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Massachusetts' New Education Chief Led Revival of One of State's Worst Districts

Jeff Riley, a K-12 leader widely credited for the turnaround of the Lawrence, Mass., school district, has been selected as Massachusetts' new commissioner of education.

Riley has been the state-appointed superintendent in the Lawrence district for the last six years, since the state took control of the system after years of poor performance and weak management.

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Working with stakeholders—from the teacher's union to city leaders—Riley and his team have been able to raise test scores, cut dropout rates, and increase graduation rates.

Riley announced last November that he planned to step down from his appointed post at the end of the school year.

Riley has been lauded in some circles for his approach to school turnaround. He gave principals more autonomy, added enrichment activities for students, and invited charter schools to run some of the district's low-performing schools.

Watch Riley in this EdWeek video about the school turnaround efforts in Lawrence:

Riley didn't subscribe to the theory that turnaround could only work if charter schools were brought in to take over struggling district schools. His main philosophy was to select strong principals and teachers, while the type of school—charter or district—was less important.

The state board voted 8-3 in Riley's favor on Monday. He was among the three finalists, including Penny Schwinn, a deputy commissioner in the Texas education department, and Angelica Infante-Green, a deputy commissioner in the New York State department of education.

The Boston Globe noted that the state had never had a female education commissioner and the three board members who dissented cast their votes for Infante-Green. They cited her record working with bilingual and special education students, according to the paper.

Riley will replace Jeffrey Wulfson, the acting education commissioner, who filled the position after commissioner Mitchell Chester died of cancer in June.  His appointment must get final sign off from the state's secretary of education.

Photo caption: The Massachusetts board of education voted to approve Jeff Riley, the state-appointed superintendent of the Lawrence, Mass., school system, as the state's new education commissioner. (Photo handout.)

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