Boston Public Schools Shows Cities How It’s Done

Boston Public Schools (BPS), the nation’s oldest public school system, established its Office of the Achievement Gap in 2009 under the restructuring of then-Superintendent Carol Johnson. The department and its leader, Dr. Carroll Blake, intended to add new programs and focus on continuing the successful Ten Boys Initiative. This initiative selects and provides individualized attention to 10 typically African-American students from 50 BPS schools who are at the cusp of proficiency. Since the initiative began in 2007, it has served more than 3,000 boys and continues to help 400–500 annually. Each student gets a mentor and additional resources to improve his proficiency. A 2014 study found that in just one year, participants documented an 11.6% increase in those scoring proficient or advanced on the state’s English and language arts test. That same cohort saw a 6.8% increase in the students’ daily attendance and a 10% reduction in the number of suspensions. The BPS recently started a similar program for Boston’s female students.

The district also recognized that achievement gaps appear from the start of a child’s education. BPS developed a robust early education program (preschool to grade 3). Parents apply for a select number of seats in the BPS preschool programs, K0 and K1, which begin at ages three and four, respectively. The results have raised DRIBELS Next scores (measuring literacy skills) for all the participants, but have had resounding impacts on the achievement gap. A Harvard study followed students from K1 to K2 (kindergarten) and found that the achievement gap between white and black students fell to 4%, versus the 11% gap between white and black students who did not enroll in K1. The gap between white and Hispanic students fell by 14% for the cohort that completed K1. The study concluded that the program had some of the greatest academic gains from a large-scale pre-K program to date—findings that were highlighted during a congressional hearing on early childhood education.[1] Today, BPS provides approximately 500 free seats in K0 and 2,400 in K1. BPS spends approximately $10,000 per preschool student compared with the declining national average of $4,125.

Boston has steered the charge on personnel leadership to close the achievement gap. The district has focused on diversifying its workforce and 37% of its teachers are minorities.[2] Diversity and sensitivity training has also become a priority. The dropout rate since 2006 for African-Americans has decreased from 10% to 4.5% and from 11% to 5.2% for Hispanics.[3] And Boston is one of only five urban school districts where black students outperform the NAEP average scaled scores for black students nationwide.[4]

Unlike many cities, Boston did not just set a goal of reducing test score discrepancies based on race; the local school district drafted plans, implemented new programs, and became a laboratory committed to eliminating the gap.

[1] Boston Public Schools. “BPS early childhood study: program helps close achievement gaps, expands learning.” March 10, 2014.

[2] Boston Public Schools. “BPS Teacher Diversity Action Plan to develop highly-qualified, diverse teaching force.” January 16, 2014.

[3] Boston Public Schools. “Opportunity and Equity.”

[4] Boston Public Schools. “Update on Eliminating the Achievement Gap” presentation given on June 18, 2014. Accessed November 5, 2015