Who is a member?
Our members are the local governments of Massachusetts and their elected and appointed leadership.
James A. Peyser
Secretary of Education Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Jeffrey C. Riley
Commissioner, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
Re: Reform of Vocational School Admissions
Dear Secretary Peyser and Commissioner Riley:
We are writing to reassert our longstanding concerns regarding the unfair disparities in student admissions at the state’s regional vocational high schools. These schools have used their selective admissions authority to admit students largely on basis of their academic performance in middle school, leaving behind others, including many students with disadvantages, who might have benefited from a vocational education. We are grateful that after long refraining from meaningful action, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education officially acknowledged the problem when you recently informed six of these schools that you had “identified enrollment discrepancies for various subgroups,” including students with disabilities, low income students, students of color and English Language Learners. The letter notes that the Department therefore intends to revise its regulations concerning vocational admissions by this Spring, and invites those vocational districts to address “any policies or practices – including those related to admissions, recruitment and retention – that may be impacting equitable student access to the strong vocational technical programs [the schools] offer, and to voluntarily enact changes.”
The letter is an encouraging first step, but we fear that these vocational schools – all but one of which are regionally-based — will be unwilling to relinquish their ability to bolster school performance through selective admissions. We believe that in at least in the most egregious cases, it will be necessary for DESE to assert its authority to solve the problem. We write to propose an even handed solution that would broaden opportunity for students across the state and avoid otherwise inevitable litigation.
Selective Admissions at Regional Vocational Schools Unfairly Exclude Many Needy Children
Selective admissions at regional vocational schools are a vestige of public education policy in Massachusetts prior to the enactment of the Education Reform Act of 1993. Despite the myriad changes to the state’s public schools in the last twenty-six years, the admissions criteria at vocational schools have remained essentially the same. Under DESE’s Chapter 74 regulations, vocational schools are charged with determining which applicants have the “ability to benefit” from a vocational education. To do this, the regulations direct vocational schools to score applicants based on a prescribed set of criteria:
The criteria used shall include academic grades, attendance record, discipline/conduct record, recommendations from the sending school counselor, and may include a student interview, provided however, that no one criterion exceeds 50% of the total.
603 C.M.R. § 4.03(6)(a)(1). In practice, most vocational districts score applicants on a 100-point scale in which 90 points are assigned in equal share to the applicant’s middle school academic, attendance and disciplinary record. The remaining 10 percent typically consists of a middle school guidance counselor’s recommendation or an interview of the applicant. The highest scoring students are offered admission. The policies originally were based on the needs of an industrial economy, reflecting concerns that the admission of unruly students might present a safety risk in shops where heavy machinery was utilized, and that chronically absent students might not satisfy the classroom time requirements for traditional trade certifications. For much of their existence, the regulations did not appear to result in the unfair exclusion of students who were interested in a vocational education.
Everything changed, however, with the advent of MCAS testing. For better or worse, a practical effect of the state’s education accountability system is that it has tied a school’s reputation, along with that of its administrators, to the school’s overall MCAS performance. MCAS scores are of course the scoreboard of first resort in Massachusetts for both educational professionals and the general public in measuring the quality of a given school. It is hardly surprising that public schools with the authority to select their students would recognize it as a competitive advantage and give preference to applicants with stronger academic, attendance or discipline records.
Your letter, and the newly unearthed data underlying it, have confirmed that certain regional vocational schools have been doing just that. Superintendents and principals of comprehensive high schools have consistently noted that there are far too many students in their schools who would have benefited from a vocational education but were not admitted to a regional vocational program, often because of absenteeism resulting from challenges at home (or from not having a home), a lack of familiarity with English, or even minor disciplinary infractions. These students instead enroll in comprehensive high schools by default, where many of them ultimately drop out.
As your letter indicates, this has led to disparate outcomes among protected classes. A review of the Department’s own website reveals significant differences in the relative racial composition between regional vocational schools and their comprehensive school counterparts, as well as among special education students, economically disadvantaged students, and homeless students. The sharpest fault line, however, runs between native English speakers and English Language Learners. As the following sampling of district high schools and their corresponding regional vocational schools indicates, in places with large numbers of immigrant students, the differences have been stark:
Compounding this problem is the fact that with the benefit of relatively generous Chapter 74 funding, most regional vocational high schools spend significantly more per pupil than their comprehensive high school counterparts. In an inversion of their core mission, some vocational schools use their added resources to market themselves as a superior alternative to comprehensive high schools for college-bound students. They have added Advanced Placement classes and college admissions services to bolster this claim. We have heard from parents and school officials alike that many students enroll in vocational schools on this basis, and not necessarily to receive vocational or technical training. They thereby occupy slots that should have gone to students who were truly interested in a vocational education.
The admissions policies also weaken regional labor markets. There is a broad consensus among administrators in comprehensive districts that many of the students who drop out of their high schools would likely have been far more engaged in their academic work in a vocational setting. In the modern skills-based economy, no region can afford to have students failing to graduate from high school. Moreover, many of the students admitted to vocational schools intend to attend college, and have no interest in pursuing a trade. We have heard from numerous businesses and trade unions that this trend has resulted in supply shortages for employees trained in traditional trades.
DESE Must Abolish the Scoring of Applicants
While we appreciate your willingness to acknowledge the problem with selective vocational admissions, we fear that leaving it up to the vocational districts themselves will not lead to a solution. This is especially true in regional vocational schools, which operate in effect as municipal islands, not directly accountable to the oversight of democratically elected local government, much less the voters themselves. They have a powerful incentive to preserve policies that have enabled them to exclude students who, based on their middle school record, would tend to lower a schools’ MCAS performance. We anticipate they will respond to your threat by amending their admissions policies just enough to claim plausibly that they have fixed the problem, but will resist any effort to achieve a real solution.
The reality demands that, at least in the most egregious cases, the Department should assert its authority by directly correcting the problem. While the precise solution may vary from district to district, we believe that in any case it must entail the elimination of the scoring system. In our view, there is no compelling rationale for admitting students based on what is essentially an academic proficiency score. Entrance to vocational schools was never meant to be a competition. The objective has always been to determine which students in a pool of applicants have the “ability to benefit” from a vocational education, which in every case includes students who have not thrived in a mainstream classroom in middle school.
Vocational schools cannot credibly claim that scoring students based their academic, attendance or discipline record to a valid predictor of their ability to benefit from a vocational education. Vocational schools are not magnet high schools, for which evidence of academic proficiency is relevant to determine whether the applicant is willing and able to keep up with accelerated instruction.1 Indeed, a case could be made that an applicant’s ability to benefit from a vocational education is inversely related to his or her academic and attendance records. There are no shortage of examples of students who, having struggled in mainstream classrooms in their middle school years, thrive in vocational high schools because the opportunity to learn a trade prompts them to embrace school as they had not before.2
No reapportionment of the scoring criteria would solve the problem. If schools are not scoring students based on academic performance, or a proxy for academic performance such as discipline or attendance record, what else would be left to score? The reality is that no scoring system can be fashioned that would not leave behind students who perform less well in a mainstream classroom, but who may have an aptitude for and interest in vocational training.
A Qualified Lottery Would Produce Fairer Outcomes
In the absence of a scoring system, the most evenhanded way to admit students to a regional vocational school would be through a lottery. Lotteries are well-established as the admissions mechanism for the state’s charter schools, and DESE’s regulations set forth a clear and well- developed set of guidelines for how they are to be administered. So long as all students are well-informed about the opportunity, the neutrality inherent in a lottery would avoid the disparate outcomes that now exist.
To assuage the concerns of vocational school officials that a lottery would be an invitation for school districts to channel the lowest performing or most unruly students toward the vocational school, certain gating criteria could be put in place. First, vocational schools could be allowed to adopt the same threshold for academic performance that DESE affords charter schools. DESE’s technical guidance for charter school enrollment (September 2016) provides that: “Each charter school may include a provision in its enrollment policy that requires students to complete successfully the grade prior to the grade for which they seek admission.” By applying this same policy to regional vocational schools, DESE would be able to prevent comprehensive districts from unloading their lowest performing students onto their vocational counterparts.
Second, we agree with DESE’s proposal that vocational schools should not be required to admit students that have been subject to serious discipline, as defined in Sections 37 and 37H. This would reflect the diminished relevance of discipline as an admissions criterion, as most vocational students nowadays are not enrolled in shops with industrial machinery. It also would eliminate the ability of vocational schools to weed out students on account of minor disciplinary infractions, while ensuring that districts could not push into vocational schools those students who likely would be assigned to an alternate setting.
Finally, vocational administrators have insisted that school attendance should be a criterion as well, on the basis that the alternating of shop and classroom instruction at vocational schools makes it difficult for students who are frequently absent to keep pace with the coursework. This view fails, however, to acknowledge that in the era of educational standards, faithful attendance is a must at every school. Student attendance is tightly correlated with MCAS performance, and as such vocational schools have no higher claim to have their students in school every day.
As with academic performance and discipline, the solution should be to ensure that district schools are not allowed to direct students with poor attendance to vocational schools. We believe that the right balance would be struck by requiring the sending district to certify that an applicant was not “chronically absent” from school, as the term is defined in DESE’s regulations, or that if the student was chronically absent, the student had a valid medical or family reason for such absenteeism. A student who misses several weeks of school due to, for instance, an automobile accident, illness, or homelessness, should not be denied admission for being chronically absent.
In short, the admissions of students to regional vocational schools can be conducted in a way that eliminates unfair and illegal disparities while addressing the primary objections of vocational administrators.
The Time to Act is Now
The lack of fundamental fairness in regional vocational admissions has persisted for far too long in Massachusetts. The pressure on educational professionals in the MCAS era, changes in regional economies over the last twenty years, the ample funding of Chapter 74 programs, and the lack of institutional accountability at regional vocational schools, have combined with the schools’ selective admissions authority to exclude students with disadvantages from vocational schools. The practice cannot be justified on any legitimate educational need, or as a basis of determining which students have an “ability to benefit” from a vocational education.
Educators in Massachusetts have complained about the problem for many years; the difference now is that a growing set of data has affirmed their concerns. The data sketch a clear roadmap for litigation, and we are concerned that as compelling as the case may be, a judicial solution will take significant time, be divisive, and may not be tailored to the needs of students. We believe that DESE is in a unique position to solve this matter, not with half-measures, but by fundamentally reworking the admissions policy to enable vocational and comprehensive schools alike to offer an education that best fits the needs and aspirations of every student.
Mayor of New Bedford
President, Massachusetts Mayors’ Association
Geoffrey C. Beckwith
Executive Director & CEO
Massachusetts Municipal Association
Mayor of Agawam
Mayor of Braintree
Mayor of Everett
Mayor of Beverly
Mayor of Easthampton
Mayor of Fall River
Mayor of Framingham
Sefatia Romeo Theken
Mayor of Gloucester
Mayor of Haverhill
Mayor of Lawrence
Mayor of Malden
Mayor of Newburyport
Mayor of Revere
Mayor of West Springfield
Mayor of Gardner
Mayor of Greenfield
Mayor of Holyoke
Mayor of Lynn
Mayor of Marlborough
Mayor of Quincy
Mayor of Waltham
Mayor of Woburn
cc: His Excellency Charles Baker, Governor of the Commonwealth
The Hon. Karyn Polito, Lieutenant Governor of the Commonwealth
The Hon. Karen E. Spilka, Senate President
The Hon. Robert A. DeLeo, Speaker of the House
The Hon. Jason Lewis, Senate Chair, Joint Committee on Education
The Hon. Alice Peisch, House Chair, Joint Committee on Education Katherine Craven, Chair, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Thomas Scott, Executive Director, Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents Glenn Koocher, Executive Director, Massachusetts Association of School Committees Bill Gaine, Executive Director, Massachusetts School Administrators Association
Merrie Najimy, President, Massachusetts Teachers Association
Beth Kontos, President, American Federation of Teachers-Massachusetts
1. That the enrollment of students at vocational schools happens through an exercise of a choice, and not as-of- right, does not justify a scoring system. Consider charter schools, which enroll students by choice, but not through selection. Is there any real difference?
2. For this reason, we believe that vocational schools also should abolish the practice of assigning its students to shop classes based on their admissions scores.