What Can Happen When a District Takes Responsibility for its African American Students?

08/05/2015 01:53 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2016

Bad stories abound; it's the good ones that need telling. The one I'm going to tell is about Lexington, Massachusetts - a story that might have implications for state and national policy.

Lexington is a mostly white and Asian, mostly well-off town 15 miles northwest of Boston that has been participating for decades in a voluntary desegregation program called METCO.

METCO was established in the 1960s to offer opportunities to students in de facto segregated schools and integrate what used to be called "lily-white" suburbs. Students from Boston and Springfield are bused to 37 nearby towns.

Thousands of METCO students -- most of them African American and about half from low-income families -- have spent a lot of time on buses in the years since, and on average they do better academically than their peers back in Boston and Springfield. For example, a 2011 study found a METCO graduation rate of 93 percent compared with about 61 percent in Boston. But the mostly African American METCO students don't tend to read, write, or do math nearly as well as their white and Asian schoolmates.

Back in 2005, the fact that METCO students weren't doing particularly well didn't ring a lot of alarm bells in Lexington, according to Paul Ash who became superintendent that year. "By and large, people didn't care," he told me a couple of weeks ago. Lexington was the 10th top district in the state, and the fact that a few hundred African American students who came in from Boston weren't doing well was viewed with a certain amount of complacent fatalism, he said.

When Ash noticed that 49 percent of Lexington's METCO high schoolers were designated as needing special education services, however, that rang his alarms bells.

"It was a civil rights issue," Ash told me.

He found out that many of the METCO students had been first referred for special education services back in first and second grade as they failed to master foundational reading skills. "Lots of them didn't have disabilities at all; they just needed strong reading instruction," he said.

Ash's digging into the data looking for answers launched a decade-worth of work, encompassing --among other things -- collaboration among teachers to solve instructional problems, early reading interventions, after-school tutoring, and a major revamping of the professional development system in the district -- all of which has culminated in that aforementioned good news: Lexington has significantly narrowed the achievement gaps between its white and black students.

Here's some data: In 2014, all of its 10th-grade African American students were proficient in English Language Arts; 96 percent were proficient in math on the state MCAS test, which means African American students are proficient at the same rate as their white classmates. They still don't score at the advanced level as do their white and Asian counterparts in Lexington, but that gap, too, has narrowed significantly, and Lexington is now either the top or one of the top districts for African American students in the state, depending on the subject and grade.

At the same time, the combined reading, math, and writing scores on the SAT increased by 294 points so that that African American students are now at or above the mean SAT scores for the country -- where before they were significantly below.

Ash asked Harvard University's Ron Ferguson to write an assessment of the work he had done. Ferguson is a well-respected scholar who has spent years studying and trying to close the achievement gaps between white and black students.

Ferguson told me last week that he brought a critical eye to Ash's claims of progress. "I didn't really believe him," Ferguson said. "I told him I wouldn't write a whitewash." But in a report published in June, he and his team found:

Lexington has effectively raised achievement among African American students as well as in the district overall. The gains appear to be the accumulation of gradual improvement. Students of color are making greater progress than before in elementary and middle school years, contributing to higher proficiency by tenth grade.

Or, as Ferguson said, "It looks like they did some good work and made some good progress."

Lexington shows what districts can do when they take responsibility for the learning of all their students and put in coherent systems to ensure that every student gets the help needed.

So why do I say the Lexington story may have implications for federal policy? Well, Ferguson's report said that the federal No Child Left Behind law's pressure around ensuring that all demographic groups make progress every year "presented a powerful motivation to act."

Ash looks at it another way. "What worked was appealing to teachers about what was best for kids .... Our teachers are really motivated when it's a moral case rather than the legal case."

But he did agree it is a problem that -- prior to No Child Left Behind -- many superintendents and principals felt no accountability for all groups of students.

"Outside pressure has to be in the toolbox," he said.

A conference committee of the U.S. Congress is about to debate that very issue as it prepares to discuss the House and Senate versions of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. One of the many questions on the table is whether the federal government should tell states to develop a plan if some groups in schools are failing year after year -- even if most students are doing fine.

Lexington is almost a textbook case of a high-performing school district that had dismissed the low performance of its low-income and African American students for years, until a determined superintendent found a way to serve them better. Ash knew he was headed in the right direction, but there were plenty of superintendents in nearby towns who, he said, "told me that I wouldn't succeed." He had to prove to them and to skeptics within Lexington, he said, that "Boston kids could achieve."

And by the way -- where Lexington was once number 10 in the state, it's now number one, thanks in part to the higher performance of its METCO students from Boston.

To read more about what Lexington did to get its results, go to The Equity Line. Or go straight to Ferguson's report.

Or, if you really want to go to the horse's mouth, read the book Paul Ash wrote with John D'Auria, School Systems that Learn.