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State plans to evaluate more schools each year

As Massachusetts sharpens scrutiny of low-achieving school systems, a top education official says that the state plans to evaluate more districts every year to decide which should be declared "underperforming," the first step on the road to a possible state takeover.

The independent agency that monitors school system performance reviewed 16 districts last school year, said James A. Peyser, chairman of the state Board of Education. In the coming year, the office could visit up to 39 school systems, he said.

Any "underperforming" district would get about two years to show improvement. But if it can't show enough progress, state education officials could take over, hiring new superintendents, firing teachers, and writing new curriculums.

Earlier this month, an aide to Governor Mitt Romney said that the governor is eyeing the takeover of low-performing school districts as the next chapter in Massachusetts's 10-year education improvement effort. The aide said that Holyoke and North Adams, two systems that have been criticized for failing to improve poor test scores, are the top candidates for receivership.

But Peyser says that a takeover would be a worst-case scenario, something triggered only by chronic low performance. "We hope it's a club we don't have to use," said Peyser, who is also Romney's education adviser.

At least one other Board of Education member said a takeover would be a risky venture in the Bay State. "That has not been successful elsewhere in the country, and so we need to think of all possible other ways of approaching the issue," board member Roberta R. Schaefer said.

School leaders in Holyoke and North Adams have denounced the concept of takeovers, saying that Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll had assured them that such a move was not imminent.

Driscoll says he will decide whether to recommend that Holyoke be declared "underperforming" at next month's Board of Education meeting. But he noted that the Western Massachusetts city has made a "pretty good case" that it is improving fast enough to avoid the label.

North Adams leaders will have their first chance to rebut their negative review at a Board of Education tomorrow, and Mayor John Barrett III predicted "a lot of red faces in the Romney administration."

Meanwhile, Peyser said the governor plans to play a more prominent role in helping troubled districts turn around, including helping to create the improvement plans they would use to try to avoid a takeover.

"He wants to be personally engaged in this process, and I think he brings a lot of not just institutional resources to bear, but also personal resources in understanding what it takes to turn a struggling organization around," added Peyser, referring to Romney's role in leading the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City before becoming governor.

Under state law, the independent state Office of Educational Quality and Accountability is supposed to review all of Massachusetts's 372 school systems. The office submits reports to the independent Education Management Audit Council, which refers the lowest-achieving or slowest-improving districts to the Board of Education for a decision on which should be declared "underperforming." Scores on the state MCAS exam are the primary yardstick.

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