a script.

Math instructors, meanwhile, used these enrichment periods to meet and coordinate their rollout of algebra, rather than working in isolation. And English classes suddenly had a leisurely 90-minute block to debate the ethical arguments raised in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

It’s a long day, from 7:09 a.m. to 3:29 p.m. But back in elementary school, Noor Issa, 14, said her teachers were rarely able to meet daily goals.

Her best friend, Emma Fontaine, 14, agreed.

“It’s pretty hard to put yourself in a teacher’s shoes,” Emma said. “But if it was a shorter day, I think we wouldn’t be able to get into difficult topics like we do.”

Five years after instituting its eight-hour day, Kuss became one of seven high-poverty middle schools in Massachusetts to vault from Level 5, the state’s lowest ranking, to Level 1, its highest.

“It helped us to see kids differently,” Mullen said. “It helped us have relationships with students we couldn’t have before. It allowed us, basically, to create individual plans for every child.”

She recalled one student as “the ADD poster child, the kid who just bounces off the walls, always in the principal’s office.” But seeing his karate teacher in the halls — from a class started as a result of expanded time — the boy stopped, put his hands into a prayerful position of respect, and bowed.

“It was just such a change,” Mullen said.

Teachers get boost, too

Massachusetts, which began its expanded-day program with $6 million in state funds, now spends more than $14 million annually — primarily in staff salaries — to stretch schedules in 13 districts.

Washington has focused more on paying for full-day kindergarten and lowering class sizes. Expanded time, where it exists, is primarily a patchwork of after-hours tutoring, not a way to re-imagine entire schools.

The selling point of lengthened days, at least in the Bay State, is flexibility. Where the adolescents at Kuss needed new ways to learn, a few blocks away at Carlton M. Viveiros Elementary, teachers felt the additional hours were best spent boosting their own knowledge and skills.

Extended learning time has been a successful program at Viveiros Elementary School in the Fall River School District in Fall River, Mass. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Extended learning time has been a successful program at Viveiros Elementary School in the Fall River School District in Fall River, Mass. The program allows teachers to spend extra time in the classroom. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Extended learning time has been successful at Viveiros Elementary School in Fall River, Mass. “We learn as much as our students,” one teacher there says. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Extended learning time has been successful at Viveiros Elementary School in Fall River, Mass. “We learn as much as our students,” one teacher there says. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

So every Wednesday at 2:30, students are dismissed while instructors get schooled on everything from brain science to analyzing test scores.

“Here, more than anywhere, I’ve learned what I need to be a teacher,” said Ashley Dupere, 28, in her fifth year at Viveiros. “I used to have my heart in my throat whenever my kids took a test. But this is really a teaching school. We learn as much as our students.”

Sandra Stotsky, an architect of the early reforms in Massachusetts, believes teacher training has been the key to the state’s improvements.

“It’s not a money issue,” she said of Massachusetts’ top-of-the-nation outcomes. “It’s a training issue. That’s where we made a difference. Unless you give a lot of weight to the teacher, you’re not going to get the kinds of results we got.”

Dan Goldhaber, who studies teacher effectiveness at a think tank affiliated with the University of Washington, echoed this assessment. Educator training in Massachusetts is only one component of a state system notable for its connections between training, standards, pay and outcomes, he said.

“Massachusetts — oh my God, it’s unbelievable the coordination they have between teacher preparation and accountability. It feels like a much more coherent agenda than what we’ve got here.”

At Viveiros Elementary, this shows up in regular classroom observation and teacher critiques. At first, said Erin Cetenich, it felt like living under a microscope.

“It was a little intrusive, and it’s hard to take criticism,” the third-grade teacher said. “But we all own our mistakes, and our improvement.”

It’s tough to argue the numbers.

Since 2001, two years after Viveiros began using an expanded schedule, reading scores have climbed 21 percentage points, schoolwide, and 31 points in math. Fifth-graders moving on to middle school do better than the state average, even though 69 percent of them are low-income.

No school turnaround works unless teachers are on board. Cetenich watched several colleagues transfer out when expanded learning took hold, and on a survey that year, few said they enjoyed their work. By 2015, the same poll found 100 percent endorsement, and expanded schedules have since been adopted in seven of Fall River’s 17 schools.

“Teachers were saying ‘I want that kind of time with my students, and with my colleagues,’ so we have slowly added more time to other schools out of our own budget,” said Superintendent Meg Mayo-Brown, who believes in the results enough to sacrifice smaller class sizes in favor of longer days.

The push continues

The Fall River story is no fairy tale. Viveiros still struggles with absenteeism. A $7 million budget gap looms. And sprawling Durfee High School is only beginning to stem its dropout rate. Mayo-Brown is escaping the near-constant turmoil for another district, while her many supporters are dismayed by the criticism from City Hall.

But one of the most notable aspects of education in Massachusetts is the constant push to improve, even when indicators look good.

Jessica Stephens, vice principal and counselor at Durfee High School in Fall River, Mass., high-fives student Liz Rodriguez after reviewing her recent accomplishments. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Jessica Stephens, vice principal and counselor at Durfee High School in Fall River, Mass., high-fives student Liz Rodriguez after reviewing her recent accomplishments. As the freshman counselor, Stephens has been connecting with students and seeing good results using positive reinforcement. The sprawling high school is beginning to stem its dropout rate. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

A Durfee High freshman named Eddie provided an unlikely example:

“I came by to see my ‘mom,’ ” he said, looking for counselor Jessica Stephens, though the two are not related.

During Eddie’s first term at Durfee, he earned two Ds and an F. But after regular sit-downs with “mom,” he had raised his marks enough that the lowest is now a C, in biology.

“That’s beautiful, huh?” Stephens said as the two stared at Eddie’s grades.

Like education officials at the highest levels of the state, the youth remained dissatisfied.

“I need Bs,” he said.