A Blueprint for a New Madison Park

Madison Park Technical Vocational High School has a new leader. Kevin McCaskill, a former vocational high school principal in Springfield, has been hired with the not-so-delicate task of turning around one of Boston's most troubled public schools. But improving Madison Park requires more than just new leadership. It will require a concerted and collective effort by school leaders, the city's elected officials, and businesses to provide more opportunities for students to acquire skills that have real currency in today's labor market.

One of the difficulties from previous Madison Park reforms - notably the Innovation Plan approved by the Boston School Committee in 2012 - is that increased funding alone has not proved to be the panacea many hoped it would. And while families, teachers, and students would certainly welcome continued investments and upgrades to the school's facilities and resources, more money is not the only ingredient that can create meaningful changes for Madison Park's students.

To improve its schooling experience, leaders at Madison Park should start by changing its grade promotion policy and allow students to graduate as soon as they are done completing a set amount of courses or units. This change offers two clear benefits. The first is the potential to increase the school's low graduation rate by allowing students to master academic skills at their own pace. Second, while several courses would be compulsory, students would have greater choice in planning their studies and more opportunities to connect the content of their coursework to their own career aspirations.

Eliminating grade promotion is not a novel idea. Finland, the high-performing darling of international education systems, implemented a similar reform to its high schools and the result was lower grade repetition and a graduation rate from its basic schools close to 100 percent.

Attracting more mentoring partnerships should also be a priority for the new Madison Park administration. While intermediary organizations such as the Boston Private Industry Council currently sends career specialists to help students prepare for private sector jobs, they cannot meet the needs of Madison Park's entire student body. Given that the jobs of tomorrow require different skills than the cookie-cutter proficiency labels our education system prescribes on young people, Boston employers have an opportunity to shape the supply of talent needed for their companies to succeed in a globalized and increasingly innovative economic landscape.

Setting aside arguments about corporate social responsibility, the city's elected officials should incentivize employers to offer mentorships to Madison Park students. One way to accomplish this would be to allow employers to deduct the costs of training new employees from their taxable gross receipts if employers end up hiring Madison Park graduates.

In his new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam describes a parenting savvy arms race where less educated parents and kids are losing to more educated parents who are finding valuable mentorship opportunities for their kids. By addressing this mentoring gap head on, Madison Park and its private sector partners would be exposing students to skills and experiences that have emerged as indispensable for gainful employment.

Finally, while Madison Park will continue to be evaluated by state and federal accountability provisions, it should integrate project-based curricula into all academic programs to help students solve real-life problems. Rote memorization is less important than critical thinking in today's economy and project-based learning can make academic skills feel more relevant to disengaged students. Moreover, as schools such as High Tech High have demonstrated in a new documentary that was shown in Sundance last winter, allowing young people to improve their skills through projects brings more joy to learning and prepares students for the competency metrics that employers prioritize.

Many well-intentioned leaders and task forces have attempted to rebuild Madison Park. Before coming up with new reforms, it behooves the new superintendent and the city's leaders to remember that skills have become the global currency of 21st-century economies. By changing schooling experience so that students have more opportunities to acquire valuable life and work skills, Madison Park would be taking an important first step at becoming the crown jewel this city deserve.

Jonathan Hasak works as a data inquiry facilitator for the Boston Public Schools' Office of Data and Accountability.